Interviewed August 9, 2015 | Written and photographed by Ilya Natarius
For some artists, the desire to create comes from deep within the soul. For them, the act of creating is much more personal, meaningful, and tied to their very being. Qassandra Kauzlarich, a local aerial performer, is one such artist. When I first speak with Qassandra over the phone about participating in the project and picking a specific thing as the motivation for her work, she gives me several options. While I think them over, she emphatically adds one more that seals the plans for the interview — “Willow River!” She adds: “We can do the interview there and afterward go experience the waterfalls. We can make a day out of it!” I feel curious to find out why she’s so eager to visit the river and why she’s chosen it for her work’s impetus. By the end of our time there, I have my answer. As I conduct the interview, experience the river for myself, and see how positively it impacts Qassandra, I begin to gain a much deeper appreciation for the root of her work.
Qassandra’s aerial performances contain movements that are drawn from her emotions, life experiences, and feelings that she can express the most accurately through the elegance of her choreography. Through her performances she is able to include movements and sections that carry certain meanings for her, which adds to the emotional experience of witnessing her art. As she expresses her true self through her choreography, she creates a more genuine experience for the viewer as well, making a relatable feeling or set of feelings into a visual performance.
During our time at the river, I think about how much Qassandra’s reason for doing aerial performance is similar to my own reason for doing photography — I need a break from my own thoughts, worries, fears, and other distractions, and taking photos is a way of letting that go. I put my mood and other emotions into my photographs the same way that Qassandra does with her performances. The more I think about this throughout our day together, the more I’m able to appreciate what Willow River really means to Qassandra, and why we’re there.
Willow River is a place of peace and emotional significance that became an anchor for Qassandra after she found it. Qassandra discovered the river at a time of excitement in her life, and has since associated it as a place where she can be her true self, find peace, and focus on what makes her the happiest. For some artists, that kind of mental cleanse is all that is required to dream up their best work. I reflect on my experience at the river during the trip home, thinking about how relatable it is to my own method of creating photographs and how visiting it in the fashion that we did was so wonderfully appropriate for what I’m trying to achieve — being able to view the very roots of creation for another person. This is as close as I’m going to get.
Qassandra is a professional dancer, aerial performer and instructor, and acro yoga performer and instructor. Over the years she has perfected her craft performing, choreographing, and teaching on her own, as well as with other partners and companies. Qassandra began her journey as a dancer as early as 1993 by joining the Stage Door Performing Arts School of Dance. In 2002–2003, she performed in the Nutcracker during her time at the school, and then eventually left in 2007 to join the University of Wisconsin–Stout Dance Team, where she stayed until 2011. During her time with the dance team, Qassandra began teaching acro yoga at the Rabbit Hole, a local training facility for performing artists. In 2009, Qassandra and her training partner and close friend Kristen Shaw opened Stomping Ground Studio, a performing arts space in downtown Minneapolis that is still operated by the two women today. A year later, Qassandra added aerial instruction to her list of skills at Stomping Ground Studio and continues to teach both aerial and acro yoga. Qassandra is also an acrobat, dancer, and aerial arts performer with local entertainment company Enticing Entertainment as well as an aerial artist and acrobat with Q&Z, a performing arts group run by her and Kristen.
Over the years, Qassandra’s career has been infused with a great number of influences ranging from life experiences, travel, music, and people that have come and gone in her life, as well as people who are still there; all of these things have been used in her work in one way or another. Often ending up as choreography that she has translated from her own emotions and experiences, her performances carry a unique visual experience that is a series of these feelings along with a vision of grace and triumphant elegance. Expressing the heavy weight of some of these feelings during the performance leaves Qassandra feeling lifted up and energized after a show, an experience that she describes as cathartic. Qassandra mentions that this wasn’t initially the case with her shows at the start of her career. “My style has changed as I grow older,” she explains. “I focus on pieces that I feel emotionally closer to. There’s a lot more personal expression involved with my style today than in the past.” This deeper connection with emotion in dance ultimately translates to a deeper need to cleanse her mind of any emotional blockage, something that Qassandra brought up as a reason to visit Willow River. “Willow River is a beautiful, incredible place,” she says. “I’ve always felt creative in any sort of water. I can scream at the top of my lungs in the waterfalls and nobody can hear me. Water cleanses me and removes any blockage inside of me — it’s like starting with a clean slate. The water washes away any cloudiness that I might have, and leaves space for creativity.”
This sort of feeling of freedom is exactly where much of Qassandra’s drive comes from. Being able to clear her mind and connecting with her emotional self is something that is present from the beginning of creating a piece all the way through to the end, when Qassandra performs it. Willow River is a place for her to clear her mind and anchor her creative side to her emotional side, making it a turning point for her. Feeling becomes choreography and the groundwork for new pieces starts in places such as Willow River.
The river, however, carries a specific significance for Qassandra. It was the intersection of setting and emotion that drew her to the area, and the reason that she has been coming back. “I first discovered Willow River when I was with a new love — he brought me here on a hot summer day,
and it was one of his favorite places for many, many years. He used to come here as a child and I didn’t know about this place, even though it’s so close to Minneapolis. We met when we were both hired to do a show, and dancing with him inspired a lot of creativity in me. This was three years ago,” she says.
Spending time at the river helps her clear her mind and has allowed her to move into new endeavors with her current position in her career. Those endeavors are ultimately the kind of experiences that Qassandra has been excited by in her work. While talking about a new show that she’s working on, she explains that the challenge of coming up with new movements and being truly original is a motivational force in her work. “It’s new experiences, such as this one, that drive me. We have to pull so much out of thin air for this new piece; we’re pushing the boundaries with it,” she says, going on to bring up the importance of creating fresh work and constantly pushing her limits. “I never want to be complacent. I always want to push my boundaries.”
Qassandra has translated this need to continue evolving her work into adding new apparatuses to her pieces, going so far as to learn aerial silks and move away from dancing on the ground. She talks about the freeing feeling of aerial work and describes it as a rush. “There’s something really exhilarating about free fall and trusting yourself and that you wrapped yourself correctly. Trusting your ability, your technique, your body — there’s a lot of self-trust involved. I think it breaks some barriers, just choosing to do what I do,” she says.
At the end of the interview, one thing is clear — Qassandra’s many reasons for creating performing arts shows, coming up with new tricks and techniques, and having the desire to dance in the first place all have to do with one thing: the undeniable desire to move that is within so many people. Qassandra sums up the feeling that she, and so many others, share: “Aerial is like being a flying ballerina — who doesn’t want to fly?!”