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Aerial Dancing with Karen A. Fuhrman

What is it like to fly through the air? Wall flying and catapulting through space can be awe-inspiring. Karen A. Fuhrman, owner of the “emotionally charged choreography” company Grounded Aerial, explains how she began to “amplify it in the air”:

I was in the Off-Broadway show De la Guarda, and then I was in the dance company, Pilobolus. I have my Masters in a dance education/choreography… The combination of all these things led me to begin Grounded Aerial.

These days, Grounded Aerial’s work can be seen in New York City and across the country. From an audience perspective, Grounded Aerial’s performances might appear graceful and bold. However, effortlessly jumping, spinning, and twirling in the air takes time. Dancers practice action with reaction—they first create the shape on the floor before moving up in the air. The easiest moves become much more difficult when suspended from a bungee cord twenty feet in the air.

Performers with harnesses on a wall
Wall flying at Immersive Brooklyn Air Space, pictured left to right, Karen A. Fuhrman and Aly Rose. Photo by Marcina Zaccaria.

During a recent workshop on April 11 at Immersive Brooklyn Air Space in Williamsburg, performers began by creating combinations with variation. An exhilarating process for dancers, actors, and other artists, they quickly progress to wall flying. Rebounding and moving back and forth, they scale the side of the wall like bugs, changing direction in the blink of an eye. Throwing their head back and tucking knees in, they continue moving through the space—their heightened awareness never superseding their artistry and exploration.

Performer in an aerial harness
Karen A. Fuhrman in Stride and Strife. Photo by Kit Marcy.

It can be sublime. Aerial arts, often seen in the circus, can have quite a different impact in a traditional theatre space. Aerial arts use balance, motion, and fluidity. Each dance, starting on the ground, and then scaling up to the air, creates gravity defying spectacle. Some of the work finds its place in clubs and art galleries. Meanwhile, other aerial performances, created for Broadway and Off-Broadway, continues with a directed focus on character and plot.

Aerial arts, often seen in the circus, can have quite a different impact in a traditional theatre space. Aerial arts use balance, motion, and fluidity. Each dance, starting on the ground, and then scaling up to the air, creates gravity defying spectacle.

Fuhrman holds quarterly aerial workshops to keeps connected with the dance community. She regularly works outside of the US, attending festivals and working with dancers from Ireland, Costa Rica, and France.

Don Nguyen, playwright of Red Flamboyant (finalist for the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference), a showabout ancient female warriors, shared his thoughts on working with Grounded Aerial:

You definitely put yourself in the performer’s shoes and you have a better understanding of how difficult it is to do the simplest moves… Any time you can share the same perspective as a performer, it really helps you as a writer.

Red Flamboyant opened on April 24 at Anderson Hall at Calvary St. George’s, located at 61 Gramercy Park North in New York City. The producer, Firebone Theatre, is a company committed to producing plays and musicals that “explore the relationship between divine immortality (fire) and human mortality (bone).” The show includes shadow puppetry, masks, and single bungee technology.

Aerial work heightens the meaning of the show. Fuhrman explained,

Working with Don on Red Flamboyant has been an outstanding process! The actors are so willing, and it is always fun to physicalize Don's words and images. We kinesthetically further the plot through collaboration. It is a ton of fun to actualize his vision. He always gives me lots of leeway and open space to input my ideas—he trusts me, and I really appreciate that.

Slamming the work out beyond the wall stretches the bounds of creativity. For a new project about painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fuhrman chose to step it up a bit. Basquiat is conceived by Paul Stancato, with music and lyrics by Chris Blisset and Matt Uremovich. It is set in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s, and leaning toward a 2017 Broadway debut.

For Basquiat, Fuhrman uses a “two-to-one system that allows the dancer to have only 20 to 30 percent of their weight,” making them extraordinarily quick and agile.

How do the dancers make the work look so graceful? Artists wanting a stretch find that they can combine aerial arts with ballet, modern, or martial arts training. Core strength is key. With aerial arts, the movement works in all directions—forward, backward, and upside down. Stretched to the limits, performers can attempt new feats. Fear is not an option, particularly when flipping in somersaults against a sidewall.

Performers on a wall with others below
Grounded Aerial core dancers in Transitions. Photo by Cassandra Glaser

Aly Rose, one of the participants in the recent workshop, has successfully launched, produced, and directed large-scale projects that integrate aerial work in Beijing, Havana, and Abu Dhabi. Her latest project, The One Show, set to go up next year, will feature more than one hundred aerialists.  It is a show “dedicated to the one-ness of mankind.”

The aerial artists from forty-eight different countries will be suspended over 150 feet in the air. With the audience situated 360 degrees around the performance, The One Show’s “winch automation” will be synchronized with a program called Navigator.

Rose enjoys taking the workshops at Grounded Aerial’s studios “Karen is amazing.  She works very well with the body in space. She is able to create so much movement mid-air.”

Are aerial arts always sculptural? Is aerial work, by its nature, unifying?

Fuhrman explained Grounded Aerial’s perspective:

With my traditional modern dance background, we express ourselves—and always tell a story. Plot and musicality and through line is expected and developed. Intellect also plays a role, and holding onto tension and letting go is crucial. Performers are asked to consider the text and the drama. What is the main character conquering in the play? What forces are they facing? How does it all unwind between the air and the ground?

Dealing with the physical challenges of suspension, spinning, and extending jump time through the air can be a great challenge. New thematic material can be expanded upon, while basic mechanical skills like counter balancing and pushing off the wall are practiced and repeated.

Learning to fly can be a holistic experience, as well as an intense workout. Fuhrman explained, “The type of people that want to fly our urban explorers. People that are open to exploring how to move, how to feel, how to be stronger.”

When working with Grounded Aerial, strength training is not only physical. Inner strength, both mentally and spiritually, can play a role. Dealing with muscularity, tension, and emotion are part of the struggle. Fuhrman said that some people add aerial arts to body wellness programs. She holds retreats in various places throughout the country, and Fuhrman believes that there’s an “unintentional therapeutic result of our process as we create.”

The type of people that want to fly our urban explorers. People that are open to exploring how to move, how to feel, how to be stronger.

Artists like Fuhrman move beyond circus to find the depths of human expression. Her next major project with Grounded Aerial is called The Portal. Opening next October 7 and closing on Halloween, The Portal will take Grounded Aerial’s work to Denver, Colorado. A multi-media rock opera utilizing film, music, and performance, The Portal follows the story of Dante as he pursues Beatrice on an expansive journey with light and sound.

As to the future of aerial dancing, it’s difficult to say exactly where it will lead. Transcendence may play a role, and Fuhrman is resolute.  She said, “Aerial dance, for me, is my personal expression that happens to just be in the air—it's my element.”


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