Dancing on air
The dancers of the Silo Salutation overcome gravity, fear and bruises for a sunrise celebration of aerial motion
There are few natural sights as serenely dramatic as a storm-washed sunrise viewed from the base of a row of 85-foot rice silos in the center of the valley floor. The eastern mountains are occluded by a mass of deep, churning blue-gray clouds that flame pink, yellow and golden-white at the edges. Spreading around the towering silos, the recently flooded rice fields mirror the changes in the sky.
This vision alone was worth getting up at 4:30 in the morning and driving into vast flatlands south of Chico, but looking to the top of the silos as the light increased, I could see small figures preparing to present my real reason for being there.
As the first rays of rosy fingered dawn crept above the eastern clouds and pulsating music surged from nearby speakers, the trio of dancers who make up the Aerial Dance Experiment began rappelling down from the top of the silos, pausing about 70 feet overhead to perform some graceful yogic relaxation exercises before descending to about the midpoint of the silos.
On the ground, a group of about 25 family members and friends of the dancers quietly expressed their awe, trepidation and admiration for the grace and courage of the three slender young women suspended on seeming threads high above our heads. An occasional whoop of encouragement rose to the dancers who smilingly waved back down and uttered an occasional whoop of their own.
The sky continued to brighten and directly overhead assumed a deep, quintessential blue unmarred by clouds. The gray concrete silo walls glowed with sunrise pink as the lead dancer and originator of the project, Amaera BayLaurel, called her two partners to order and cued the music controller to start the piece that would accompany the trio’s performance.
As the rhythmic, meditative music surged upward, the dancers crouched in unison then pushed off from the silos and floated weightlessly into space, their shadows gliding dramatically across the concrete accompanied by gasps and cheers from the ground, where the small audience was rapt and awestruck.
Their aerial ballet incorporated both synchronized movements and moments of individual expression. Nearest the audience, tall slender Alana Karsch danced with the fluid movements and consummate grace of a trained ballerina, toes pointed perfectly, limbs arched in symmetrical beauty as she floated through the dance’s choreographed movements.
In the center position, BayLaurel, dark hair flowing in the breeze of her passing, projected an exuberance that manifested itself in multiple flying somersaults and the occasional whoop of joy. At far left Terra York, synchronized her petite acrobat’s body to the movements of her partners and launched into flying inverted cartwheels and balletic arabesques that her father, Videomaker magazine publisher Matt York, captured on video from a platform on the silo wall.
Also recording the event on video were cameramen at the top of the silos, on the ground, and in a helicopter that added a generous helping of aural and visual distraction to the performance. But even with distractions the dancers stayed on cue with very few missed landings or unsynchronized maneuvers. Finally, with the sun well above the stormy horizon, the dancers performed one last flight, and floated back to the silo walls to resume the crouch that began the performance.
Applause rose around them as they descended to the ground to be greeted with joyful hugs and colorful bouquets
Described in retrospect, the Silo Salutation may sound ethereal, delicate, even magical. But the facts behind a performance piece such as this are that tremendous amounts of time, planning, discipline, strength, physical training, communication, cooperation and, for lack of a better word, luck are necessary to transform the event from inspired vision to concrete reality.
As BayLaurel told me in a post-performance e-mail exchange: “The concept of the project grew spontaneously out of my poetry workshops with a group of teenage girls in Chico.”
The poetry group’s discussions evolved into a story about a female cosmonaut on a mission to “bring hope to the world.” From there, the group decided to dramatize the cosmonaut’s story, and at that point BayLaurel “recalled my interest in exploring aerial dance.”
The aerial dance idea quickly evolved into its own project. BayLaurel recruited fellow dancers York and Karsch and began practicing at the 25-foot climbing wall at Chico State last September with the aid of line-riggers Major Tom Willis, Tim Camuti and Ty Yurkovic, who helped the dancers learn to work within the constraints of the ropes and harnesses they would use on the much higher silos.
The months of climbing-wall practice helped get the dancers in shape and comfortable with the equipment, but Karsch, who suffers from acrophobia, told me that her first thought when the trio first climbed the 121 steel-grating steps to the top of the 85-foot silos and looked down was a simple and expressive, “Holy shit! There’s no way I can do this. But I have to. We’ve been working on it for so long, and there are only three of us left. I have no choice.”
York’s initial reaction was nearly opposite: “I was really excited. The silos as a venue gave us the height we needed to make the choreography more graceful,” she said. “The difference between the 25-foot wall at Chico State where we practiced for seven months and the 85-foot rice silos was dramatic and altered how we were able to move. The symmetry of the silos put more emphasis on the dancers.”
Asked what the most challenging aspect of the performance was, BayLaurel responded: “The most challenging part of performing the aerial dance on Saturday was staying focused,” she explained. “There are so many factors that one is processing, not only the rhythm of the dance, but also momentum and gravity. All three of us dancers had major adrenaline rushes going on Saturday morning, and when you kick off too hard on an aerial dance spin you can rotate too far and miss your landing. Also, I’ve never performed with a helicopter just yards away. I had to pour all my energy into focusing on what I was doing in that moment, otherwise I’d become distracted and the dance would be lost.”
As you can see, despite distractions, bruises, fears and lack of sleep, concentration was kept and the dance was not lost.