A group of four men and four women wearing loose, white clothing advanced smoothly into a tunnel through the side of a glossy office building ahead of me. I followed unblinkingly, not wanting to miss a single one of their purposeful movements, and swiveled my head to catch the image of stars projected onto the face of the same office building above us. I was witnessing the tail end of Dark Sky Aerial’s rehearsal for its upcoming performance, TILT. My eyes widened and my mouth fell slightly apart at every new element that unfolded.
“And you’re not even getting to see the good stuff,” chirps Joanie Garcia, choreographer and director. “You should come see an aerial rehearsal, when we’re up in harnesses, dangling from the roof,” she adds, pointing to the four-story office building.
A premiere aerial theatre and performance art company based in Flagstaff, Dark Sky Aerial became a nonprofit in 2016 through the work of six women: Abby Chan, Carrie Gaydos, Elisa Venezia, Isabelle Dove-Robinson, Nikki Gallant and Joanie Garcia. These directors and founders realized their shared dream of producing OPIA—an unforgettable installation of five different performance vignettes, and the precursor to TILT—last December.
By all accounts, that show was unlike anything Flagstaff had ever seen. Housed in Weisman Aviation’s airplane hangar at the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, the production invited the audience to move throughout five separate sets to follow the performers as they migrated through the hangar. The space incorporated an art exhibition, dance film, spoken word and, of course, aerial dance. Guests of the OPIA performance responded with overwhelming positivity. One audience member, Todd Barnell, felt compelled to thank the aerial company with his testimony: “I was physically shaking … It was truly breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Thank you.” OPIA’s preeminence was recognized by the Flagstaff Arts Council earlier this year with a Viola Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
The directors of DSA were grateful and delighted by the outpouring of support. But they were nowhere near done. Immediately after OPIA concluded, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work again—this time to create something somehow even bigger, grander, and more intricate than OPIA had been.
TILT will take the expectations set by OPIA and completely defy them.
“This show will be dramatic. It’ll be three times the size of OPIA and more complicated. But in a great way,” explains James Yih, a cast member, aerialist, and dancer in both OPIA and TILT.
Through an ambitious and dynamic combination of ambulatory theatre, aerial arts, Butoh-inspired modern dance, contemporary art exhibit and interactive installations, TILT aims to amaze and inspire those who experience it. “We want to produce something for our audience that is unexpected and extraordinary,” Garcia explains.
The sheer number of collaborations and intricate details involved in this performance almost guarantees that the output will be extraordinary. CaZo Dance Co. will be joining forces with DSA, along with local artists for background visuals and musicians for the outdoor scenes. Aerialists will soar across the walls of downtown buildings, dance down public alleyways, and weave through the streets until the ambulatory journey reaches the corridors and hotel rooms of the downtown Hotel Monte Vista, where the show will continue.
A visual art exhibit by local artist Kayley Quick will line the interior of the Monte Vista’s lobby and bar—which will be open and serving, among other drinks, a signature Firefly cocktail made especially for the event using Desert Rain Gin by Canyon Diablo Distillery.
The audience will then be faced with their own secrets and the anonymous confessions that they voluntarily submitted to DSA as part of a questionnaire when they bought their tickets. An Oracle character will be front and center in the lobby to greet the audience with a projection of the confessions shining across her massive white skirt in writing, while another performer reads additional confessions aloud in the background. The Oracle’s face will be entirely concealed by an intricately designed mask, which DSA hopes will spark awareness in the audience of the masks that everyone wears in order to keep their confessions to themselves, out of sight.
The show’s name—TILT—is a reference to the performance’s goal of being able to change, or tilt, an audience’s perspective through various modes of theatrical displays. Some parts of the show will have an underlying narrative guiding the cast’s movements and choreography. However, Garcia notes, “The audience will get from it what they get from it. It’s less about any specific narratives that we’ve constructed, and more focused on conveying truths about the human experience and trying to use aspects of common body language to get at that.”
In line with that vision, there will be body language that is understandable to anyone viewing it. There will also be body language that is simultaneously common and completely foreign to almost everyone watching. As aerialists hang in the sky, using only the strengths of their own bodies to suspend themselves in the air, they will arc and run and leap in synchronization across the glass and sheet metal siding of an otherwise unremarkable post-modern office building. In that moment, the building will become something much more, and much cooler. It will be transformed from its everyday, unexceptional purpose into a backdrop for boundary-breaking human movement.
Because of the nature of TILT’s site-specific ambulatory performances, an entire public block of downtown will transcend its normal routine this weekend. As cast members, volunteers who will guide the audience, and the audience themselves travel along the choreographed route, they’ll ensure that perspectives about mundane settings are shifted. A darkened, usually desolate alleyway will become illuminated with kinesthetic movement (and spotlights, thanks to Peaks Audio).
“We’ve actually gotten the police called on us almost every time we’ve practiced,” Garcia says, highlighting another side effect of having such a public setting for the performance. “People walking by are concerned about the big group dangling off the side of a building or convening and dancing in the middle of the alley.”
When asked whether DSA saw it as an additional challenge to keep the public who hadn’t paid for tickets away from the show, Garcia says, “We’re just not worried about that. To be able to bring parts of our performance to more people is an added bonus.” The aerial company prides itself on developing an interactive experience that will stimulate its audience’s senses in every and any possible way, so the possibility of further improvisational interaction with groups of people stopping to watch as the performance passes by would only add to the effect.
Plus, the performance will move from outside into the Monte V to take place inside private rooms, which viewers will need tickets to be able to see. The external and internal juxtaposition will hopefully bolster the performance’s theme of perspective, calling to mind the question of how perspectives are linked to their contexts and settings.
While the show will certainly trade in its fair share of spectacle, with a finale involving a catwalk and aerial work up on the roof of a building, the emphasis is on the human experience. TILT will undoubtedly thrill and shock its audience, but DSA hopes that it will also leave the audience with a deeper understanding and open-mindedness about what it means to be human, and what it means to experience art, and the world.
“We hope that this show will allow people to see that art can happen anywhere—it doesn’t have to be in a theatre or studio,” notes Lindsay Maxfield, a TILT cast member, stilt-walker, and circus performer.
The show will run this upcoming weekend in Flagstaff, and afterward, the directors hope to showcase the work elsewhere as well.
“We’d love to bring TILT and OPIA to different places,” Garcia says.
The company has been invited to Durango, Colo., in November to participate in an event that will bring together choreographers, dancers, and artists. But for now, the cast and company is just happy to finally be approaching performance weekend.
“I’m so thrilled to see it all come together,” Maxfield says.
“It’s great because everyone gets to bring their varying talents to the forefront while still working together, and then share all of that with our friends and families,” Garcia adds.
None of the unbelievable work and effort that went into making the upcoming production so sublime would have been possible without the Hotel Monte Vista, Kinney Construction Services, the Flagstaff Arts Council, the City of Flagstaff, Better Business Bureau, Flagstaff 365.com, Babbitt Ford, Core Balance Physical Therapy, the Framing Department at Hidden Light, Mountain Mojo, Flam Chen Pyrotechnic Theatre, and Mother Road Brewing Co.
“I can’t thank all of our supporters enough,” Garcia says, getting ready to unleash an accidental pun. “They’ve bent over backwards for us.”
Dark Sky Aerial will perform TILT on Fri and Sat, Aug. 18 and 19 in downtown Flagstaff at and around the Monte Vista Hotel, 100 N. San Francisco. As of press time, the Friday and Saturday night shows are SOLD OUT. However, tickets for the Saturday matinee performance are still available for $28, as well as $16 TILT teaser tickets for both night shows. Doors for the matinee open at 1 p.m. and the show starts 2 p.m. Teaser tickets include entry to a private outdoor party inclusive of appetizers and signature drinks for purchase, as well as special access to the first two scenes of the show. To learn more, visit Dark Sky Aerial on Facebook or go to www.darkskyaerial.com.