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What you get when you mix “Aerialist” with “Gigantic Nerd”

I go by “mad geneticist” on tumblr, but most of the posts I’ve written up here – and there – have been the kind of posts that a run-of-the-mill geneticist would write. For example, they have been about biology. Some more technical than others, but that has definitely been a defining characteristic.

I’m going to buck that trend. This post has nothing to do about biology.

This post is about what happened when someone said to me “Let’s do a doubles fabrics act” and then “Why not have a time travel theme?”

Like I may have mentioned before, I’m getting a PhD in Genetics, but I’m the kind of person who can get exceptionally bored exceptionally easily, and so in my free time, I train and teach Aerial Fabrics. It’s fun! It gets me out of lab, and forces me to not think for a while. It’s a huge adrenaline rush, a fantastic workout, and a mode of artistic expression. But I’ve hesitated to post about it here because, well, a how-to post would be reckless to say the least “How to climb 30 feet and somersault down without breaking your neck” basically begins with “Find a class. Take it.”

But I figure one way around that is to talk about it like art: to talk about choreography. I’ve been doing aerials for long enough that I’m pretty good, and can start doing wacky, nerdy things: like choreographing an act around the idea of, to steal a line, “Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff”.

Here’s the video:

I’m the smaller one. With the big hair. (Getting to go all River Song was a bonus, and something I didn’t even notice I was doing until Anne S. pointed it out to me.)

Generally, it was a hit. And it was a hit because we had a plot, albeit a very simple plot: Elliott (my partner) had a piece of tech that I wanted, and I stole it. And then ran away.

And here’s the thing about circus acts and plot. There’s a reason Cirque du Soleil shows are more “Boy travels through circus-land!” and less Shakespeare. That reason is that nuance and complexity is incredibly difficult to convey clearly, and especially difficult without language. Most of the acts that I’ve choreographed, especially if they had complicated plots in my head (my first act, I was someone dreaming she was a caterpillar) weren’t actually able to get the full complexity across (my first act, people got that I was sleepy). Or take this one:

The plot was supposed to be “Gravity starts working backwards and at first I’m really scared by it but eventually I grow to love it and everything is awesome.” I think what most people got was “It was pretty and floaty.”

So, simpler is better for plots. This time around, the complexity that not everyone got was that the tech was a time machine. But I wanted to play with the nonlinearity of time. And I wanted to play with that with sequencing. So there were a few things I wanted to do:

(1) Have a sequence that repeats – like going through the same event multiple times.
(1b) Have two people doing the same sequence staggered through time.
(2) Have a sequence that happens forwards as well as backwards.
(3) Have a sequence on loop – a motion that we get ‘stuck’ in.

The repeat is the chorus, where both Elliott and I at different times will do the same sequence (or parts of that sequence) of four poses done between the fabrics (an inverted split, a back bend, a pike-like pose called meat hook, and another back bendy pose with one leg in the air called angel). When we’re both on the fabrics, we do the sequence with him one step behind me.

The reversal is the position we base from – I get into the position to hold him the way he gets out, and I get out sort of like he gets in. Especially the climb here is the reverse of his descent.

The loop is when I’m doing the forward somersault-y drops, three in a row (matched with a skip in the music).

In general, I’m happy with the choreography if not the execution. (I thought bending my legs on that somersault-y drop looked cool, for example. It doesn’t.) But it was certainly an adventure for me, first because I was paying more attention to the choreography than just “What tricks do I like?” or “What goes with the music?” and second because everything had to be something that worked for both Elliott and me. And third because we had like two days to actually rehearse.

Are any of you guys dancers? Choreographers? I could see the experience being very different for different kinds of dance. What has your experience been?

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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