APRIL SKELTON AERIAL

the biomechanical | the theoretical | the chimerical

A Long Friendship

So we won the inaugural Inanimate 48.

Inanimate Dance, founded by Meri Burgess last year to showcase and celebrate apparatus-based dance, hosted its first 48-hour dance/film creation event in January. Susan Murphy and I made a film together for the event, and to our great surprise and honor, it was selected by judges as the winning entry. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the whole thing below. It was such a great experience to work together on this project, and we spent some time reflecting on the experience and wanted to share our thoughts. I highly recommend participating in the next Inanimate 48 event, which is scheduled for July 2019. You can read our reflections below, and get more information on Inanimate Dance at the link above.

Susan:

“Wanna do a 48 hour choreography/video challenge with me,” April asked.  
“Without a doubt”, I replied, having no idea what she was talking about.
I didn’t need to know details. Spending a few days with April was enough to know.

We had created a piece together years ago at Canopy Studio that I loved and still do.
From the moment we began improvising, finding our "moving moments”, the movement rolled out of us, skeins of silk unfurling. One idea generated another. We were having so much fun and sparking off each other which took fire to yet another idea. I listen to music a lot and had made an April-Susan playlist which we listened to, without any preconceived idea of what music we would use. We just put the playlist on and sorta forgot about it. Some songs magically seemed to fit what improvisation we were engaged with. Yes. Magic. Art. 

My husband, Don Carson, built a catwalk (screwing down a 2x12 .across the beams at the top of the studio, slithering across it on his belly and filmed us from way up there. THEN, we put a trapeze high (climbing on a ladder to get to it) and he filmed us from beneath. The difference in camera perspectives gave visible voice to the many sides of our friendship.

Our intention was clear and we fulfilled it, simply. Friendship. Ongoing…fed by our work together as artists, performers, teachers. Taking the same choreography and “individualizing” it. Witnessing each other and being witnessed. We celebrated our unique take on April’s phrase and saw the resonance of our affinities for expressive gesture.

I thank the creators of this 48 Challenge for giving us the time and space to add yet another moment to our Friendship.

April:

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple years thinking about friendship and what I might have missed by choosing aerial so often over strictly social activities. I look at photos of folks I used to know enjoying vacations and posing in front of beautiful landscapes without feeling compelled to suspend their bodies from nearby structures or pull their feet behind their heads, and from time to time I think: did I make a mistake?

This pang became more acute when I found myself with a body that was no longer fit for aerial—or at least for aerial at the level that I was accustomed to performing it. When the binding activity that connects you with nearly everyone in your circle isn’t available to you, does that mean you’re no longer connected?

But creating with others fosters a special kind of intimacy that many friendships won’t ever approach. The people I have held, encouraged, lifted, dropped, wrestled, shared ideas with, tried and failed in front of, nurtured the fragile beginnings of a project with, performed alongside, shown up for, and squeezed the hands of in the wings and at the curtain call are people who hold tender and grateful pieces of my heart.

Showing up to a creative endeavor with the highest hopes for its potential to provide fulfillment, and also the greatest anxieties about the limits of my own physical capabilities is a load so heavy I should probably pay an overweight-baggage fee. But this was not my first collaboration with Susan. As a student of hers since 2005 and a former member of the Repertory Company at Canopy Studio, which she founded, I had performed a duet with Susan before, as well as collaborated in teaching, and we have offered one another feedback on many of our own acts over the years. Proposing we work together on the inaugural Inanimate 48 project felt like the most indulgent kind of art-making: I needed to make something purely for the pleasure of doing so, and with someone I trust completely and love immensely.

Our process for putting together our dance/film was very organic and filled with ease but that’s not to say we didn't each bring our insecurities and grief to the project; more, that those things are welcomed and accepted within our space. We started, as usual, with improvisation, enjoying being near one another and exploring music. Susan is simply excellent at music selection and her Spotify playlists are a resource I go to often. She pulled about eight songs we worked with and danced to as we created, though we ended up with just three in our final cut. We knew we wanted to take advantage of the expansive and beautiful space of The Marsh Studio, as it’s not always possible to work in a place (especially for me) where I can freely swing and circle, or interact with the floor. The arcs we create with the trapezes are beautiful in their simple geometry, but also insinuate the cyclical nature of friendship: at times close, at times out of sync. I created the basic framework for the solo choreography that you see in the piece, and then Susan and I each took turns riffing on it, enjoying the contrast between our individual expressions.

I arrived with some ideas about how we might shoot the footage for our film, but Don Carson, Susan’s spouse and often “silent partner” on many of her endeavors, had greater ambition than I did. I thought we might shoot down from the second floor balcony toward the floor, but Don (who is a man of many talents, including art photography) announced he could shoot from above the rafters, and set about constructing a frankly terrifying makeshift catwalk at 25 feet above the floor which he shimmied across on his belly to film. I really feel like this is the definition of “passion project”—Don, who has plenty of his own work and responsibilities, was excited enough by our vision that he decided to spend his weekend hugging a 2x12.

Neither Susan nor I have a tremendous need for control, so we were able to try and part with a number of ideas for how to bring everything together without much stress. I think control can have a very important place in creation of art, but our goal was not precision, it was connection. Despite the compressed time frame for creation (the 48 hour restriction) our weekend was unhurried: meals shared together at the table, bike rides, hot tub soaks, long talks about politics and life and art, and Susan’s warm-up prescription that involves ankle weights and Steven Colbert. I think all of that context informs the finished piece.

Susan and I both came to this collaboration with our own anxieties about what the future shape of our work is. The pressure to continue upping the ante feels unsustainable to many artists, myself included. At the least, it’s unnecessarily stressful to expect the trajectory of our careers to be an ever-ascending spiral. I think of it like walking a long mountain range: many peaks and valleys, each part of the journey with its own beauty and challenge. Long friendships are this way, too: as we change and grow, our intimacy expands and contracts, never static. Tensions develop, dissipate; connections happen, or are missed entirely, deepen and recede.

Our resulting dance/film was simple in its choreography, relaxed in its creation, rich in its source material, and affirming in its reception. I’m deeply grateful to have such friends in my life and that I belong to a community of people who believe that celebrating and holding space for these relationships is a vital part of why we do what we do.