Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Aerial Omily: The Tricky Dance of Choreography

My favourite part of working on an aerial piece (aside from maybe performing it) is choreographing it. This is kind of a no-brainer: choreographing is the fun, creative part. It's playful, and open-ended, and you don't have to stress about technique, or conditioning.

But choreographing a piece may not be fun if this is, say, the first piece you've ever choreographed (or the second or third; it takes a little time to hit your stride). It takes a certain level of proficiency with your apparatus before you can manage a productive session of free-associating from one trick to another, but even if you're there (and especially if you're not), having some of these tricks up your sleeve will make putting together a visually interesting aerial act much easier.

Whenever I choreograph an act, I'm starting with one central inspiration, as both a starting point, and a unifying principle. It may be a particular trick or mini sequence, a character, a song, a costume, the theme of the show I'm choreographing for, an act or performer I admire...but it's very clear in my head what it is, and it forms the scaffolding for the whole piece.

That's the thing: choreographing an act isn't just about stringing together the tricks that you're good at. It's about the cohesive performance you're creating and sharing with others. You're taking up a few minutes of an audience's time, so you want to give them as immersive an experience as possible. You're starting with only one of these things, but you ultimately need them all: the song, the character, the sequence, the costume, the style, and the technique.

Over time, this process will become more organic. You'll consider all these different aspects in relation to your inspiration, and they will fall into place fairly quickly. In the meantime, you can jumpstart the process by making lists.

Start by making a list of all the aerial moves you feel awesome doing. Don't panic if it seems like a really short list. It's amazing how few separate aerial tricks you can fit into an aerial performance, especially in the beginning, when your acts are in the three minute range. And keep in mind that your audience isn't going to be counting the number of tricks you fit into your piece, nor would you want them to. Beginners think an aerial sequence is all about the tricks, but the pros know it's all about the transitions: how do you move from one relationship with your apparatus to another? Can you do it in such a unique, and stylized way that an aerialist watching won't know where you're going until you get there?

If an aerial move you love was your starting point, start considering how your other favorites relate to this one. Do any of them lead easily into, or out of this trick? Consider if this is a trick you need a lot of height for, or if you'll need to do it early on while you're fresh. Do you lose a lot of height with any of the tricks on your list? You don't want to have to climb up more than twice.

If your starting point was something different: a song, a character, a costume, etc, consider which of the tricks on your list fit well with the inspiration for your piece. If your starting point isn't a character, just looking at which physical movements fit well with a given song or costume will start to give you an idea of the character you'll create.


You might think that your character is just the summation of your sequence, costume, and music, but your character is the soul of your piece. It's the part that makes you fun to watch! If you have no idea who your character is, consider how your song makes you feel (or how you want the song you pick to make you feel). What emotions, thoughts, or sensations do you want to convey to the audience through your sequence and other elements? This list of feelings is not your character, it's just the inspiration for her or him. You don't have to go so far as to name your character, though you can if it will help. What you should do is know who your character is, and how she or he feels. You should have an idea of what happened to your character right before your performance, and what she or he is on her or his way to right afterward. I'm trying to avoid the word 'motivation' because it's such a stereotype, but it's a stereotype for a reason!

Knowing your character, and the feelings and thoughts you want to convey to your audience will enable to you to make a(nother) list of movement qualities to focus on when you rehearse. Adverbs like, 'daintily', 'impatiently', 'joyfully', and 'fearfully' are good examples. You'll need some time to just get your sequence into your body of course, but you'll want to start rehearsing your character and your movement qualities as early as possible.

If some of these other aspects are coming together, but you haven't settled on a song, get a short list, and then play all of them while you work with the tricks you've settled on at an open workout. One of them will start to fit.


If you find there's a trick that will be perfect for your piece, but you're not great at performing it, ask yourself realistically if you'll have time to perfect it before your performance. Is it just a matter of learning it better, or do you need more strength than you currently have? Prepping for a piece is a great time to book a private lesson. Your instructor can tell you how likely it is you can get a trick show-ready in the time allotted, and can suggest alternatives that may work better.

When thinking about your costume, consider your budget. You can shell out a couple (maybe several) hundred bucks for a professionally designed and created costume, you can put together something out of components you already have, or you can poke around American Apparel and Strawberry for affordable pieces, funky or basic. If you're feeling stuck on your costume, watch videos of other aerial performances, and browse the stores mentioned above. Keep in mind that you're either going to be choosing tricks based on your costume, or choosing a costume that works with your choreography. What skin needs to be covered? What needs to be exposed? What embellishments will add to your character, but won't get in your way? Should your hair be up, or down? What about makeup? Practice applying false lashes, but also accept that applying false eyelashes will always be the most obnoxious part of your costume.

Write down lots of haphazard notes. Let yourself brainstorm, and free associate. You won't use everything you come up with, but you'll want lots of different ideas to choose from.

As you can see, it's difficult to write this blogpost is a straightforward, logical manner, because no two aerial performances, even by the same aerialist, are choreographed in quite the same way! I hope you're able to sort out the tips that you need to make your nascent aerial performance the best it can be. If you use them, let me know when and where you're performing, and I'll try to come support you! The picture at the top is me performing a piece I choreographed, with a little assistance from my instructor, Nicki Miller.

Happy flying!

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