Flying High: Exponential Aerial Theatre and the Club Scene

Feature in Issue 8-1 | Spring 1996

Creatively liberating or just plain dangerous? Al Bell of Exponential Aerial Theatre talks to Natasha Klugman about the pleasures and pitfalls of performing their trapeze act in nightclubs.

Formed by Rachael Nitz and Al Bell and based in Leeds, Exponential is now in its third year. Alongside the staging of large-scale circus theatre shows which they tour to summer festivals and outdoor events, Exponential are well attuned to club culture and have been performing in nightclubs since 1993. The company’s first club gigs were at a series of all-night raves, in Lincoln’s Drill Hall, called Fundamental. For aerialists, working in clubs is completely different from working on rigs or in big tops and a lot more unpredictable, Al explains. ‘The first performance we ever did was at a rave. We tried to do exactly what we would normally do as part of the big top show, and had a nasty shock. We simply weren’t prepared for the heat generated by a couple of thousand sweating ravers and nearly came out of a ‘big drop’ because we had become too slippy; a hasty rethink was called for before the next spot that night. Since then, our work has been developed to rely more upon interpretation and audience contact than big flashy tricks.’

Safety is an issue in clubs. Conditions vary a lot. Al points out that rigging ropes and trapezes can often prove difficult and time consuming, ‘the lack of a decent dressing room can mean going into the air tired, cold and not properly warmed up. Inadequate security can mean people walking underneath you, or even trying to pull you off ropes or climbing up to have a go themselves. We have had several occasions when people have been too off their heads to realise that there was something going on above them, wandering into the space and getting whacked with ropes or kicked.’

Club work also allows the company much greater freedom to improvise in the air, react to and interact with the audience. Al explains, ‘the club situation can prove frustrating because there are physical limitations upon what we can safely do, but it also provides us with certain avenues which cannot be explored so easily with some standard circus audiences. Firstly, you are playing to an entirely adult audience. More often than not they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, their inhibitions are down and they are ready to accept visual and emotional stimuli on a much more immediate level, reacting to colour and movement with an often child-like enthusiasm. Due to the conditions in clubs, the work relies upon environmental qualities, rather than a narrative which would be hard to sustain in such a setting.’

In the clubs Exponential perform a solo rope act and a doubles trapeze piece. Both pieces celebrate female physicality, power, joy and aspiration. They are intended to be uplifting and representative of the modern club ethos of energy, sharing, individuality and independence. The doubles trapeze also draws from the new spirit of lesbian sexual confidence and its determination to destroy the barriers which seek to separate sexuality, often using metallic or UV body paint to react to club lighting and show the female body as a source of powerful active sexuality.

Working in clubs has been an important learning experience for Exponential. ‘We have developed and are continuing to develop a whole new direction for working in this environment. Although we do still come across some venues which are hell on earth to work in, there are an increasing number of clubs and organisations such as Megadog and the Archaos Club in Glasgow, who are making a commitment to live performance as an integral part of club culture. They take the lead in making every effort to ensure good conditions and proper rates of pay for performers and are forming the beginnings of a regular circuit for performance and live art practitioners across the country.’

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Issue 8-1
p. 4 - 5