Aerial Alchemy

Aerial Alchemy: 

Flight Paths – A Collaboration with Extant and Yellow Earth 
by Vicky Amedume

Three people sit in a red-seated theatre reading pieces of paper.I rarely get butterflies walking into a rehearsal room but on the first day of this project I felt like I had just swallowed a hand full of the beasties.

How did I end up here? It really began for me when after attending our last production “What Happens in the Winter” Maria Oshodi of Extant and I had a really exciting conversation about the use of text and movement and audio description. WHITW was the first time Upswing had really worked with text and within the show the performers spoke sharing the personal stories with the audience, moving dancing and talking as needed to share their experiences of their lives as performers and how they might be affected when the time comes to leave the stage  (I will write more about that show another time).

Maria had already experimented with text in the air in SHEER with her company Extant. She worked with a visually impaired aerialist integrating poetic description of the body’s appearance and action, delivered live by the aerialist. Ordinarily audio description of highly physical performance is usually provided technically through a headset device and is remote from the onstage action. This alternative approach relocated the description at the heart of the piece and brought a heightened sense of location and dynamism to the access feature due to the performer being in action.

A man plays violin in a dark room. An aerialist holds themself up on a black rope behind him.

At that same time Maria, Kumiko Mendl of Yellow Earth and I had been discussing a musical collaboration using the tradition of Japanese Biwa Hoshi players. Often known as “lute priests” they were blind travelling performers that earned their living by reciting epic tales to the accompaniment of biwa music. Kumiko was interested in this hybrid form and tradition and thought they might provide an interesting starting point from which to explore the experiences of contemporary visually impaired artists who had migrated to the UK because of the opportunities available to them here.

Now, at the time I knew very little about audio description and even less about Biwa Hoshi Traditions. I had not a clue about how our time together would unfold BUT I was excited by the prospect of exploring new territory and most of all by the prospect of working in collaboration with two other Directors.

Three people talk in a group, sitting on the floor in a dark room.

With some support from the Liberty Festival Maria, Kumiko and I were able to spend a few days together to with two visually impaired aerialists (Amelia Cavallo and Kahless Giles), a Nigerian blind soprano (Victoria Oruwari), and Japanese blind Viola player (Takashi Kikuchi) to help us find out how we could begin to combine movement, story, music and song to create a performance that had access at its heart.

So on Monday morning we began at the beginning, getting to know each other.  We talked about ourselves in turn and why we were interested in the project, we discussed the ideas behind the project. The four artists had been asked to do some writing exercises before we met so we looked at those too. Then Kahless and Amelia showed me some of their solo aerial skills and what they were able to do as a pair, Victoria shared a song she had prepared and Takashi played for us.

Two people walk in a dark room together, they use walking sticks.During the next day and half we tried a series of exercises drawn from the source material and the writing from the artists that Maria restructured. We created a series of scenes that followed individual and collective stories.

I began to learn about the impact of particular choices on access. I became more mindful of what could be missed. I began to close my eyes during some run throughs and even though this could not give me the experience of someone with a visual impairment it bought my attention to a very different experience of receiving the work.

My work has always favoured exploration of stories through the structuring of visual images an experience made up of the ability to communicate the body, particularly circus bodies; structuring images to create a emotional or symbolic resonance. Now I found myself working with a different sensibility. How does the timber of the voice in the air or the direction of sound or the order of things being told support or detract from understanding of what was taking place and the story it told.

Two aerialists in red leotards hold themselves up on ropes. They are in a dark room.One example of this form of thinking came from an exercise with Kahless. We created a repeating sequence of wraps and twists to ascend the entire silk. As in SHEER we asked Kahless to describe his actions and appearance as he climbed. Along with the effort of each action in his voice the sense of movement and direction bought a poetic quality to the delivery. After a few repetitions the description established a clear picture of the physical action on stage. We then began to bleed in some of the lines of text we had gathered earlier in the process layering in Kahless’s story of his journey to achieve independence.
The connection between the real physical struggle to ascend heard within his voice bought a new resonance to the journey text.

At that point we also asked him to expand the description of his actions to include an internal monologue about what if felt like to perform the actions. What the silks felt like as they tightened on his skin, how his muscle felt pulling his weight up the silks. With this introduction yet another layer was added to the description expressing the image of his physical journey up, connecting to the story of another difficult journey he experienced along with his internal/emotional that was bound to this physical journey.

Three women and one man sit closely in a group together, smiling.

On the third day we had a short presentation to a really generous invited audience that helped us gather our thoughts and reflect on what we had discovered and there was a lot to reflect on. The R&D gave us time as a team to begin to explore these techniques; using aerial work, music, words and song. We received very useful and positive feedback from the presentation and we feel like we have begun something that with more work could mature into something quite lovely. I look forward to next time i get to walk into a room with Maria and Kumiko

Photo Credits: All Images by Christopher Andreou