The art of hanging around
Pendulum Aerial Arts soars with a few tricks up their sleeves
A trapeze, an aerial hoop and brightly colored aerial silks of turquoise, purple, periwinkle blue and red are fixed to thick sturdy black ropes that hang from the building's rafters.
Upstairs in a brightly lit classroom with warm yellow-painted walls, 11 barefooted performers adorned in spandex tights, shorts, shirts and legwarmers stretch all the muscles in their bodies.
Suddenly, one of the performers busts out a handstand, holds it with ease for what seems like eternity, and then slowly uses his arms to lower his still vertical body down to the floor.
The room erupts in applause.
'Thanks,' says the performer. 'It just sort of came to me.'
This kind of interaction between the performers is the epitome of what the Pendulum Aerial Arts - formerly Pendulum Aerial Dance Theatre - based in Portland is all about: support, creativity, and magically artistic expressions.
Pendulum is an aerial arts group headed by artistic director Suzanne Kenney. The group's dance moves have a 'foundation in circus arts with acrobatics in the air on a variety of apparatuses and silks,' she says.
Audiences often become entranced with the air acrobatics because they involve tricks or stunts, but Kenney says aerial arts is more than just the athleticism of performers.
'It's about the dance, the expression and the story you're telling of your character,' she says. 'For me, how I really define it is being able to tell a story in the air.'
Aerial arts at Pendulum, which put on a 10th-anniversary retrospective show this spring, can probably best be described as something similar to Cirque du Soleil, which hit Portland recently with its awe-inspiring 'Kooza,' but with less extreme action. It involves being able to move swiftly and gracefully on apparatuses that are suspended high in the air, and it certainly requires physical strength, but it also requires passion, dedication, perseverance and an artistic flair.
Beginning in the air
Kenney was an actress and a dancer who started her aerial work in 1996 after performing at Portland Center Stage in 'A Midsummer's Night Dream,' in which the fairies were choreographed in the air. She learned to do a minimal amount of dance trapeze, but that was all it took.
'The first time I went on the trapeze I was like, 'This is what I'm supposed to do,' ' she reminisces. 'I had never done anything like it in my life. It was really amazing, and I just absolutely fell in love with it.'
After completion of the play, Kenney and another local dancer, Mike Barber, founded Aero/Betty, which became Portland's first aerial dance company. Aero/Betty lasted four years, and after that Kenney created Pendulum in 2000 to combine dance, gymnastics, acrobatics and storytelling with aerial arts.
The company practices, rehearses and performs at the French American International School in Portland, in the West Haven neighborhood near Cedar Mill. The school originally allowed Kenney to use the space for rehearsal when she had Aero/Betty, but Kenney wanted to start a middle school program in aerial arts.
'It had sort of been a difficult time for me in my life and I thought it was really important, for girls, especially, to have something that was really positive, to connect with the body and to work with others,' she says.
Kenney started the after-school program in 2000 with four students, and now she has 17 students. Education is a huge part of the company. In addition to the after-school programs, the company also does recreational classes and camps during the year.
One of the hardest things for Kenney is to be able to sustain the organization financially and pay her artists a decent wage. During the years, she's had incredibly talented artists from Europe and Canada but she can only afford to pay for them to stay for about two years. In order to help fund the company, Pendulum produces a lot of corporate events, and Kenney tries to put on one big premiere show each year - performing exclusively in the Portland area.
This year has been especially busy because Cirque du Soleil chose Pendulum to do all the promotion for 'Kooza' while the group was performing in Portland. Pendulum will also help promote 'Kooza' in Seattle this week. In addition, the former lead clown for 'Kooza,' Christian Fiztharris, worked with Pendulum in May on storylines and character development for the company's next big production, 'High Art: A Surreal Portrait of the Soul,' in collaboration with the Portland Art Museum, Aug. 19 to 22.
Despite the financial struggles, Kenney strives to bring in specialized artists from around the world to teach her students and performers.
'I really pride myself on probably offering the best programming for my students as well as my company because of my relationships with artists from around the world,' she says.
Those relationships have also enabled Kenney herself to expand her aerial arts repertoire. She's most renowned for her partner work with company member Luis Torres as the Duo L and S. The two artists have traveled internationally to perform 'Kissing,' one of their more famous acts. She also performs on the hammock, aerial silks and the trapeze, among other apparatuses.
Although she wants her performers to have fun and enjoy what they do, Kenney strives to teach her performers to be professional, creative on their own, disciplined and supportive of each other.
'Artistically, especially now because I have a group of super-talented people, everyone is allowed to create their own work, and we're constantly changing and growing as artists,' she says.
Seeing the world
Josie Oleson, a 16-year-old apprentice, started her aerial arts career when she was 9 after watching her older sister go through the Pendulum summer camps. She thought it looked fun and wanted to be like her sister, so she started taking the once-a-week Pendulum classes for young kids.
Since then she has been in every Pendulum youth performance, and last year she was the youngest artist ever to be taken as an apprentice.
She has been developing her skills in silks and hammock, among other disciplines, but finds the trapeze to be one of her favorite apparatuses.
Oleson, who grew up in the Portland area and attends LaSalle High School, says it might be fun to perform on a national level with a troupe like Cirque du Soleil, but it's not her ideal experience.
'It would be cool to be in Cirque du Soleil, but usually their shows go on for a really long time and you do the same thing,' she says. 'Here, we all change acts year by year, we get new repertoires and you get to expand your vocabulary in what you know.
'Aerial arts is just a cool experience. There are just millions of possibilities to do things. I'm with a group of people that I really like and that I'm really close with.'
MoNika 'Billy' Ell, who started aerial work at 16, did ballet dance for five years until he became bored doing the same bar work and wanted more of a challenge.
'Now, every day has been a challenge,' he says. 'There hasn't been a day where I've come into rehearsal and it's been easy. Being in this art form you have to give 120 percent - you can't expect to climb 60 feet up in the air and do the movements halfway. It's hard, but I love it.'
The 21-year-old Ell, who grew up in the Portland area, became a company member in 2007. Now in his fifth season with the company, he teaches at the Oregon Gymnastics Academy when he's not rehearsing with Pendulum.
Ell has trained in apparatuses such as the hammock, hand loops, aerial silk, trapeze and the aerial hoop, which is his favorite. While he's capable of performing tricks, he stresses that aerial arts is not what that's all about.
'Every time I perform I try to tell a story or really portray a character so the audience feels it as well,' he says. 'It's just a great art form. It's like a second voice. It's a great way of communicating without talking.'
While Ell enjoys the creativity and constantly changing acts at Pendulum, in the future he wouldn't mind joining a traveling circus, preferably one based in Montreal.
'I want to live my life out of a suitcase,' he says. 'I just want to go on the road and tour, see the world, and soar above audiences.'