For aerial arts enthusiasts — spectators and practitioners alike — the local scene is soaring, from a festival this month to classes for all skill levels.
”There’s a rush — and a fear,” says aerial dancer and choreographer Joanna Haigood. “Then there’s the sense of awe you get from pushing yourself, and also the perspective from these places that are quite extraordinary and unseen by most people.”
More than four decades after her initial foray into aerial arts, the sensation of flying high is much the same for Haigood, founder of Zaccho Dance Theatre. Established in 1980, it is the oldest Black-run dance company in San Francisco, as well as the only professional one in The City’s Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood. In 2014, Zaccho launched the biennial San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival, which returns to Fort Mason Center Aug. 19-21.
Haigood began dancing when she was about 6, but it wasn’t until she was in college, while a student at the London Contemporary Dance School, that she witnessed her first aerial performance. “I wondered why dance was stuck on the floor,” remembers Haigood. “And I had this epiphany: Working with volume was definitely the next step for me to explore choreographically.”
She came back to New York, where she primarily grew up, and completed her studies at Bard College. Soon after graduating in 1979, Haigood decamped to San Francisco, which she considered a better place to start her dance company. She credits a late-’80s artist in residency at Headlands Center for the Arts for her focus on site-specific works. Recalling the old gymnasium on the Marin campus that she converted into a space for aerial arts, she says with a laugh, “Here’s a boarded-up building — that would be perfect!”
Since then, Haigood-choreographed performances have included 2000’s “Picture Powderhorn,” which turned 12-story-tall grain silos in Minneapolis into stages, with aerialists suspended by customized rigging; versions of “Invisible Wings” for the 1998 and 2007 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, inspired by the setting that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad; and “Love, a state of grace,” a reflection on love and our common humanity, which entailed installing a 100-foot ladder and a 70-foot swinging pendulum at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in February 2022.
Today, in addition to its performing company, Zaccho operates youth education and artist-in-residence programs. Haigood held the inaugural SFAAF, which featured seven aerial choreographers, at Zaccho’s studio on Yosemite Avenue. “I wanted to do it there just to see if there was a need and if people would come,” she says. “And both of those things were a resounding yes.” It moved to Fort Mason for the 2016 and 2018 editions. In 2020, a film, “Record Twenty Twenty,” was screened outdoors.
This year, about 20 aerial choreographers are slated to participate. Returning for her fourth turn is Veronica Blair, whose career was sparked by a documentary on UniverSoul Circus. “It was seeing other people of color, other Black people, doing circus at a high level that made me think, Oh wow, I can do this,” she says. Blair later toured with UniverSoul Circus, where she worked with a trapeze coach and got her start as a professional aerialist. She has performed throughout the U.S. and in Japan, Belgium, Austria and South Korea.
As part of the 2022 SFAAF group program, Blair is choreographing “The Rainbow Is Enuf,” a reimagining of playwright Ntozake Shange’s 1976 Broadway hit, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which centers on the lives of seven women of color. The new staging uses “the medium of modern circus to illustrate what’s going on with us, in our world in 2022,” says Blair, adding that the cast is composed of six women and one transgender man, all of African descent (as is the show’s acrobatic designer, Chloé Farah, who coached and choreographed with Cirque du Soleil).
The festival’s lineup also features a youth showcase with aerialists from all over the Bay Area, including Zaccho; Oakland’s Kinetic Arts Center, Bandaloop and Destiny Arts Center; Mendocino Center for Circus Arts; and the City’s Circus Center. The latter is where Blair trained as a teenager.
In 1984, Wendy Parkman and Judy Finelli, members of the Pickle Family Circus, opened the San Francisco School for Circus Arts to train youth. It was later renamed Circus Center and relocated to its current venue — a former high school gymnasium across from Kezar Stadium. The nonprofit regularly mounts shows and trains artists in a range of disciplines, such as aerial arts, acrobatics, contortion and juggling.
Classes at Circus Center can be taken simply for exercise and enjoyment, too; professional aspirations are not required. “It’s the best workout,” says its artistic director, Felicity Hesed. “You’re going to work everything with aerial. People get stronger than they ever think that they would.”
The introductory mixed aerial class provides instruction on the static trapeze, two ropes hung from the ceiling with a bar between them, along with ropes and tissu (aka silks), both vertical apparatuses that teach skills like climbing, wrapping and lifting one’s body upside down. “When people are first starting out,” Hesed explains, “it’s good to try a little bit of a few different things. It also helps build up the basic coordination and musculature that you need.”
Although students will “break a sweat, for sure,” Hesed emphasizes that “I know people who have never done any physical activity, who went to a class and then they fell in love with it. It doesn’t require a background in gymnastics or ballet. Really, anybody can try it.” At Circus Center, which prides itself on its world-class coaches and rigorous safety procedures, the “flying trapeze is eternally popular,” she says. “It’s so fun. It’s the greatest rush, like going on a roller-coaster.”
Down the street from Circus Center, AcroSports, another nonprofit, offers aerial training as well. Smaller outfits are also getting into the act. At the Lower Haight’s VRV3 Studios, an aerial conditioning class is open to all skill levels. On the first Saturday of each month, Ascend Aerial Arts in San Carlos has a 90-minute introduction to silks.
In June, choreographer Robert Moses began training for his first aerial arts performance, part of the forthcoming SFAAF. “I was invited by Joanna (Haigood) to try it out and thought, ‘Well, I haven’t done it, and I do like to challenge myself with new forms,’” he says, followed by a good long chuckle. In September, his Robert Moses’ Kin Dance Company, founded in 1995, will perform at the Golden Gate Park Bandshell and bring its Bootstraps: Lyric Legacies outreach program to the African American Art & Culture Complex in November.
“The idea on both of our parts — my part and Joanna’s part in selecting me — is that maybe there’s another perspective from someone who’s been ground-based for years,” he continues. “I’m not trying to become an expert in it. I’m just trying to figure out how I can match what I do to what this is and turn it into something more.”
Moses is known for using movement to explore complex issues — including race, gender, culture and class — and anticipates that his SFAAF debut will evolve, until the figurative curtain goes up. “I’ll be learning what’s possible on the apparatus at the same time that I’m working on whatever concepts we come up with for the work,” he says, noting that it will be multifaceted, with music and written word that is spoken. “Working vertically, being in the air … it’s another collaborative opportunity.”
Haigood is particularly excited for the cross-pollination between disciplines at this year’s festival — from circus arts to theater to aerial dance. “I really want to offer the aerial arts community a place where they can experiment and not feel confined by the various demands of the commercial world or the industry,” she says. “And take risks and develop their voice in a way that feels unique to them, that empowers them to move in ways that they are not able to in other situations.”
The 2022 SFAAF concludes with the maiden presentation of “New Experiments,” a partnership with CounterPulse that will premiere short works. No matter which performances they catch, Blair hopes that audiences will ultimately “see aerial as not just entertainment, not just ornament,” she says, “but as an art form, as a way of expression.”