Go Deeper

Up In The Air: Aerial Dance-Theater at Philly Fringe

Posted September 10th, 2010

I finally caught up with Karen Fuhrman while she was waiting to board a flight to Guatemala, where she’s giving an aerial dance workshop to dancers and gymnasts at a festival in Guatemala City.

With her troupe Grounded Aerial, Karen has toured to Johannesburg, Guatemala, and will be heading to Hong Kong for a Christmas-time casino-opening later this year. And, of course, to Philadelphia, right now, where their 2010 Philly Fringe show Insectinside will open tonight.

This isn’t Karen’s first time on the road. That started right after she finished graduate school at New York University.

“The day I graduated, I got a phone call from the dance company I wanted to be in.” That was Momix, and with them, she set off to tour Italy. While with Momix, her path crossed with Philly’s own occasional aerial impresario Brian Sanders, but eventually the relentless pace of touring turned her eye homewards. She went through a grueling audition process for De La Guarda, through which 700 performers were winnowed down to six, of which Karen was one. Momix asked her to do another tour right before she got the job, and she turned them down, hoping to be a little more grounded.

After the jump: bringing it all back home, and bringing two aerial dance-theater performances to the Philly Fringe.

De La Guarda—a wildly popular aerial show that takes place in a theater just off Union Square—trained her in harness work. For a while, she was in a circus, Cavalia, where she trained in trapeze, and she brought them together in San Francisco, where she founded Grounded Aerial.

Karen toured again with Cavalia, for six months, “until I got tired of the whole circus mentality. It’s different than mine.”

Karen describes Grounded Aerial’s work as “dance that happened to be airborne.”

“Grounded Aerial isn’t presentational in a circus mentality, it’s more along the lines of a theatrical mentality. The characters have a reason to fly.”

Insectinside has undergone three months of workshopping with its 14-person cast.

“It’s fully character-based, with a through line,” Karen says. “I call it an aerial play. There’s no dialogue, but I believe you can tell a story with movement, as well as words.”

Cost concerns and a connection to Germantown’s School of Circus Arts landed the premiere of Insectinside at Philly Fringe.

“New York is so packed and expensive,” Karen says. “[The show] takes so long to put up,” a serious cost addition when you have to pay for the time to install and remove aerial rigging at rehearsals and shows.

Insectinside‘s assistant director, Sarah Mitteldorf, is Philly-based, and she’s directing her own production, Spill at the 2010 Philly Fringe as well. Sarah met Karen in a class at the School of Circus Arts.

“Karen’s a phenomenal teacher, and I really admire her vision,” Sarah says. She followed up with Karen about more work, because “She’s done a lot of things I’d like to do one day.”

As with Insectinside, Spill isn’t only about pushing performers’ bodies to do things most of us can only imagine. It’s about using those bodies to reflect emotional journeys.

“I’m looking at different ways to explore contortion,” Sarah says, “and what that tells us about our ability to withstand and to grow.”

In each scene of her piece, Sarah says, the person gets to a space of emotional contortion.

“I’m trying to figure out how we can use physical presensce to express that, and to explore the physical manifestation of those moments. In the air, on the ground, characters wishing they could fly.

“It’s terrifying right now, but I’m excited. What’s fun about the Fringe is that everybody takes on something that’s beyond them, because it’s safe to do so. But it’s also scary to do that.”

Sarah’s been sinking her teeth into some of the more trying jobs of professional theater. Since returning to Philadelphia, she’s worked as an assistant stage manager for Gas and Electric Arts and for Lantern Theater Company. That role at Gas and Electric was Sarah’s first in professional theater.

She’s applying the tools of the trade to both Spill and Insectinside. I met Sarah in a loft off Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, where she’s shepherding the cast of Insectinside through what she calls a “speed-through” to clarify blocking and what Sarah calls “geography.” Watching them work, it’s clear how much movement must be built around the mechanics of the show—that is, how actor-dancer’s harnesses are connected and how characters physically transform influence the composition of the piece.

A swarm of performers often conceal the act of attaching and detaching harnesses, and the extent to which the performers evoke insectoid movements is remarkable. Those dancers playing ants rotate their heads sharply and precisely, alerted to an intruder in their midst. A simple crossing of wrists allows one to become a praying mantis, a reminder of how on stage, the merest hint of characterization can allow us to see that character come to life.

“The plan is to video tape the dress rehearsals,” Karen says, and use those tapes to launch “a tour of New York and Europe. The ultimate goal is to have a set house in New York with a set run. And then take over the world,” she laughs.

She’s only half-joking. Shows incorporating aerial work are audience favorites, as the Live Arts attendees know from last year’s sold-out run of Brian Sanders’s Urban Scuba and from the very-likely-to-sell-out run of Sanctuary this season. I ask her how she plans to build to world domination.

“It helps to have an agent, and it’s hard in this economy. I’m forced to do it on my own until they can’t not accept me. Dipping our foot in the Philly Fringe is a jump start into the deeper scarier water in New York City,” she says. A handful of venues exist that can support aerial shows, and Karen hopes to get a set run soon.

So, why insects? Karen tells me a story she says she’s never told before.

“In seventh grade I had an insect collection that was due and really late. Our teacher said if we found a praying mantis that was dead, we’d get a 100. The day before it was due, I found a gigantic one alive—I put it in a jar with nail polish remover and watched it die. It was the only time I ever watched a living thing die and I was a part of it. I brought it in and got a 100 and feel horrible guilt.”

Amends? Perhaps they’ll be found in the air tonight.

Insectinside premieres tonight at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, 5900A Greene Street, Germantown. 8:00 pm, $18. Additional shows Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm. For details and tickets, click here.

Spill runs one night only at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, 5900A Greene Street, Germantown. Friday, September 17, at 4:00 and 7:00 pm. $10. For details and tickets, click here.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by John Spicer, Jill LeMin Lee, and Nicholas Gilewicz