By Sharon Hoyer
Don’t call it circus arts. Chloe Jensen, founder and artistic director of Aerial Dance Chicago, makes a clear distinction between what the company she founded back in 1999 does and aerial circus performance. “We’re a contemporary dance company that doesn’t restrict itself to the traditional dance floor,” Jensen says. “We’re really trying to keep the fine art of dance and take it into the air. We’re not about daredevil stunts, even though what we do is complex and takes that level of training.”
Jensen is a dancer who became interested in moving her choreography vertically through space back in college, when she saw one of her choreography professors at Northern Illinois University who, though nearing retirement, was doing pull-ups on a trapeze in her office. “I didn’t know at the time aerial dance existed,” Jensen says. “I was just very curious about it. I was always drawn to using props, so it seemed like a natural exploration. Then I couldn’t let go of it.” Now Jensen trains the ten company members of Aerial Dance Chicago to incorporate into their dance vocabulary climbing, swinging and hanging upside down meters in the air. “What continues to excite me about it now is that how physically challenging it is. I see the potential and love the challenge of it. And I think there’s a universal human desire to fly.”
And for Jensen, aerial artistry is in service to dance, not the other way around. She hires trained dancers into her company, usually with no prior circus or aerial training. “That’s how we prefer it,” says Jensen. “We give them a very specific approach in the aerial training. If they’ve trained in a circus environment they come to us with a different quality and approach they’ve learned. We prefer to take dancers and extend their training up in the air. Dancers come with a certain body awareness, but when we audition we look for dancers who have a natural sense for the work; it’s a very hard art form. It takes a lot of core strength and that takes time to develop. If you think of the silks and the ropes as a vertical dance floor it’s like you have to learn how to walk on that first. Imagine if a modern dance company had to first train their dancers how to walk across the floor. Sometimes it can take weeks to months to learn how to climb. They go through a pretty intense training to do what we do. And it takes years of training to have a more elaborate expression in the air.”
That airborne expression will be on display July 14 and 15 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, when Aerial Dance Chicago presents their newest evening-length work, “Blackbird.” The piece is a collaboration between Jensen, ADC associate artistic director Karen Fisher Doyle and Tracy Von Kaenel. Says Jensen, “I’ve had the idea to do a show with some kind of bird concept for over twelve years or so. This year Karen and I decided we were going to explore the idea of the blackbird, which has symbolism around the idea of potential. A lot of different cultures have deep meaning and mysticism attached to that bird. We’re not presenting a specific cultural idea but are taking an abstract approach. It will tell a story but it won’t tell a narrative story. It’s inspired by the symbolic freedom of flying creatures in general, but also the specific mysticism of the blackbird. Through the choreography we’re exploring lightness versus dark, and the acknowledgement that there is good and bad in each of us. The blackbird represents the higher path or greater wisdom.”
Jensen says that the collaborative process was fruitful creatively and helped fuel a more expedient process. “Aerial choreography can take a long time to develop,” she says. “We started ‘Blackbird’ in August, so this is pretty fast for us. We are being inspired by one another.”
Next year marks the twentieth-anniversary season of ADC and Jensen hopes to bring their work to a larger theater to celebrate. “There’s a huge expense when we bring our work into a theater,” she says. “We have to load in a truss and rigging which results in an extra day of tech. Theater expense for us is usually doubled. We do a lot of work in our home studio space and Ruth Page, where the rigging setup is simpler. We’d like to do something in a bigger theater next year.”
At the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Saturday, July 14 at 7pm and Sunday, July 15 at 5pm. $25-$50. Tickets at aerialdancechicago.org.