FLY-LINES: A Brief History of Aerial Dance

By Selby Schwartz


Off-the-ground dance comes loaded with its own peculiar history, beginning with the acrobatic and technological innovation of women dancing on pointe. At the end of the 18th century, Charles Didelot was rigging dancers up with wires so that they could “fly” very briefly during performances. In 1832, when Marie Taglioni debuted in La Sylphide, a vision of ethereal grace, she was the first ballerina known to have danced a full piece on pointe. Bournonville described Taglioni as “everything that can be imagined as pure, gracious and poetic, combined with a talent whose outstanding quality was an airy lightness.” The quality of lightness in Western concert dance thus came to be inextricably linked with 19th century moral values of femininity: grace, purity, and a denial of the body’s messy materiality.

When early 20th-century modern dance in America reclaimed the body’s relation to the ground, it was forcibly confronting ballet’s tradition of enforced lightness. Modern dance proclaimed the doctrine of the bare foot on the floor, the movement that emanated from the solar plexus or the pelvis, and the body moving deliberately off-balance, so that gravity would be an inherent part of the dance. Because the genealogy of early modern dance history was composed almost entirely of women, ideas of the feminine body in dance quickly accrued a new set of associations contrary to those in ballet: the female dancer’s body was now grounded, powerful, flexible, and dramatically independent. Elevation and aerial lightness were not central concerns of American modern dance until the 1960s and 70s, when Alwin Nikolais and Trisha Brown started staging dances on rooftops and rigging their dancers up in harnesses and ropes.

As it turned out, aerial and off-the-ground dance was going to be as much the province of women as early modern dance had been, especially in the Bay Area. Following Terry Sendgraff, who pioneered the motivity trapeze in San Francisco in the 1970s, the tradition of local aerial dance includes Joanna Haigood of Zaccho Dance (Kreiter’s first mentor), and Amelia Rudolph of Project Bandaloop. A little ironically, these female choreographers—with strong convictions, strong biceps, and a strong grounding in community politics—are foremost among the inheritors of Didelot’s experiments with rigging dancers to “fly” with airy lightness on wires more than two centuries ago; the hardest part of her job, Jo Kreiter says, is “actually finding a committed and steady relationship with a rigger.”

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of In Dance.

Selby Wynn Schwartz is the International Tour Manager/ Project Manager at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a Lecturer at UC Berkeley, and a member of the LEAP faculty. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and is currently working on a book about drag and dance.