The wilderness, though beautiful, can also be deadly. Or just annoying. So while an outdoor stage is an alluring prospect for an aerial company accustomed to hanging from ceilings of dusty warehouses, a natural setting also comes with certain challenges. The biggest one last year: rain.
"It was just a constant trickle," says A-WOL Dance Collective performer Paulina Muñoz, "but it was enough to get us pretty wet."
It was the first time in the nine years of the company's annual Art in the Dark show that Portland skies rinsed a dry August, and performers had to adapt fast. Hanging from cables is risky enough when you're not wet, so the group cut two numbers and hurriedly procured towels to keep the stage dry. They got tarps for the audience, another unpredictable force.
"No one left," says co-director Alicia Doerrie. "With the lights, you could see sprinkles, people's limbs throwing water across the stage, splashing around. It was actually magical."
Magic has been the goal of Art in the Dark since the company first performed the show at West Linn's Mary S. Young Park a decade ago. "The park is closed at night," says co-director Jen Livengood, "so it's super-dark and kind of mysterious."
To get there, attendees wind down a tree-lined path, passing the occasional deer, before arriving at a pavilion with five platforms surrounded by thick trees. People sit either in risers around the stage, or on blankets laid atop pine needles on the ground. "It's just like being in the forest," Livengood says. "You forget you're out in a state park."
Among aerial companies in Portland, A-WOL's aesthetic leans more toward fluid dance phrasing than circus stunts. The performers transition smoothly between tricks, cleaning their lines and pointing their toes, rather than pausing to ham it up for audiences. The company's shows usually include a bit of storytelling, too.
The theme for this show, Ten Laws, is based on a song by Portland musician East Forest (aka Trevor Oswalt). A favorite in yoga studios, East Forest's scores mix meditative, modern melodies with sounds from nature: crickets chirping, frogs croaking, footsteps crunching.
"He calls himself a 'sound healer,'" Doerrie says, "but it's actually true. The music makes you want to breathe."
East Forest's song "10 Laws" draws from a conversation with Santa Monica skateboard artist VC Johnson, who outlined what he called the "Hunter-Gatherer Code of 10." It's a practical list, useful for surviving in the wilderness—"always protect your feet"—but also in more civilized life: "Always get the job done." A-WOL dancers interpret these rules with their movement, trying to match the music's soulful quality. East Forest plays keyboard and a Native American flute on one of the stages, and Kyleen King accompanies him on viola.
For "Always see the dangers first," a performer hangs upside down while grasping another dancer's ankle. Then, in a well-practiced move that nonetheless prompts gasps, she lets go and quickly grabs the ankle with her other hand. For "always know where good water or source is," the group pours water on a dancer sitting in a Plexiglas pool before she's hoisted into the air.
The Ten Laws theme is apt for a show so susceptible to nature's thorns—"Rehearsing with bugs everywhere and tree bits falling is a survival process," Doerrie says—but the company welcomes the elements this year. For the finale, they've hooked hoses to an overhead sprinkler system: It's going to rain. This time, they want it to.
SEE IT: A-WOL is at Mary S. Young Park, 19900 Willamette Drive, West Linn, 351-5182. 8:30 pm Thursday-Friday, Aug. 14-15, and Thursday-Sunday, Aug. 21-24. $21-$33.