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Swinging to new heights

Suzanne Kenney is passionate to the point of obsession about the stories she wants to tell. She's fascinated by relationships, feels a profound emotional connection to the color red and thinks she might have been a fairy once.

But if audiences don't get beyond the sheer physical spectacle of her Pendulum Aerial Dance Theatre, that's OK with her.

Accompanied by nationally recognized artists, the high-flying company will debut its first full-scale production, 'On the Fly,' at the performing arts center of Portland Community College's Sylvania Campus.

'It's very circus-based,' says Kenney, Pendulum's artistic director and the producer of the show. 'There definitely is an element of danger. The people in the first few rows are going to be looking straight up, and we're going to be flying over them.'

Pendulum is a direct descendant of Aerobetty, an aerial dance troupe that wowed audiences by combining acrobatic athleticism with the stately precision of ballet, often accompanied by live music and spoken word. The company performed dozens of times in Portland and elsewhere until its breakup in 2000.

Kenney and collaborator William Holden Jr., another Aerobetty veteran, are back as both choreographers and performers in Pendulum.

Pendulum's art depends on the use of columns of lush, stretchy Lycra called aerial silk. Climbing it is only the beginning. Performers entwine themselves in the material in ways that allow them to sit, lie or hang as high as 20 feet in the air. In parts of 'On the Fly,' performers tumble toward the floor with their hands seemingly free, held by the clinging fabric.

'The learning curve takes about a year,' Kenney says. 'To get over the fear. To get the strength. We make it look really easy, but it is incredibly hard.' And it can be dangerous. Dancer Brandy Guthery once broke her foot in an awkward landing. She finished the performance.

'Dance takes place in a space

6 feet high,' says lighting designer Michael Mazzola, who has worked with the Oregon Ballet Theatre as well as other aerial acts. 'This takes the entire cubic volume.'

'I use tricks that people in the circus use, but it's in the context of telling a story,' says Kenney, a petite redhead. 'Dancers don't necessarily have to be motivated by the story, but they learn to add that layer of character which is so necessary to make it work,' she says. 'You can have all the technique, but if you don't bring the audience into your world, it's pretty sterile.'

Deena Marcum arrived from the East Coast in January to join Pendulum. 'Even though New York has so much,' she says, 'it didn't have this.' Markham is the newest member of the company and the only one with previous experience as an aerialist. Trained as an actor, she felt limited working with the New York troupe Anti-Gravity, which relied more on gymnastics. 'It's not as theater as this is,' she says.

'On the Fly' includes six pieces ranging in length from 4 to 27 minutes. Each touches on one of Kenney's favorite subjects.

'This whole show is about relationships,' she says.

Kenney's own involvements away from the slings and trusses of aerial work include a marriage, motherhood and a proud recovery from alcohol addiction that is in its 16th year.

'Relationships are one of the most challenging things in life,' she says.

In the program's longest act, called 'Dreams Within Dreams,' bodies thunder across the stage in parallel paths before soaring into a trio of midair duets. The next moment, Kenney and Holden knit their bodies together in a sensuous slow-motion dance on the trapeze.

In 'The Janes,' Luis Torres, the only man besides Holden in the nine-member company, arrogantly cavorts with a number of female performers, only to be cast aside eventually. 'Kind of a gang of girls competing for a guy that they don't really want,' Kenney says.

'Gemini Trapeze' features sisters Elsie and Serenity Smith, former Cirque de Soleil performers who befriended Kenney when the popular French-Canadian circus last visited Portland. Recording artist Sasha Lazard, whose recent CD is called 'The Myth of Red,' will accompany the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee performances.

Kenney came to aerial dance when she was cast as the fairy Peaseblossom in a performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at Portland Center Stage several years ago.

Rigged to wires to enact the character, her destiny took shape. 'I'm definitely into fairies. I think I was a fairy at some point,' she says. And she met Holden. 'We both fell in love with aerial work,' she says.

When the show closed, she and Holden formed Aerobetty. 'It was just really about the joy of flying,' Kenney says. 'It's so freeing, it's really otherworldly ÑÊfor audiences. They want to do it.

'There's so much darkness in the world. I want people to have a joyful experience when they come to see the show. The world needs this.'