Pedagogical and Choreographic Methods in Aerial Arts

I have recently begun to give more thought to the ways in which my teaching practices inform my choreographic and artistic practices, and vice versa. In particular, I have been considering the way in which teaching a particular skill lends itself to the mastery, or at least a more complete understanding, of a specific skill or sequence of skills in the context of aerial arts. The examples that I will be using pertain to aerial silks, in particular.

There is a natural progression to the teaching and learning of specific skills in all forms of aerial arts. Each new learned skill builds upon the last, with most skills building on a set of “foundation” skills , such as split-fabric inversions, closed fabric inversions, various forms of foot locks, and hip keys, to name a few. There is also a series of basic wraps that allow for more specific skills to be executed by adding/removing additional wraps, altering body position within the wrap, or transitioning from one wrap to another (though not limited to these examples). This of course is an over-simplification, but I mention these descriptions to bring light to the sequential nature of aerial skills, and thus the sequential nature of the most common teaching methods in aerial arts.

From left to right: split-fabric inversion, basic foot lock, closed-fabric inversion

Most teachers that I have worked with teach skills as a sequential, itemized list of movements, again due the inherent nature of aerial arts. The different components of a skill are explained and demonstrated in a logical order, because this is the safest, clearest, and most efficient method of conveying information to a student.

Basic catcher’s position

For example, in order to wrap for a basic catcher’s position on silks, one might demonstrate and describe it as follows: “First, you will invert with the fabric on the right side of your body, then hook your right leg high on the fabric above your hand, dropping your left leg back behind you. Then, release the fabric with your left hand, and swim above your head for the tail of the fabric with your left arm. After grabbing the tail with your left hand, bring it around in front of you and wrap the tail around your left leg, inside to outside, keeping the fabric close to your hip.” I do not argue that this is by any means a problematic way of teaching- it is specific, clear, and concise, which is essential in learning skills where safety is the primary concern, and where it is very easy to become disoriented if one is not familiar with the specific type of body awareness involved in being upside-down.

There is also a particular emphasis on form, and executing skills with good technique in order to keep your body safe. Many teachers emphasize ‘not working harder than you need to,’ and not expending energy in sections of a skill where it is not necessary, which is especially important in an art form that is extremely physically demanding. I have heard from many teachers, in regard to particular skills, to not “muscle it,” and to find sections in which momentum can aid you, or to adjust body position in a particular way so that a movement can occur with more ease. Of course, there is something to be said for being able to “muscle through” a particular skill, whether it is an artistic choice, or simply to know that you have the strength to keep yourself safe if something does not go quite right in a skill. However, within my sphere of experience, there seems to be a general consensus among teachers that one should take the path of least resistance, and use one’s strength as efficiently as possible. Again, I do not argue that this is a problematic method of teaching- these are the methods that I have been using as I work towards bettering my teaching practice. That being said, it poses a particular problem for me as an artist and performer.

The problems that I find myself faced with are a direct result of these teaching methods that are designed to keep me safe. They stem from the muscle memory that I have developed by practicing skills countless times in exactly the same way that I was taught to practice them. Because of this, one of the major challenges that I face as an aerial performer is that of finding variation in my choreography. One could argue that the main source of variation is simply in the specific skills I choose to put into a piece of aerial choreography, and in what order I choose to sequence those skills. However, I frequently find myself bored with this system, of “mix and match,” and have been seeking more sophisticated choreographic methods in my aerial work. In this search, I have been giving more thought to the double-edged sword that is the muscle memory I have developed. On the one hand, muscle memory keeps me safe and allows me to move with more ease without having to think about the specific mechanics that make a skill work, but on the other hand, it allows for very little variation within specific skills, which may end up looking more or less the same across different pieces of choreography.

In order to find this variation within a particular skill, I have been working towards, in a sense, unlearning skills. But what does unlearning a skill entail in an art form where the primary concern is that of safety? It involves reframing the way in which I conceptualize finding sources of variation within a specific skill. Instead of identifying all the extra movements that I could potentially vary, I have been identifying all of the movements that I can’t do without. I have been working towards identifying the fundamental movements and body positions that are absolutely necessary in order for a skill to still work. This involves breaking down a skill into its most basic components- those that are required in order to maintain safety. Most of the time, this comes down to the identification of my main points of contact with the silks, body positioning, and main points of support that are absolutely fundamental to a particular skill.

Then, once I have established what those necessary elements are, I can focus on how to free up the rest of my body in order to produce variation, and there are several different steps that follow. First, in more static positions, I can explore what sort of range of motion I have in the rest of my body. For example, if I know that in a particular skill I need to keep my right leg hooked on the fabric, the fabric behind my back, and my left arm straight and holding tension on the tail of the fabric, where does that leave the rest of the my body? Keeping those three main points of contact, what movement possibilities can I explore within that position and still keep myself properly supported? This is also a technique that I use for transitional movements: what fundamental movements and body positions do I need to keep in order to safely transition from one part of a skill to another, and then how can I use the rest of my body to make that transition more interesting? Then, to add another layer, how can I explore different qualities in my movement? I have found Laban Movement Analysis to be particularly helpful in this context. For example, using Laban terminology to describe movement dynamics, I would generally describe movements in aerial arts as inherently strong, bound, and direct. Much of the movement that occurs in aerial arts requires much of the body to stay engaged, creating the impression of a bound flow, so moments of release and more free flowing movement are that much more powerful, adding a nice contrast. The same can be said of direct versus indirect movements- as mentioned earlier, much of the movement in aerial arts is direct for the purpose of energy conservation. While indirect pathways require much more strength and stamina, they also provide contrast and interesting dynamic shifts in a piece of choreography.

Then, once I have explored all of these areas, how do I put everything back together to make a cohesive piece of choreography? I have identified two main ways of doing this. The first option is to simply choreograph an entire piece so that there is a framework, and a basic idea of the timing and chronology of specific skills within a piece. Then, once this framework has been established, the next step is to go through each section of the piece in as much detail as possible, using the techniques described above. The ultimate goal of this process is to develop a much more fleshed out version of the choreography, rather than just moving through the basic framework of the choreography. However, within this technique of retroactively adding nuance, detail, and variation to a piece of choreography, there is a greater potential to miss certain things, or overlook certain movement habits that one may not even be aware of since some of the movement has already been established. The second technique is to start with a movement concept and to work from the ground up, so to speak, so that the exploration of dynamics and quality is a much more integrated part of the choreographic process. This process is more time consuming than that of layering detail over a pre-established framework, but I find that this process produces a piece that feels much more cohesive. The first technique ends up feeling more like an exercise in memory, and of recalling the details that were added as a second step. With the second technique, those details are there from the beginning, and are as much a part of the choreography as the skills themselves.

The choreographic processes I have described are ones that I plan to continue developing as I continue my work as an aerialist, and I hope to share and develop these methods with others in the field. Although my usual teaching methods involve the step-by-step explanations described earlier, I am interested in teaching a class that incorporates these methods of deconstructing and reconstructing skills, or even a class that is entirely based on the use of these methods. This would need to be a class in which students have an extremely solid foundation and skill set that they can work with, since safety is undoubtedly still the primary concern. However, I would like to share this process with students who are interested in having a more active and creative role in their learning, and who wish to learn more about different choreographic methods in aerial arts.

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