Ups and downs of the aerial arts

The dancers of Suspended Motion are at home way up high

slinn@thetribunenews.comMay 29, 2013 

Aerial dancer Liz Stevenson feels most at home in the air.

Suspended in midair by lengths of strong, flexible fabric, she spins, swings and soars — climbing to heights of 20 feet or more only to dive downward, her fall interrupted mere inches from the ground.

“Once you do that drop for the first time, you are elated and thrilled and full of the adrenaline you get from flying,” said Stevenson, who founded Suspended Motion Aerial Arts in San Luis Obispo with Gigi Penton. “Personally, I love that thrill and that excitement.”

Familiar to fans of Cirque du Soleil, the aerial arts — which include aerial silks, lyra, trapeze and other cirque-style dance forms — will be on display this weekend when “Eventyr, Into the Forest” comes to the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.

Suspended Motion’s high-flying aerial ballet features 23 different dance numbers showcasing more than 30 aerialists, including guest choreographers/performers Alex Milaychev and Paige Wyatt. It’s directed and written by Penton and Stevenson.

“There’s so much talent” in the show, Milaychev said. “It’s going to be pretty exciting.”

Athletic prowess and artistic expression

For Penton and Stevenson, San Luis Obispo County natives who share a background in competitive sports, dance and theater, the aerial arts represent the perfect blend of acrobatic, athletic prowess and artistic expression.

Stevenson, who studied kinesiology at Cal Poly, is a coach and physical education teacher specializing in soccer and track. Penton’s pole-vaulting skills earned her a scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi, where she earned a degree in human performance and recreation.

The first time the two saw aerial dancing, “We just looked at each other and said ‘We need to try it,’ ” Stevenson recalled. So they tracked down a teacher, Rebekah Leach, and began learning the ropes.

Penton and Stevenson opened their own aerial dance studio, Suspended Motion, in 2009. Now they work with more than 50 students each week ranging in age between 7 and 70.

“Our studio (philosophy) is ‘Anyone can do it.’ We love to take on as many people who have the desire to do it,” Stevenson said, as long as they’re willing to work on building their flexibility, strength and confidence.

Participants are apt to notice vast improvements after just a little practice, Penton added.

“You realize, ‘Two weeks I couldn’t climb four feet and now I can climb 20.’ Your payoff comes really fast,” she said, describing aerial dance as “addictive.” “It really is (great) for anybody that likes to move and likes to dance and likes to perform. … It’s amazing and it’s a lot of fun.”

An aerial ballet

According to Penton, public performance has been part of Suspended Motion since the beginning.

So far, Suspended Motion aerialists have performed at locations as varied as Bianchi Winery and Tasting Room in Paso Robles, Cass House Inn & Restaurant in Cayucos and the San Luis Obispo farmers market. They also appeared in Cuesta College’s 2010 production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Suspended Motion performed the first version of “Eventyr” — the title means “fairy tale” in Danish — in April 2012 at the Clark Center. That power ballad-laden production told the story of Eloise, a young girl whose favorite fairy tales come to life when she sleeps.

This year’s production, “Eventyr, Into the Forest,” is loosely based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and paired with a folksy soundtrack featuring the likes of Mountain Man and Mumford & Sons.

The aerial ballet follows two lovers, Eva (Kate Perello) and Javan (Nolan Pugh), who wander deep into a magical forest populated by mystical creatures and spirits and controlled by a mischievous — and occasionally malevolent — Pixie.

“She is the ruler of the forest, in a sense,” explained Milaychev, who plays Pixie. “She loves being the power behind everything.”

When the lovers arrive and “start messing everything up,” she added, “Pixie gets upset with them and comes up with this plan to separate them.”

According to Milaychev, who has a background in ballet, “Eventyr, Into the Forest” captures the magic of the aerial arts.

“Ballet is always about being as high in the air as you can,” she explained, creating the illusion of floating or flying. “Aerial (dance) really takes it to the next level, literally.”

IF YOU GO

"Eventyr, Into the Forest"
7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande
$20, $15 for children, students and seniors
489-9444 or www.clarkcenter.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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