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Going Up

Tim Scofield and Mara Neimanis turn their love of flight into Baltimore's first ever aerial festival

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Mara Neimanis takes flight behind Load of Fun.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/7/2009

The Baltimore Aerial Festival

Oct. 9-11 at Load of Fun Studios

For some people, the laws of gravity were made to be broken. "We have an airline recoiling spool at work," says local kinetic sculpture artist Tim Scofield, who uses his mechanics' hands to describe this object that accordions out from a fixed point. "It comes out off the wall and hangs down and I'm thinking, hmmm. It comes out about five feet off the wall, and it can almost enable you to jump from wall to wall. And it'd be cool to have about two or three of them going. You know, I get my work ideas from things like that. You know, make it bigger. Put a harness on it."

He laughs and his collaborative partner, aerial actor Mara Neimanis, joins in the chuckle--not because it's funny, but because she also recognizes the fun in this seed of an idea, the potential of what comes after being able to jump from wall to wall. "I think that my work has gone quicker living in Baltimore because of Tim," she says, referring to their collaboration, which started with her 2006 Creative Alliance at the Patterson performance about Amelia Earhart, "Air Heart" ("Flying Circus," Art, Feb. 1, 2006).

"We approach the pieces the same way," agrees Scofield, whose sculptures have appeared in local exhibitions, such as Artscape ("Flight Club," Art, July 18, 2007). "How it works, how it's used, how it works with the body and the vocabulary of the machine movement, how to activate it."

Since their impromptu 2006 collaboration, the kinetic sculpture artist and the aerial performance artist have forged a fecund working relationship. Neither came to their current field with a specific goal in mind. Scofield says he used to make "these bronze sculptural pieces that anyone in the early '80s could have done" until an instructor told him to get more into the work, which prompted him to consider pieces "that people could interact with--like toys." Neimanis comes from a more rigorous theatrical background, studying European traditions of commedia dell'arte, masks, mime, and clown performance before she started to leave the ground for the more metaphorical space of the air. They discovered that their individual takes on movement are complementary, and they've taken that interest in creative aerial performance to organize Baltimore's first ever Aerial Festival, hitting Load of Fun Studios this weekend.

Sitting in Neimanis' Load of Fun studio space--a cavernous room in which harnesses, trapeze bars, steel ladders, and other rigs hang from the ceiling--the pair discuss the weekends plans. Well, as much as they know about them. They've assembled a list of performers--Ben King, Lucy Morris, Gwynne Flanagan, Lizzie Lyra, Laura Ernst, Jessica Mislevy, Guido DeSalvo, Echo, Nina Charity, and the Evil Hate Monkey, as well as themselves--that come from a wide swathe of aerial backgrounds, be it circus-trained or bubbling out of the neo-burlesque/vaudeville movement. Neimanis and Scofield have mounted three metal beams over Load of Fun's graffiti-scrawled back alley, where the festival is going to take place. One of Scofield's teeter-totter-like sculptures will be installed on the ground in the alleyway, another will be mounted atop the building right behind Load of Fun. And the performers started rehearsing in the space the week before the fest just to get a feel for it.

After that, though, what's going to happen up there may be a little different than the usual aerial performances. "I first started thinking about the festival when I had some of my advanced students go out and do performances in bars," Neimanis says. The spry Neimanis has the body type of a swimmer: compact and tight but broad shouldered and strong. If you've ever seen her perform--either "Air Heart" or her fairy tale-like "Snow Queen"--you've seen a women perform acrobatic feats of muscle control in the service of a narrative piece.

"Everybody was going to the Palace of Wonders or the Ottobar," she continues. "And I thought it was great but at the same time they worked so hard at this, it would be nice to have some other venue where you create work that's different than the work you would create in a bar. Everybody in the aerial world wants to be sexy and beautiful--I'm not, I'm more an actor in that respect--but there is an elegance to this work but it's not always about that. And bars always call for more 'adult entertainment.'"

At aerial's other extreme is something akin to performances seen in Cirque du Soleil, but Neimanis knows there's a broad variety of performers who work on ideas that don't fit into either of those niches--such as her own. Her aerial work is more rooted in narrative theater than airborne dance or circus, even though it incorporates elements of both. For her, leaving the ground creates a new narrative space in which to tell stories. "There is a wonderful tech designer named Spike who helped me a lot with stage design, and he told me one time, he said, 'Mara you're always going up,'" she says. "I think I'm interested in the scale of things. And I think I was just interested in metaphor, so going up always has metaphor and you're obliged to honor it if you're creating with it. 'Air Heart' is good example, not only her as a woman but the subtext, of her as a woman being an aviator. So that's why I went up, I just thought it'd be a cooler space to create in."

It's a space she found ideal for a variety of stories. "Fairy tales work very well in the air," she says. "Beckett works very well in the air. Shakespeare works great in the air--it's total physical theater. Gesture works very well in the air. But other things do not. Eugene O'Neill, probably not."

Although the very idea of an airborne The Iceman Cometh sounds rather awesome, her argument makes sense: Leaving the ground in and of itself takes stories and characters out of rigid realism and frees them up for something else. And that something else is what she and Scofield find so thrilling.

"He dreams of flight, too," Neimanis says. "There's kind of an addiction that all of us have, a real kind of crazy part to it actually. But the bottom line is that people who get to the point where they are actually performing in the air, they have worked very hard to get there. It's really hard work, and to give another venue in the city so that performers can show people what they've been working on, I just can't think that would be a bad combination for being entertained."

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