Flying High Above the Texas Sky: Aerial Dance takes off in the Lone Star State

“I guess I could say it’s like partnering…partnering with a very tall, not-so-helpful dancer.”

Amy Ell’s description of aerial dance may not be the most romantic, but it is likely one of the most accurate characterizations. Ell, a specialist in fabric, dance trapeze and vertical dance, would know. She has spent 30 years consumed by the challenge of “flying,” organizing one of the first aerial training programs in Texas and forming her professional aerial dance company VauLt at a Houston studio in the Montrose district. She closed the studio more than a year ago to rediscover creative play in a professional life that had become overwhelmed by managerial duties, and to roam internationally.

Theaker von Ziarno (Australia), Rochelle Brophy (New Zealand) and Amy Ell (USA), primary choreographer and conceptual designer, in Queensland Flight, organized by Abigail Rose (New Zealand), Queenstown, New Zealand. Photo by Steven McKenz.

“I am lucky to witness the incredible growth in aerial dance taking place around the globe,” says Ell. As Europe and the U.S. have embraced the gravity-defying medium over the last decade, Texas has established a robust and active community of flyers, as well as audiences hungry for the work. Ell has been integral to that expansion.

Houston choreographer Toni Valle’s aerial practice is just one of many ignited by Ell’s expertise and influence. Best known for her “grounded” dance theater work exploring political and social issues, Valle has occasionally taken her choreographic vision to the air. She and Ell launched their respective companies 6 Degrees and VauLt on a shared concert in 2010. The collaborative relationship extended to the use of Ell’s studio for performances by Valle’s University of Houston dance production students, who were provided with opportunities to develop backstage skills like stage management, sound technique and more. Valle now trains and teaches as a Level 1 aerial and Gyrotonic instructor at Pilates and aerial studio Core Root Projects, owned by Shannon Hunt.

Like Houston, Austin is home to several aerial training studios as well as aerial dance companies. Founded in 2005 by artistic director Sally Jacques, site-specific aerial dance company Blue Lapis Light (BLL) explores social, political and spiritual themes while dancing off the ground. Though not a flyer herself, Jacques’ exploration of aerial apparatus and vocabulary evolves from her commitment to and curiosity for extending the boundaries of her art in unique and often large public spaces. She’s transformed sites like the historic Seaholm Power Plant, J.J. Pickle and Homer Thornberry Federal Buildings and the Long Center for the Performing Arts portico. A 2006 performance at the iconic Intel Shell—an unfinished building in downtown Austin—drew over 14,000 people.

Blue Lapis Light in Belonging Part one, directed by Sally Jacques, choreography by Blue Lapis Light. Photo by Earl McGehee.

A trained opera singer who performed with the Austin Opera, Julia Langenberg has a background in modern and ballroom dance and began her aerial career dancing with BLL. She mastered fabric, lyra and rope and expanded her expertise in other apparati as a graduate of New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), which operates the longest-running professional training program for circus artists in the United States. Following a move to San Antonio in 2009, where she found herself to be one of only a few aerialists in the city, she performed full-time for SeaWorld. She began teaching and has since built a thriving aerial dance community, opening a training facility and convincing friends and fellow circus school graduates to migrate to the Alamo City to join her professional performance company Aerial Horizon.

Recently, a collaboration between Langenberg and San Antonio dancer and choreographer Amber Ortega-Perez came about naturally when the two began experimenting with combining contact improvisation and aerial silks. Together, they created a curriculum and Langenberg has now taught the resulting “Contact Improv with Aerial Silks” workshop from Seattle to Vienna.

Love at First Launch

Langenberg’s passion for the extremes in art are what took her from opera to aerial.

“I fell in love with the aerial arts immediately,” she recalls. “It is the most freeing, addictive activity I’ve ever experienced. I can’t get enough!” For those whose artistry is already rooted in dance performance, first experiences in aerial dance are often born of experimentation.

Blue Lapis Light in Belonging Part one, directed by Sally Jacques, choreography by Blue Lapis Light. Photo by Earl McGehee.

Trained in dance at The Contemporary Dance Center in London, Jacques studied experimental theatre in Barcelona and has performed internationally. She came to the U.S. to study improvisation and acting at the Lee Strasberg Drama School in New York City, later meeting a choreographer who invited her to work with her company in Austin. She’s made dance accessible to at-risk youth and prison inmates, and has been recognized with numerous awards for her social activism in issues such as human rights, counteracting racism and the environment.

“Everything that’s ever unfolded for me is because I was walking on a path to discover my purpose here on Earth,” explains Jacques. “I sort of fell into aerial dance. I was walking with a friend and I saw some scaffolding, and I wondered what it would be like for dancers to be on that. So I did a scaffolding trilogy over a period of three years.”

After her first site-specific aerial dance—a collaboration with Austin Community College professor and choreographer José Bustamante, which featured dancers suspended on rope netting within and across an empty swimming pool—Jacques was hooked.

BANDALOOP performing in the Dallas Arts District. Photo by Sharen Bradford.

Never shying from incorporating large production elements in her work, Valle dipped her toes into the waters of aerial dance when she choreographed a duet performed on a wooden swing. Joking affectionately that her foray into aerial dance was love at first bruise, Valle fell in love with the challenge of physical theatre.

Ell was assigned to perform on a bungee apparatus during her first professional dance gig in Houston in 1989. Without a harness and with rigging that she says now makes her shudder, Ell spun and soared over the audience. “I was young and dumb enough to throw all I had into it,” explains Ell. “Rehearsals included nursing bruises and managing nausea.”

Flight Training

These days, Ell almost exclusively choreographs in the three-dimensional realm of aerial dance. She prefers to work with dancers for their awareness of body line and willingness to improvise.

“The hard part is that a trained professional dancer comes to aerial with no strength,” says Ell. “Maybe some abdominal and leg strength but not usually any upper body strength. I thought I was strong as an ox, known for lifting large male dancers. It still took me six months to finally do a pull up. For many dancers this is discouraging.”

Jacques says she holds auditions every year for Blue Lapis Light ensemble dancers. Some of them move into aerial work, but the transition requires systematic training.

Julia Langenberg on aerial silks for a photoshoot for San Antonio Magazine. Photo by Josh Huskin.

“When you’re first in a harness, you can forget to point your feet,” Jacques observes. “It takes a while, but once you get to a place where you have enough understanding of maneuvering your pelvis, articulating your body and using your core, you start being able to really enjoy it.”

For these reasons, Ell says it takes a humble go-getter —one with the patience and perseverance to gain strength slowly—to go from floor dancing to aerial dancing.

“I realized quickly that I loved being in the air but that it would take a committed amount of weekly training to be able to perform,” recalls Valle, who says she shelved the idea of performing as an aerial dancer for a time until she could devote her full attention to the process.

Once acclimated to dancing off the ground, maintaining both strength and flexibility is important for an aerialist to stay injury-free. “My company members and I generally train six days a week, three hours per day,” says Langenberg of a training method that includes mobility, strength and active flexibility training, as well as conditioning and passive stretching.

Schools of Troposphere

Witnesses to the productions and work mounted by aerial dancers who take to the air to enhance or express their work might wonder if the community is at odds at all with the performers or techniques of contemporary circus, especially when it comes to training. Ell, who works with circus and aerial dance people alike, explains why she feels no need to set herself or the communities apart.

“Let’s say I have a dance school where I emphasize modern or contemporary dance. I would probably choose to teach ballet basics to give students a base. Circus is the same—basics. If you don’t have the strength to get in the air, how are you supposed to dance in the air?”

Julia Langenberg on aerial rope for a photoshoot with Vignette Photography.

In 2006, Ell began building a curriculum to expose dancers and non-dancers to aerial and take them from floor to air in a well-conceived progression. She looks back fondly at the days following the January 2007 launch of a program that produced a wave of trained aerial teachers in Houston. Dancers from Houston’s contemporary circus company Cirque La Vie, most of the aerial teachers at Hunter Dance Center and some from Core Root Project, with which Ell is currently affiliated, have trained under or danced with her.

“I grew stronger with my students and dancers,” she remembers. “I had no idea what I was creating and it is fun now to look around and see what has developed throughout Texas—there are so many more options and places to train!”

“A board member of ours always says, ‘The way that dance companies survive is if they have a good studio running,’” says Jacques, whose company has certainly benefited from the operation of Austin’s premiere aerial training program and facility. “Blue Lapis is not just me. Anyone that’s in a position of leadership knows that no one knows everything and you have to honor the talents that others have.”

While Jacques works on the artistic conception and collaboration for BLL’s projects and commissions, including permits, insurance and production elements, Associate Artistic Director Nicole Whiteside makes decisions around the company’s studio. Whiteside is a principle in the company and shares an innate creative sensibility with Jacques, with whom she has worked with for 15 years. She manages the 3000 square foot studio on three acres, living and working where she and company members teach a curriculum of aerial silks and harnesses, and sometimes ballet or modern dance classes.

Davis Stumberg in the 6 Degrees production of Never Again, choreography by Toni Leago Valle. Photo by Cory Cannella Photography.

The Aerial Horizon studio, which began with just a handful of students a decade ago in San Antonio, has been similarly important to the growth of Langenberg’s performance company and overall presence in the aerial community. One hundred students now pass through the doors of the 3000 square foot facility Langenberg opened in April 2018 to work with the well-respected aerial coaches who have moved to Texas Hill Country to be part of Langenberg’s vision.

Langenberg has leveraged social media to engage an aerial community worldwide. Still, she says running a studio can be challenging and a bit isolating. Ell, who has conducted training in the art of vertical dance at Aerial Horizon and consulted with the studio Sky Candy in Austin before their opening, stays connected in Texas and beyond through her workshops and teacher training, which she continues to do throughout the world since the closing of her studio.

Artistry, Elevated

“I’ve always been interested in combining dance and aerial,” says Langenberg. “When I look into the horizon, I want to bridge the gap between ground and air, which is why ‘horizon’ is in the name of my company.”

Integrating aerial work into her choreography is a process Valle describes as “immensely frustrating and satisfying at the same time.” She spent three years researching and developing Never Again, a vaudeville-style production about the Texas Legislation and Resistance movements, which included sections of choreography for silks, lyra hoop and aerial chains.

“I had one goal in mind—to integrate the aerial work into the show in a way that was meaningful and cohesive to the rest of the show,” Valle explains. “Each [aerial] piece was incredibly difficult to choreograph because it was a new language. However, it opened up my creative space to a whole new way of working in space and movement. I am not sure I can go back to just floor work now.”

Kristen Frankiewicz dancing with VauLt. Photo by Amy Ell.

Jacques, too, found herself captivated by creating work in which she could look as a choreographer at the configuration of a body in space, unbound by gravity. From socio-political subjects to themes of transcendence and prayers for the planet, her work has lifted dancers on roller skates into the air, flown them around buildings or attached them to pieces of architecture.

“All of the pieces were made with conscious intention of creating this possibility for transformation of our current paradigms,” says Jacques, who could be speaking to both the models we uphold in contemporary dance and in our time and culture.

“Aerial work tips the stage and changes our perspective of public spaces;” says Dallas Arts District’s Executive Director Lily Cabatu Weiss, “it is a perfect way to integrate the community by activating unlikely spaces.” The organization has hosted aerial artists such as Bandaloop and Australia’s Strange Fruit.

Though Ell is also a contemporary dance (floor) choreographer, she’s most recently been working exclusively in the air, creating vertical dance off the sides of buildings and construction cranes. Ell says she’ll get back to using the ground again soon but enjoys the options of moving in space unlimited by the parameters of gravity. She recently worked with New Zealand-based circus artist Abigail Rose, who was a student of Ell’s summer workshops in Ireland, on a project which has her soaring high over Lake Wakupitu on a crane.

“Crane work takes lots of people to make it happen: Riggers, crane operators and many more. I am very honored to be the senior performer, both in age and in experience, since I have been ‘craning’ for over three years now,” muses Ell.

Fear Factor

For someone who has flown upwards of 150 feet on a crane in Mexico, one might be surprised to learn that Ell has a huge fear of heights. She remembers having to be the fearless leader being rigged at 12 feet at her first aerial studio, with her teeth chattering on a 10-foot ladder. At this point, she explains, anything over 40 feet is all the same to her: high.

“Fear of heights is a great thing,” she says. “It makes you cautious and very present. Those with no fear scare me to death. They make stupid mistakes that could endanger their life and those around them.”

Langenberg shares this healthy respect for heights and has learned how to manage her fears to keep herself and her dancers and students safe. Even the most experienced and methodically-trained aerialists may need to breathe through their fears in certain situations.

“Everybody has a different process and we allow for that,” says Jacques about her dancers. “I have so much heart and respect for them. Admiration isn’t a word for their talents and abilities.”

That’s why safety is a top priority for those who work with aerial dancers and why most will only work with the best, most trusted riggers.

The Gig Better Be Rigged

Jacques feels incredibly privileged to work with beautiful dancers and athletes. Her role in the process is to conceive and envision. She then goes to her team to collaborate, choreograph and design. She depends on expert riggers to keep her dancers safe and also to keep her own vision in check.

“The dancers already have so much to think about as they turn, flip or backsail on cue with the music, and the moon seems so close in the background,” she describes. “Safety is number one. If I ask a rigger if it’s possible and he says no, we would not do it. You cannot afford to have any arrogance, ego, or drama, so we’re very mindful.”

Jacques says she would not work with anyone but her lead rigger Barry Wilson and his team, who come from the climbing community and are all about safety. At the beginning of her career, Langenberg shadowed aerial riggers extensively for three years to learn everything she could.

“It made me feel confident when I was flying through the air,” she says. “Even after 15 years in the industry, I’m always learning and consulting with aerial riggers to keep myself informed and my company safe.”

Ell agrees that having a good rigger (she advises stunt riggers over theatrical riggers) is key. “I know a lot about rigging but not enough to think I don’t need a stunt rigger to sign off on any performance I do.”

In addition to knowing her equipment, Valle explains she was taught to always check it herself before going up and to hire someone she trusts to rig. Still, everything has its risks. “Not too long ago, an aerial teacher fell from only a few feet off the floor, landed on her wrist and shattered it. However, I’ve seen a dancer fall in a small jeté leap, rip her ACL and be in a cast for six months.”

“Statistically,” Langenberg reminds, “driving is more dangerous than circus arts.”

Put that on a t-shirt, along with Ell’s description of the unhelpful partner a dancer has in her apparatus and Valle’s “love at first bruise” slogan, and you could be a walking advertisement for the kind of dedication it takes to pursue an art form like aerial dance.

Whether it’s the physical challenge, the aesthetic beauty or the invigorating freedom of defying gravity that drew these women and their creative teams into aerial practice and art, the Lone Star State is fortunate to host a skilled and fierce family of aerial artists flying high above the Texas sky.