Last year, Dark Sky Aerial’s production of TILT stunned with its gravity-defying dances and its site-specific narrative that took audiences through the historic Hotel Monte Vista and concluded on the rooftop with an explosive and emotional finale. The production garnered the aerial theater company a 2018 Viola Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts. This year, Dark Sky Aerial returns with an updated version of TILT that once again defies our expectations.
For just over three months, Dark Sky Aerial has been conducting 5 a.m. rehearsals, while most of Flagstaff is still asleep or just waking up, but Carrie Gaydos, one of the five directors at the aerial theater company, says production began in October 2017. In addition to playing roles as directors, Gaydos, Abby Chan, Elisa Venezia, Isabelle Dove-Robinson and Joan Garcia also act as writers, dancers, graphic designers and technical directors.
“I think all of us have pretty psychotic work ethic, and we’re really putting everything into the show,” says Gaydos. “I hope that comes through [during the performance] and brings everyone into that feeling of really being alive and not being passive but getting to be a true life participant in that moment.”
Venezia says shortly after the 2017 production, the group started thinking about what to do differently. She says she wanted to make the underlying story of humanity and connection more apparent. With an added monologue and alley scene, Venezia says TILT “exposes the vulnerability of our humanity.”
The story was inspired by the 2016 presidential election, says Venezia, when tensions were high and when the political tools of division and separation started affecting friends and family.
“I just think it’s sad to see people divided when none of us know what the f**k is going on,” Venezia says. “We’re all human. We’re all in this together, and to me that’s my passion, bringing people together to see each other’s humanness.”
Venezia wanted to write about that feeling when you’ve reached the edge of life. Do you stay put or do you take the risk and jump? She says that feeling is something to which everybody can relate.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or you’re poor, you’re white, you’re black, you’re in another country, here—whatever life you lead we all have a similar story, things that we go through that bring us together,” says Venezia. “It’s about ultimate freedom, not being afraid to be who we came here to be, realizing we’re not serving anyone by being small and encouraging all of us to stand up and support each other in the process.”
“I feel like this show is really exposing,” adds Gaydos. “What I really appreciate about this is I think we’re not only giving ourselves an opportunity to bring our whole selves. We’re also giving our audience the opportunity to recognize that and literally take their mask off for a bit and have that connection.”
That connection to the audience comes through in a few ways during TILT. Last year, when audiences purchased their tickets online, they were asked, “What mask do you wear?” Dark Sky Aerial took the responses and turned them into a spoken-word chant. This year, the group is asking, “What are you holding on to that you need to let go of?”
Adding to that, the site-specific narrative lets the audience become active participants in the performance rather than passive observers. After Dark Sky Aerial’s production of OPIA in 2016, the group started to embrace the ambulatory experience of being taken through a narrative.
“We are changing how Flagstaff views and appreciates art by using our voices and our movement to bring new light and new energy to town and a new level of expression,” says Gaydos.
Venezia adds the ambulatory aspect is a way for the audience to become part of the experience.
“Me, personally, I hate sitting in a theater. I feel like people’s time is valuable,” says Venezia. “I know that I’m not crazy about just sitting and having something happen to me. I want to be part of that experience.”
Of course that experience isn’t always supposed to be one of beauty, which is what makes Dark Sky Aerial’s performances darkly unique. They are deep reflections on unsettling truths masquerading behind mesmerizing movements, leaving us in awe and with a feeling of unease.
“We call that the cry-barf. You might feel like crying and barfing at the same time because your emotions are so intense. If I can get someone to feel that way, I’m excited because it worked,” says Dove-Robinson. “Really what we’re trying to do is give audience members a chance to connect to the self. I hope that out of all the scenes we have and the different emotions that we want to convey through those acts, that they can see themselves in at least one of those, to really pinpoint that connectivity to themselves and to everyone.”
Venezia adds, “We can’t connect with each other until we connect with ourselves. I love it, it’s like town therapy. It makes a healthy town.”
In collaboration with CaZo Dance Company, Flam Chen, 20 Moons Dance Theatre, the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival and Nemcatacoa Teatro, TILT shakes us with an experience that demands attention and participation. With harness dancers hanging off of walls, monsters on stilts, and rooftop and hotel room routines, if TILT doesn’t inspire one to see the human connection, it is certainly something to behold, something to admire for its technical design, production and inventive narrative. TILT reminds us of the burgeoning creative minds and talents in Flagstaff and of the human story we all share.