|World-renowned contemporary choreographers Daniel Ezralow, David Parsons and Moses Pendleton, in collaboration with Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, creators of the percussion/theatre sensation STOMP, have joined forces with athletes from the Romanian Gymnastics Federation and created a soaring evening of entertainment. As a challenge to the law of gravity and binding the physical power of a team of ranked athletes with the creative genius of these remarkable individuals, AEROS is truly unique and the first in its genre.
The genesis of AEROS came about in 1997 when a multi-national company, looking for a novel event, contacted Antonio Gnecchi of AGR Associati in Milan. His brainchild was to bring gymnasts into the creative world of the performing arts, having them work with Ezralow, Parsons and Pendleton. That experience ignited the idea to create a permanent group that would perform exciting new shows and spotlight performers who offer a stupefying demonstration of muscular strength, equilibrium and harmony.
In 1999, Gnecchi and Columbia Artists, one of the producers of STOMP, went together to Bucharest, Romania to meet with Adrian Stoica, General Secretary of The Romanian Gymnastics Federation, with a proposal to create AEROS - the world's first performing arts project for a national gymnastics team. Stoica embraced the concept and Gnecchi and Luckacovic set out to secure the creative team who would develop AEROS' first project. With new work by Ezralow, Parsons and Pendleton, in collaboration with Cresswell and McNicholas who also oversaw the creation of an original score by TTG Music Lab, which will be performed live, everyone was ready to launch AEROS. Creative work began on September 11, 2000 at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
The athletes who comprise this unusual performance troupe range in age from 19 to 26. Five are World Champions in Artistic, Rhythmic and Sports Aerobics, while the others are European Champions. It was quite a feat to convince the sports directors at the Federation, hungry for gold medals, that they were not losing their prized athletes. On the contrary, the gymnasts who comprise AEROS remain active in world competitions and the combination of rehearsals, performances, training and competition brings an added dimension to their athletic talents.
|Q: Where did the original idea for AEROS come from?
Daniel Ezralow: The original creation of it was in Italy. Antonio Gnecchi, our agent there, was asked by a multinational corporation to create a unique show. He thought of using gymnasts in the project and contacted David Parsons, Moses Pendleton and me to choreograph them.
We met the Romanian Sports Aerobics Team. Let me clarify, there is no Olympic aerobics yet -- there are two current forms of Olympic gymnasts -- artistic and rhythmic. The artistic is what you have with rings and bars; the rhythmic is with the balls and the sticks. There is a third form, which is not so familiar - aerobic gymnastics.
Aerobic gymnastics was spawned by the aerobic craze that swept through America and other countries about 10 or 15 years ago. And it developed into a natural form of competition where they do movements that are similar to the aerobic exercises, but much more tactical and much more developed.
There are aerobic gymnastic teams all over the world, and they are trying [to have it sanctioned at the] Olympics. Hopefully in the next four to eight years it will be a recognized form there. There are world competitions every year. The Romanians, of course, having this great history of incredible Olympic gymnasts, have this huge body of athletes to work with. That's where our team comes from. These guys are world gold medal holders. They win most of the [categories] -- they have pairs, they have trios, they have team aerobics and they win the gold. They usually sweep. In fact they just did it in Berlin [in November 2000].
Q: How did they react when they were asked to participate in this?
Ezralow: Very excited. At first, the three of us saw what their strengths were, what their limitations were, and we created this show that was very successful in Italy and Europe. It's their first time on stage, and they had never felt what it was like being on stage before. That was very foreign to them. But they quickly adapted and they got very excited about the whole project.
Columbia Artists, [also] one of the producers of STOMP, brought in that show's creators, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, as collaborators to help us take the initial show and develop an entirely new show from that idea … and TTG composers and different designers [have been brought in] to help us create what we think can be a wonderful show which incorporates all of their talents. I hesitate to say [it is] dance because we think of dance as a very different form. We think of dancers as people who trained at dance and do that onstage. These people don't dance as much as they perform.
Q: What are some of the differences between directing or choreographing gymnasts as opposed to dancers?
Ezralow: It's the language. You're speaking a different language and you have to learn the different language. I think anyone who choreographs or directs understands they work with different actors and different bodies and different people. I think the key is that we all learn how to adapt the physical language of these bodies. These are phenomenal bodies that fly through space.
If you ask a dancer to do a double flip it's quite difficult. You ask these guys and it's instant. [By the same token] you ask someone to walk across stage to a piece of classical music and a dancer can make it look beautiful. These guys can have a very difficult time just walking across the stage.
It is that it's a whole different kind of language that we have to adapt ourselves to, and they have to understand how to be onstage. Sometimes it's frustrating. Sometimes it's revealing. These guys are like kittens -- I call them little kittens because they are all so eager and wide-eyed, and they have a purity, which is wonderful. They approach things like an athlete -- an athlete looks at something, and says, "How do I do this? I'll work hard; I'll get it".
A dancer thinks very differently. A dancer thinks in certain terms, like when they are trying to do a double tour or something … [really] a dancer is looking for an artistry of how to express him or her self. That part is different, and they [the gymnasts] are learning as we go along. We are working with different kinds of bodies; bodies that do very different things.
Q: How have Steve and Luke influenced what you are doing?
Ezralow: They really understand very clearly what a mass audience can pick up and we are interested in creating something that people get. We're not looking to place something over people's heads by any means. Luke and Steve have a very clear intuitive mind of what a mass audience can pick up. And we like that.
They are in our discussions and they are in our creative talks about what makes sense, and they are giving comments and being collaborators on how things appear. Sometimes when you create something you can't see it because it's right up against your nose.
Q: Has working with athletes left you with any new insights that you can apply to choreography?
Ezralow: Yes, I'm incredibly inspired by the way people push their bodies and elevate their bodies to forms of mastery and beauty. I'm incredibly grateful that these performers learn how to express their bodies, and I've seen all different levels of that. I've seen some of them more akin to expressing their bodies artistically, some of them lost in that space, and others more as the athletes they are.
It helps you appreciate the body as a means of expression, versus words, versus sounds. Sometimes it's a body in motion and sometimes it's just a body in tension. Holding onto a set of rings and just holding there -- the muscles in their arms -- it's a wonderful way to communicate.
How do the emotions play when they do a flip? What does it mean to do a flip? What does it mean or what does it translate to the audience? Do they need to know what it means or do they just do it and we feel 'ahhhh' -- a moment of breathlessness.
The body is capable of so many things. How do you master the form of expression through movement? It would be as interesting working with the disabled as it is working with these gymnasts. It's just the other end of the scale.
All those things come into play in this show, which is ultimately where we're going -- to create this marvel of movement, of flight. I hope the audience would not be clapping just because someone did a wonderful trick. In gymnastics that's what they do, and then they hold up cards for how many points they get. Ideally here we're looking for a way to combine it, so you see a new form, a new language. It's important to be clear that these are trained athletes that we are taking and presenting in a new form.
Q: I was talking to Daniel Ezralow about choreography but I wanted to get your perspective. How are you influencing the direction of AEROS?
Steve McNicholas: I think we were brought in to have a different perspective and because of what we do with our show [STOMP], focusing on one thing: rhythm. Within that rhythm we find a way of not telling a specifically narrative story, but a kind of journey that involves the audience. I think that everyone saw that there was a similar prospect with AEROS.
You have this group of people with astonishing skills. How can you take those skills and their expression, and use them to take the audience on a journey, so you have an evening that has a dynamic to it, a thread to it, one that involves the audience? We're trying to look at all these different things that these people are capable of doing, and how can you twist that a little and put a different perspective on it.
If you see these gymnasts, you'll see amazing skill. When Daniel, David and Moses work with them you see amazing group skills that have never really been seen before, because in competition they work on their own. When you bring them all together and they are choreographed it goes to a whole other level.
Q: What is the particular challenge of this show compared to something like STOMP?
McNicholas: The challenge is making it a show that stands up on its own feet. When you go to AEROS, you feel as if you've been taken on a journey of what the physical body is capable of. There are varied visions of how you can use it onstage. For example, Moses has a very particular style and approach, really dynamic surreal imagery. We're trying to help bind all of the visions together. Hopefully when you see it you won't be able to pinpoint differences. It should have its own identity.
Q: How do you elevate it from mere choreography or mere gymnastics to something different?
McNicholas: We don't want the audience to feel as though they have seen a succession of different pieces. We want to defy people to know which choreographer did which piece. That's why all five of us are spending so much time hammering it out. It's definitely a challenge, because they are gymnasts without a great deal of stage experience. They are growing as performers all the time. The underlying thing is so exciting when you see it all come together. I think it's going to be marvelous. Luke and I worked together for almost 20 years, and it's great to be in a room with these other minds.
Q: How has that affected you?
McNicholas: We never saw ourselves as choreographers. With STOMP, we got into the business to make a show about rhythm and percussion, but we wanted the performers to move and express themselves physically. In doing that, we kind of tumbled into choreography. So when we work with these three we see things that we learned the hard way. It's great for us to see the connections between everything. We discovered we have more similarities than differences. Also everyone is so open to each other's ideas. It's a very liberal exchange of ideas.