Cycropia Aerial Dance performs 'A Little Night Magic' at the 2005 edition of the Orton Park Festival.
Despite the threat of yet more rain through early Saturday morning, the Orton Park Festival is going on as planned tonight. Late on Friday morning, festival organizers decided to hold the event amidst the majestic trees in the oldest park in Madison.
This year marks the 41st edition of the festival, the third of four that mark the passing glory of summer in the east side Marquette neighborhood. Along with two nights of music and an array of local food vendors, this festival held over the final weekend of August has also become an annual showcase for Cycropia Aerial Dance, a low-flying trapeze dance troupe that has performed there -- weather permitting -- over the last decade.
The weather is of course the wildcard when it comes to both the festival and Cycropia, a collective formed in 1991 that typically performs a handful of shows per year. Their performances at Orton are held beneath a colossus of an oak tree situated at the southern corner of the park, the audience forming a broad half-moon loop around the living stage. As the crowds hush and the lights of the festival dim, a wondrous display follows as the troupe hangs, swings, spins, and leaps under the broad canopy and gathering dusk... unless it's raining.
The last couple of weeks have been difficult for Cycropia as their rehearse their show for this year's festival. They were unable to run dress or tech rehearsal on Thursday night due to the soggy ground and branches. "Rainy weather and a muddy dance are not good for a trapeze dance operation," says Angela Richardson, a member of the troupe who is working on the technical side of this year's show. Due to this and the forecast for more rain today, the show on Friday evening has been canceled. Everything is a go for Saturday, though, with a full show scheduled to close the day at Orton Park.
Lisa Wilber has been a member of Cycropia Aerial Dance since 1995, and has choreographed a piece for this year's show in addition to dancing in it. She answered some questions from The Daily Page about the troupe's appearance at the Orton Park Festival, the intricacies of dancing beneath a canopy, the less-than-ideal recent weather, and their ongoing work outside of trees.
The Daily Page: Why are your tree shows such a fan favorite?
Wilber: I think that there is something particularly wonderful about outdoor theatrical performances at night. Placing dancers, aerial apparatuses, and characters on stilts against the natural backdrop of this beautiful old oak tree and the night sky... there is something about that juxtaposition that adds to the magic. And, in this case, our performance is a small part of a larger, much-loved community festival, which just adds to the general good vibe of the show.
How did Cycropia start performing in a tree canopy setting?
I believe that Bob Queen, the organizer of so many of the great summer festivals here in Madison, originally invited us to perform at the Orton Park Festival years ago. It's really a great venue for us (especially when it doesn't rain quite as much as it has been!) It's a bit tricky finding a performance venue that will accommodate our unique rigging needs, so we're thrilled to have this annual event in a tried and true setting.
This year marks Cycropia's ninth time at the Orton Park Festival. Why is there such a close connection between the two?
The festival and Cycropia are both so very Madison to me: unique, artistic, creative, community-oriented, and committed to working hard in order to have a lot of fun!
How are the Orton Oaks doing?
A lot of people have been keeping a close eye on those beloved Orton Park oak trees because of the threat of Oak Wilt. I'm not the best one to ask, but I do know that our particular tree is untouched by it so far.
How are you dealing with all of the rain this week when it comes to preparing for the show?
Well, it's definitely been challenging. We haven't gotten to rehearse as often at the tree this year. And we spent quite a bit of time in the rain last weekend, getting our rig points up in the tree. We were all thoroughly soaked by the end of the day last Saturday!
How difficult will it be to stage this year's show given the conditions at the park?
It looks like Saturday's weather is going to be glorious, so we will be performing the show on Saturday night at 8:45 p.m. Friday night's show is cancelled because it's just been too soggy to get all of our equipment up and running. We'll be staging a technical rehearsal tonight instead.
What is the name of this year's show? What is its theme and what aerial dance elements will be included?
The name of this year's show is Metamorphosis. I think the theme is a great one for an outdoor show; it also really sums up our whole approach/ Performance is always this great opportunity to change the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one.
As far as the aerial elements: we have our traditional single-point trapeze rigs, but we also have some new steel apparatuses: one piece features four 6-foot vertical poles and another employs a wonderful human mobile. There are also two pieces that use aerial fabric, which is just beautiful.
Who created this year's show? How did it develop?
Holly Buhcholz and Linda Di Raimondo are the artistic directors for this summer's show and have put a lot of work into weaving the various pieces together with some exciting transitional elements. The entire group, though, really works collectively to contribute to the vision of the show as a whole. We generally start planning for the show at the first of the year, just when cabin fever is really setting in and we all need to envision the lovely green of the park in summer.
Who makes your costumes?
Many people in the troupe work on designing and constructing the costumes. We have some terrifically talented costume designers in our ranks!
One person on TDPF wrote watching a Cycropia show "was like living in a Maxfield Parish poster." How would you describe the group's influences, and what kind of atmosphere are you trying to create?
Wow! That's wonderful! I'm so glad we can summon that up for people!
I think our influences are broad, ranging from Terry Sendgraff, who really created the low-flying aerial dance form to traditional circus arts to modern dance groups like Pilobolus. So we gain a lot of influence from other movement artists, but also from all kinds of other art, philosophies, people, elements of nature... you name it.
What are the technical requirements for a tree show? Who is working on them for this one?
Our tech team this year includes Chiron Stevens, Ken Loud, Jim Vogel, Dan Weiermann, Rich Path... I'm sure I'm forgetting some people here. The list of folks that it takes to stage this kind of show is pretty extensive. It includes the usual theatrical techies like sound and lighting engineers, plus people to see to all of our extensive rigging requirements. And, for the most part, it's all volunteer labor, for which we're eternally grateful.
How many members are there in the troupe? How many will be performing in it?
There are 28 people performing in this weekend's show, plus our tech and stage crew. Many of the performers hail from the Cycropia Aerial Dance troupe, but we always like to collaborate with people and groups outside of our troupe proper, and this year is no exception.
How much rehearsing does a new show require?
Months and months!
Where do you train? Do you consider this your permanent home or are you still looking for one?
We are still looking for a permanent home!!! But in the meantime, we divide our time between a dance studio on State Street and the gymnasium at the South Madison Boys and Girls Club.
Do you work with other aerial dance groups?
We try to bring in a guest artist once or twice a year. Keith Hennessey, a ground-breaking interdisciplinary artist based in San Francisco, recently came to teach a weekend workshop for us.
Do you have any spaces left in your fall workshop?
Last I heard, there were a few spaces left. Visit our website for more info and to access registration forms for the workshop.
Do you have any other performances planned or in mind through the autumn and winter?
We don't have any more public performances planned for this year, but there is the possibility of a spring performance. And, of course, we hope to return for next year's Orton Park Festival!
The Cycropia Aerial Dance performance at the Orton Park Festival on Saturday is set to begin at 8:45 p.m. following the Blues All-Stars show that closes the day's concert. Photographer Mick McKiernan has published an online photo gallery of Cycropia rehearsing Metamorphosis, while a look at their 2006 show is available in a photo set shot by Timothy Hughes and shared online by Angela Richardson.
The troupe is relieved by the forecast that calls for pleasant late summer temperatures and party cloudy skies. "We invest such a tremendous amount of energy into putting these shows together -- despite the fact that there is always the risk of a rain out and the work that's been rehearsed for months might not get to be performed," says Richardson.
"Most members of the troupe live in this neck of the woods, so we are quite connected to both the place and the people," she notes. "It's our home turf, so to speak. Having friends and family in the audience always makes a performance more meaningful."