The Aerial Art of Knoxville's Wing Project

It's pretty safe to say that the Wing Project is unlike any other arts collaboration in town. That's because it's a unique fusion of modern dance, live music, and an aerial hoop. Yes, that's right—just like the kind you see in the circus. Maria McGuire and Laura Burgamy are popularizing the art of "aerial dance" in Knoxville, and this fund-raising show promises to be their biggest one yet. Merging circus and gymnastic techniques with dance, McGuire and Burgamy create an aerial choreography that goes beyond just acrobatics and into the realm of personal expression. Plus, it looks and sounds really cool. Backed by musicians Christina Horn and Nate Barrette of Hudson K, Laith Keilany, and Mike Murphy, the Wing Project is also an aural experience, creating a soundscape for the dancers' visions, from an oceanic veil piece to a dash through an aerial desert. Meanwhile, there will also be dancers from Circle Modern Dance and local circus performers from Biz'Cirque participating, and artists have contributed physical pieces to give the abstract themes some physical form. Here's what McGuire and Burgamy have to say about their art and their show, via an e-mail interview:

So what exactly is "aerial dance"? Is it something new, or does it have a history?

McGuire: Aerial Dance is a fusion of modern dance with circus acrobatics on suspended apparati, such as a low-flying trapeze, silks (fabric), lyra (aerial hoop), etc. Originating in the 1970s and rapidly gaining recognition, aerial dance involves adding the dimensions of balance, centering, and orientation in space. The aerial dancer merges classical circus and gymnastics vocabulary with dance techniques (ballet, modern, etc) to create choreography.

Burgamy: Aerial dance adds a whole world of dimension to what can happen on the ground. The "dance" part is important, stressing that what we want to create is more than just tricks. We infuse our skills with the feeling and fluidity found in contemporary dance. Aerials have a history in circus shows, like Cirque du Soleil, growing from acrobatics into trapeze and other apparatus.

How did you personally get interested in it?

McGuire: Two years ago, while attending a circus-inspired bellydance convention near Asheville, I experienced the Lyra (aerial hoop). As soon as I climbed the apparatus, what unleashed inside of me was a profound and fearless sense of playful exploration, the kind I used to have on my jungle gym when I was a girl. (I used to spend hours creating with new (and dangerous) tricks involving the swings, monkey bars, and trapeze.  Sometime, early in my youth, I abandoned my dreams of being in the circus and forgot these experiences). After this experience, I was determined to have a lyra, just to play on, and immediately encountered local metal artist, Zophia Kneiss, and commissioned her to weld a Lyra.

Burgamy: I first knew I had a future in aerial dance when I saw the Cirque du Soleil show Mystere in Las Vegas. There was no question that I had to get into the air.

How did you learn it?

McGuire: Initially, I only cared to explore my own movement vocabulary. At the time, I was bookkeeping for Daniel Schuh, owner of Relix Variety Theatre, and he permitted me to practice in his space.  Shortly after, I  was introduced to Amy Powell, a teacher in Chattanooga with years of experience from Canopy studio in Athens, Ga. Amy initially helped me develop choreographies based on my limited vocabulary, and later, Laura and I made weekly trips to Chattanooga to study trapeze and silks. After a while, I realized that in order to grow as an aerialist, I had to get stronger off the apparatus. Enter Ktown Crossfit. Since February, I have been humbled by the athleticism and positive energy radiating this gym.  Now that I've survived a number of killing met cons (metabolic conditioning), I know my goals for aerial fitness, and it's a long journey ahead. In addition, I am gaining great coaching in aerial body awareness in an adult tumbling class at Tartaru's gym, with former international circus performers from Romania.

Burgamy: I began training in aerial dance through CORE Contemporary Dance Company at the University of Georgia while working towards my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance Performance. The director of the company, Bala Sarasvati, was intrigued by the dimension it brought to her work, as well as the cross-training it provided for her contemporary dancers. My first instructor was Elsie Smith, a former performer with Cirque.

What is the Wing Project?

McGuire: After multiple aerial performances, Laura and/or I have performed with Hudson K, Hudost of Montreal, Bassnectar at the Asheville Civic Center, Biz'Cirque, Wasted Wine from Greenville, S.C., Shakori Hills Festival, and several groups at the Valarium. We have been spoiled with performing to live music and love the challenge of creating last minute improvisations and choreographies. When we began duetting on the lyra, we were just improvising.  Now, we are creating combinations based on weight-shares, shapes, mirroring, themes, etc, and the complexity and physical demands are growing. However, because we are usually invited into another group's vision of set, our rigging specifications are usually not the forethought. This is often a challenge (dynamic weight and proximity to equipment and other people are extremely important considerations).

Why is it called the Wing Project?

McGuire: The Wing Project is the name we gave to our act as it is based on flight. While we couldn't limit ourselves to a particular mythological flying creature, we feel ‘The Wing Project' satisfies our current mission: to assimilate our fleet of necessary equipment and take our current level of aerial performance to the next, and this involves many artists, dancers, musicians, sponsors, and volunteers. The Wing Project may be about human evolution, too, bridging art with strength in an arena of entertainment. Literally, the harder we train, the more developed our shoulders and core become, and the more empowered we are by our strength, and thus, more creative options are available.

Burgamy: The Wing Project is an aerial dance collaboration; two aerial performers working together with other artists, dancers, musicians to inspire our community to move and to create.

What should the audience expect to see at your performance?

McGuire: Based on the level of excitement within the cast, I am overwhelmed by the creative drive behind this show.  Imagine 4 of Knoxville's best musicians (Christina Horn and Nate Barrette of Hudson K, Laith Keilany, and Mike Murphy) writing songs to the dancer's visions. From an oceanic veil piece to a dash through an aerial desert and a magical finale that I won't ruin for you, we have collaborated in the best way: Dancers are exploring new movement styles and the musicians have commented that these pieces are growth for them as well.

There will be the best of modern dance, aerial acrobatics, acrobalance and dynamic partnering, bellydance, and yoga. The audience may recognize a number of dancers from Circle Modern Dance as well as local circus performers.  Laith will play the oud and steel guitar and you'll see the maven of ceremonies of the evening, Christina Horn rocking the faery domain and dancing over the keys.

We have collaborated with artists who turned our abstract vision into form. You might see fallen branches from recent storms converted into havens for little origami peace cranes. There will be hanging sculptures from the ceiling, so we are told. We are planning to hang an aerial gallery of silent auction items provided by some of our favorite artists. In addition, the winner of the ‘Swings and Wings art contest' will be announced during the show and given premier wall space at Relix for the month of September. We will have a raffle, available to any ticket holder for the show with prizes from our sponsors: Chop Shop, Everything Mushrooms, Brixx, Magpies, etc.

How does the musical collaboration fit in?

McGuire: See also above. As stated before, we are spoiled and prefer moving organically to live music, building partnerships across mediums of art, and sharing exchanges with musicians on the stage.  This creates a more evocative performance. Fortunately, we get to work with local musicians who understand our specs for rigging and make the space to share with us.  In The Wing Project, the musicians have taken a lead role in shaping the music to our musings, which is the impetus for our movement.

Burgamy: The musical collaboration is the glue holding our vision for this show together. Our musicians are graciously providing a soundscape for aerialists and dancers to deliver their talents; a concept where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

What are you raising funds for?

McGuire:  I joke and say that if we weren't having a fund-raiser, we'd eventually have a benefit following an accident. Aerial dance is dangerous without safety equipment as it is extremely demanding of the body. A simple fall without a crashpad could be a lifetime injury or worse. (Two months ago, I sustained a 12-foot fall due to a simple but poor decision on hand placement. While the small crashpad we use broke the fall, it took multiple chiropractic sessions to restore my hips, spine, and head). Funding from Friday's event will hopefully afford us a reasonable gymnastics crashpad as well as improved equipment, like span sets. We are needing a larger lyra to expand our vocabulary in duetting and are hoping to have it made by the same local metal artist who made mine.

We are attracting funding through an affordable door price; just $5 gets you into a three-part contemporary dance/ circus show with amazing local music, a raffle ticket, and a dance party with DJ Knights. Thanks to Relix Variety for sponsoring us with the venue. Please support them by purchasing beverages at the bar. We also have a silent auction for locally made artwork- paintings, photography, jewelry, etc. In addition, we have a bake sale for pizza sponsored by Brixx, a other sundry goodies, including chocolate chip and Benton's Bacon cookies.

What do you hope to do with the Wing Project in the future?

McGuire: Ultimately, we wish to inspire strength and art.  We hope that we can share the co-creation of art with our audience. Based on the response from this show, will determine our focus:  preparing for an even greater collaborative in Spring, 2012, expanding our fleet of equipment and individuals, offering our skills to the community and possibly regionally, as we have ties with other community circus groups. We are currently looking at creating a documentary of our work and training in collaboration with student filmmakers. At this moment, we enjoy taking our training outside to local greenways, playgrounds and obstacle courses.