At a Monday rehearsal for co-artistic director Ron Cunningham's production of Peter Pan, members of the Sacramento Ballet are learning to go airborne for the first time.
Several dancers are standing on stage at the Community Center Theatre huddled around flying instructor Kalen Larson.
“When you guys go into the air for the first time it’s also going to be the first time that your operators are lifting anyone. So just be aware of that, that they’re not seasoned pros at flying anyone yet,” warns Larson, who works for a company that teaches and equips groups to fly by wire. He has three days to bring the dancers and the stagehands up to flying speed.
First the dancers slip into harnesses, which look a lot like the safety harnesses that roofers and rock climbers wear.
"So we did the shoulders first, then everyone tighten their leg straps," instructs Larson.
Above the stage, he has suspended what looks like an erector set, with black wires hanging down. He clips the dancers to the wires.
“This is our hardware for connecting, you get a little ring here, pull the ring out, it will release," he tells the dancers.
The wire is connected to a rope, and at the end of the rope is a muscular stagehand wearing heavy work gloves. The role of the stagehand is essential since he or she has to coordinate closely with the dancer’s moves. Otherwise you get a sloppy launch or an awkward landing.
He tells the rookie fliers that it’s OK to blow off nervous tension.
“The first time you go up, there’s usually a screamer in the group. So if you feel the need to scream when you go up, by all means, just do it, let it out, don’t worry about it,” he advises.
Dancer Alexandra Cunningham straps on her harness, gets clipped to the wire, and then a stagehand prepares to pull hard on the rope.
“Ready,” asks Larson.
“Yes!” exclaims Cunningham. And up she goes.
“Oh my god!”
She rises five or six feet above the stage, with toes pointed and arms outstretched.
For the more advanced flights, four stagehands pull the ropes, with some of them jumping down from ladders. Later Cunningham is launched like a rocket, a good 20 feet higher than before. This rapid ascent reminded Cunningham of a theme park ride.
“It’s kind of like Space Mountain at Disneyland, you know, when you first take off. It’s kind of like that feeling of full speed. It was really fun,” she says.
Cunningham flew so high she got an eye-level view of the upper balcony, a perspective she’s not used to seeing.
“Normally when we’re dancing, we’re looking up to the top tier. We’re performing for up there, but actually flying up to that level and just having to look straight out is really cool,” says Cunningham.
Dancer Rex Wheeler, who plays Peter Pan, says his quick launch was a bit disorienting.
“Because you’re sort of propelled into the air, and there’s a moment when you feel weightless, and like you really are completely falling, for a split second… But you have to keep calm and remain in character. Keep calm and carry on, as they say in England,” he quips.
Flying director Kalen Larson said that dancers – who are accustomed to telling the story through movement -- are quick learners when it comes to flying.
“Dancers are my favorite, because they have the most awareness and the most control over their own body. And that’s important in looking good in the air,” says Larson.
He was also pleased with the mutual coordination between the dancers center stage and the stagehands wearing work gloves, jumping off ladders to hoist the dancers at high speed.
“They were working hard, really enjoying it. And they nailed it.”
The dancers have spent the better part of 20 years conditioning their bodies for ballet, in order to achieve artistic movement. Their flying scenes add a lovely touch to this weekend’s ballet – and the dancers only needed three days to master the basics.
The Sacramento Ballet presents Ron Cunningham's Peter Pan February 13-15, 2015 at the Community Center Theatre.
Thanks to Rex Wheeler for letting us strap a GoPro camera to his forehead for this dancer's eye view!
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