by Xochitl Sosa
An audience stood overlooking the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge towering in the background – iconic, like a postcard from Chinatown.
This is the San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival - an annual three-day festival showcasing the Bay Area’s top aerial artists. This year’s festival was held at Fort Mason, a military base dating back to the Civil War. Fort Mason is a popular tourist spot and was the stronghold for the Bay Area during WWII. It is now used primarily for the arts.
For the festival, choreographers created works that built on the history and architecture of Fort Mason: Audiences gazed at dancers from Project Bandaloop, 20 feet high, floating off the side of the building, dressed in 1930’s attire. An aerialist emerged out of the icy water of the bay, pulled towards the audience on a giant zip-line envisioned by choreographer Karl Gillick. Inside an enormous military plane hangar, Zaccho Dance Theatre transported the audience into the past, where they experienced how a young soldier might have felt getting ready to head off to war. Dancers in army attire ran circles and climbed ropes with military precision.
It is not every day that a choreographer gets to work in such a powerful landscape. Each of these pieces was meticulously detailed and performed by top quality performers who braved harsh elements to bring the audience athletic and captivating stories.
The Bay Area is a longtime circus hub. To put on a festival that shows off the array of talented artists in the area is quite a task. Festival producers Joanna Haigood and Chris Wangro are the right people for the job; both are longtime pioneers of the aerial arts, with a clear vision and appreciation for the art. In his opening night speech, Chris Wangro said something that resonated with me and got me thinking about the future of circus arts. He said that aerial and circus arts are on the cusp of a great transformation. This transformation, he specified, did not happen overnight - it is perhaps 30 years in the making with various companies at the head. The transformation is the result of circus artists exploring and mixing with the traditions of other art forms.
We already see aerial appear in dance, theater, projections, performance art and even in fashion. The SF Aerial Arts Festival itself is a perfect example of this mixing, bringing together companies who are exploring the boundaries of circus through different tools and landscapes.
So what does the future hold next for circus arts? Where will this transformation take us? Now that audience members are no longer only sitting in tents eating popcorn? Where do we go? And what do we need to consider along the way?
When you browse online, you can’t help but see circus. You see top artists and athletes executing tricks that took decades of training to accomplish, and with a single click of a button or swipe of a finger you can pass over it on to the next image. For many, this boom of technology has been a great marketing tool. I, myself, benefit from the use of social media in advertising and networking. But I also see that it can take the appreciation out of the art form. People easily forget that the people they’re seeing online have worked unimaginably hard to do what they do. It takes not only decades of training, but also love and passion to create this work, and that does not come through as you scroll on Instagram.
When great physical feats are available to anyone in an instant, how do we keep the sanctity of our art form?
At the Festival, I looked around at the audience: people in jackets with salt-water air on their lips watching Bay Area artist Kameko Shibata being dipped into the bay, and I suddenly had an overwhelming appreciation for performance and the possibilities it holds. I remember the first time I saw Zaccho Dance Theatre’s sight specific show “Al Pozzo Di Sogno” at Oliver Ranch. Fellow Acrobatic Conundrum performer Alex Allen and aerialist Emily Leap performed a mesmerizing duet in a tower as the audience looked down on them from staircases that spiraled around the inside of an 80 foot tower. Choreographer Joanna Haigood had created such a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime experience by giving the audience a unique perspective on an unconventional aerial dance. That experience cannot be duplicated. No matter how it’s filmed, tweeted, or posted, it’s not the same thing as being there. There is no hashtag for how you feel when you’re blinded by stage lights, adrenaline pumping, and smiling into a crowd. That moment cannot be understood on a screen.
This is what I hope lies ahead for circus arts: a full sense experience for the audience. Circus arts can tell stories, take people into other worlds, comment on social issues, and turn people so far upside down that it's unforgettable. Circus arts can entice people away from their screens and mindless scrolling. Circus arts can give people a chance to fully live and breathe the performance.