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On Black Imagination at the 2022 San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival

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Two aerial artists are suspended on a cage
The 2022 San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival commissions new work from Black choreographers, circus and aerial artists and centers their stories in a historically racist yet rapidly evolving field.  (Austin Forbord)

When I interviewed San Francisco dance choreographer Robert Moses, I expected to use the recording to write a preview about his upcoming show. I didn’t expect that he would ask to incorporate the audio from our interview into a rehearsal for that very show. But Moses is big on challenging expectations.

Moses is the founder and artistic director of the San Francisco dance company Robert Moses’ Kin. His first aerial arts work will be performed at the San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival (SFAAF), taking place Aug. 19–21 at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and CounterPulse.

“I said yes to this because it’s a risk,” Moses tells me about taking his choreography aloft. The festival, first held in 2014, commissions new work from Black choreographers, circus and aerial artists and centers their stories in what SFAAF founder Joanna Haigood calls a historically racist yet rapidly evolving field.

Man in rehearsal with dancing woman
Robert Moses and dancer Crystaldawn Bell in Rehearsal (Steven Disenhof.jpg)

Moses’ work for the festival was originally conceived as “an oral history of God’s disappointment in man’s spiritual decline,” according to its press release. He began to dream a narrative of being on top of the world and speaking with God—with aerial artists challenging a higher deity.

“We assume that being heavenly is somewhat elevated,” Moses explains about the original vision for his work. “Off the ground, everything changes, right? And what does that represent? What if I put God on the ground?” he adds. “What is it like to talk down to God?”

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In our conversation, it became clear his work was constantly evolving and inspired by the world around him—including our interview.

In a sense, this is another story about Black artists reclaiming a historically-exclusionary art form. Yet Moses implores us to envisage beyond the platitude of what it means to be a Black artist in a historically white space. “Fuck the new area,” says Moses. “This is the old area that we’re claiming a right to.”

Diversifying the field

Joanna Haigood, the artistic director of San Francisco’s Zaccho Dance Theatre and the founder and curator of SFAAF (which is supported by the Gerbode Foundation and San Francisco Arts Commission), says Black artists have been historically barred from entering the fields of circus and contemporary dance

There’s been “a fair amount of racism” in circus, says Haigood. “So it’s been difficult to break in for reasons of, you know, ‘Your skin’s too dark,’ or whatever ideas of what the perfect body is.” Aerial arts is a relatively new art form, she says, where the prejudice is perhaps less explicit—but there are fewer productions and therefore fewer artist opportunities.

Haigood is proud of the genre-defying artists who are actively diversifying the field and making work for the festival, which, beyond Moses, includes artists like Veronica Blair, Susan Voytickyand and the young aerialists of the SFAAF Youth Revelry.

Aerial artists are suspended on building
The San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival commissions new work from artists who seamlessly merge contemporary dance with circus and aerial arts, like BANDALOOP (Austin Forbord)

“I’m bringing all these people together because they inspire me,” Haigood says. “These artists are not only calling out racism but celebrating their differences and finding voice in their cultural lives and personal experiences.”

Aerialists Veronica Blair and Susan Voyticky’s offering to SFAAF plays homage to a classic Black story. Seven stories, in fact.

Their project, The Rainbow is Enuf, reimagines Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. The 1975 source material peers into the lives of seven women of African descent, telling their individual stories and shared experiences in a world shaped by patriarchy, sexism and racism.

Blair and Voyticky connect the text to modern-day circus by channeling the contemporary experiences of the six women of color in the ensemble. “With our bodies, we’re able to interpret the work and ask … what does it mean to be a woman of color in 2022?” Blair asks. “What kind of things are we facing as a demographic, as individuals, generationally, ancestrally?”

Aerial dancer suspended in fabric
Veronica Blair and Susan Voytick’s work for SFAAF reimagines Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed choreopoem ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf’ (Courtesy of the artist)

“Veronica is trying to tell a uniquely Black story through the lens of circus,” says Haigood. “I think that’s fantastic.”

While the festival centers artists who seamlessly merge contemporary dance with circus and aerial arts, it’s only recently that these fields have become less fragmented. “For a long while they were very separate, circus and dance. And that’s changing,” says Haigood. “I really wanted to help facilitate finding new ways to be in conversation.”

‘This is a new kind of clay for me’

Moses, for his part, doesn’t seem interested in creating cohesion or diversifying the field. He envisions Black futures from a higher plane of existence, an “intergalactic universe” that literally elevates Black people from the ground. Hence, aerial art.

“This is a new kind of clay for me … you’re unhinged from the things you have known,” Moses says of working in aerial choreography for the first time, describing the experience as disorienting. “The use of weights, how you manage rhythm and quality … the poetry and aesthetic is reconfigured.”

Moses references Afrofuturism when describing his work, a paradigm where the African American experience and ancestry is carried into limitless visions of an alternative or future universe—yes, beyond arts diversity and inclusion. “There’s a whole intergalactic empire,” he says. “That stretch of the imagination is what this [work] is, in a way.”

The festival can be seen as part of an encouraging recent trend in fiscal support in the Bay Area contemporary arts world for work that supports Black artists in visionary ways, such as SOMArts’ 2019 exhibition Forever, A Moment: Black Meditations on Time and Space. Haigood feels “blessed” SFAAF artists are receiving recent grant support to “really let their imaginations stretch.” Blair, too, describes such recent fiscal support as a “dramatic turn” in the kinds of aerial projects supported by the industry.

Indeed, if the arts ecology is making strides to expand its lens beyond identity politics into more imaginative territory, so should arts coverage. In reflecting on our conversation after Moses asked to use it in rehearsal, I realized that asking a Black choreographer about creating dance in a historically white space is reductionist at best.

“You asked that kind of question because you know what the answer is gonna be,” Moses told me in response to a question on race and art. And maybe he was right.

“If I’m thinking about the work in being an African American then I want to do that in a place of control,” Moses says. “And if I’m directing this conversation, then I’m in control of God. And that’s heresy, because how the fuck can a Black man be more in important and powerful than God?”

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The 2022 San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival takes place Aug. 19–21 at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and CounterPulse. Details here.

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