HighFlier

We talk to Katie Kuehl of Cycropia Aerial Dance about how she got involved with Madison’s legendary performance troupe, and why the challenges of aerial performance are worth the learning curve.

What is your background, and how did you get involved in Cycropia?  

I am originally from Oregon, Wisconsin and, growing up, I was very involved with musical theater in school and the community. I moved to Asheville, North Carolina for several years to work on my undergraduate degree and escape the Wisconsin winters, but eventually was lured back to Madison when I was admitted to the School of Veterinary Medicine.

One of the first quintessentially Madison events I attended after returning was the Orton Park Festival, which takes place at the end of August. It was there that I happened upon, well, first a beer tent (let’s be honest, it’s a summer festival in Madison) and then Cycropia’s outdoor performance in the huge, beautiful oak tree. I was instantly mesmerized. The movement, magic, strength, and control was compelling. Although I was embarking on a grueling academic path, I kept the memories of that performance in the back of my mind until I reached a point in school where I got my head above water and could occasionally think about things other than studying.

I started with introductory trapeze classes and was hooked immediately. It was hard; a lot harder than it looked, but hey, I like a challenge, after all I was getting myself through vet school. It made me hurt in places I had never hurt and use muscles I didn’t even know existed, but I liked pushing myself and seeing, slowly but surely, improvement. My first aerial silks class was a joke: I couldn’t do anything but desperately hang on and flop around clumsily, but even there, little by little I was making improvement and getting stronger. Best of all I was setting aside time to use the whole other half of my brain, the one not totally inundated with medical terms, diagnoses drug names and treatment options. I think it was seeking this balance in my life that really helped me get through the challenge of school. After I graduated and started working at the Dane County Humane Society, I realized that for the first time in many years I had considerable amounts of free time that did not need to be used for studying, and was thrilled to secure a spot in Cycropia’s Fall 2012 Introductory class.

What are some of the unique challenges, and unique payoffs, of aerial dance?  

I think the biggest challenge is pretty obvious: the physicality. You need a lot of core strength, a lot of upper body strength, a lot of hand/grip strength and flexibility to boot. To take it to the next level, you need to be able to combine that strength with grace and stage presence. Essentially you need to take something that is very difficult and demanding but make it look effortless to the audience. Another big challenge for many of the apparatuses we use is getting used to spinning endlessly without getting dizzy or disoriented. Amazingly your body gets used to this kind of movement after awhile, but there can be a lot of physical discomfort until you get to that point. They payoff is the performance: donning the spandex and sparkles and creating a sense of awe and wonder in every single audience member. Transporting them to a different world where up is down and the rules of gravity are constantly changing.

What do you love about this art form, and being part of this group in particular?  

One of the things that I love most about aerial dance is that you can feel like a kid playing on a playground again—back when they were still dangerous and fun—and be getting a great work-out at the same time. I am an energetic person and I need an outlet to move around, sweat, challenge myself and get the endorphins flowing. That is what keeps me balanced with my mentally challenging profession. I love tapping into this whole other side of myself—pushing myself to improve and seeing the movement and creativity that results. To be a veterinarian, you have to love being a life-long learner, so in aerial dance I am always wanting to learn more: try new apparatuses, new styles of movement and push my body in new ways. Cycropia is a supportive environment for this exploration and creativity and you are among friends who want to keep learning, improving, and pushing each other to the next level. This group knows how to work hard together and play hard together!

What’s this show all about? What can people look forward to if they go?  

Our upcoming show is “Circo Lucido – Flying Cabaret” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, May 20–21, and as the name implies, we will be drawing on the inspiration of light used in ways to blend with movement and tell each piece’s own story. There will be traditional and innovative apparatuses and a whole heck of a lot of talent and glitter. I am particularly excited to be performing on a spinning dodecahedron, which you will get a sneak peek of on our show poster. We are also excited to be collaborating with local artists and performers for this performance to round out the cabaret experience and keep you on the edge of your seats from start to finish.

I recently became an official member of the Cycropia Aerial Dance Collective and as a result I have been learning more about the origins of aerial dance and single-point dance trapeze. I think it is really intriguing that the art form developed with strong ties to and pioneers from the LGBTQ community out in Berkeley and Seattle, as well as having ties in the Madison community. My experience with the group has been nothing but positive and supportive of both me and my non-flying partner. From inception, Cycropia has welcomed people of all identities and skill levels to experience what it is like to dance up in the air.

For more on Cycropia and their upcoming performances, visit www.cycropia.org.