Up in the air: ‘Belline’ is the culminating work for the 2nd annual Floor to Air Festival

 Santa Barbara Contemporary Floor to Air Festival's "Belline" can be seen tonight only at the Lobero Theatre. Courtesy photo

Santa Barbara Contemporary Floor to Air Festival’s “Belline” can be seen tonight only at the Lobero Theatre.
Courtesy photo

How does one spot an aerialist dancer in the wild? They don’t have the feet of a ballerina, as they don’t spend a lot of time on the ground.

“You can tell by her back,” says Chicagoan now Santa Barbaran Ninette Paloma. “If she has a nice, beautiful back and broad shoulders, that is an aerialist. A slight little gait in her walk, because she always has shoulders in to protect them. And incredible forearms. Gorgeous, yes, gorgeous forearms.”

One can see these women of the air tonight at the Lobero when Ms. Paloma presents the 2nd annual Santa Barbara Contemporary Floor to Air Festival’s “Belline.” The work comes from her Paloma Project, which was introduced to East Coast audiences last October in New York’s John Ryan Theatre. Incorporating dancers from companies from Europe, South America and across the United States, this updated version of “Belline” incorporates new work discovered this month in the festival’s residency program.

If your experience with aerial dance is the cirque-style performances at festivals like Lightning in a Bottle or Burning Man—the “razzmatazz” as Ms. Paloma calls it—think again. Aerial dance is something else entirely. The form evolved from contemporary circus—new ways of performing on old circus equipment. Aerial dance combined the acrobatics of circus with contemporary dance.

“I would say it’s 50-50,” Ms. Paloma says. “It starts with dance. It launches off into the air. It comes down, and it’s all very seamless. You’ll see full-length productions, not three-minute showcases. It’s very much concert theater-like in its approach.”

In fact, she says, the easier it looks, the harder it is technically.

“To have women lift off, then hold themselves there for 10 minutes by their forearms is no easy feat. And to make it look so seamless is what they work years and years to achieve.”

Aerial dance started in San Francisco with Terry Sendgraff in 1975. “And the fact that you’re now seeing it spread in Europe shows how significant this work is,” Ms. Paloma says. “There are now six aerial dance festivals in the world. And we are one of them.”

It’s a very tight-knit, worldwide community. Ms. Paloma opened her studio—its current location is down on Gutierrez Street—10 years ago and she’s watched the amount of students grow from eight at first to 40 very quickly, then expanded to 150 students currently.

Along with Ms. Paloma, the cast for tonight’s show includes Ana Prada from Colombia, Gabrielle Martin from Montreal, Airin Dalton from New York, Danielle Garrison from Chicago, Jill Heyser also from Chicago, Christina Sanchez from New York, and Nicole Helton, Santa Barbara’s own.

It’s not only poetic, but dangerous. “The risk factor is enormous, and the reason we pay ridiculous amounts of insurance each year.”

However, the one night is the culmination of a month of work and of all the years leading up to it. Why only one night? Ms. Paloma has the answer.

“It’s almost the mystery factor, that sense of, hey look, we did all this; it’s thrilling. Catch it for one night or poof, it’s gone. We like it that way.”

“Belline,” 2015 Santa Barbara Contemporary Floor to Air Festival
When: 7 p.m. tonight
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost: $28-$58
Information: (805) 963-0761, www.lobero.com

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