The Working Artist Series with The Cabiri: Educating the audience

Managing director Charly McCreary hard at work

This ends our four-part series with The Cabiri. It has been a fabulous month. I have learned so much over the past few weeks with them that it would be impossible to put all of it into words. I hope I never have to. With any luck, I’ve dispelled a few myths, introduced a few people to something that would normally hide “below their radar,” and given my audience a sense of the love and dedication with which these marvelous artists approach their art. It is an esoteric art on the surface. In truth it is as accessible as any given spectator sport and certainly as accessible as the latest dull theater piece by the latest dull playwright.

It should be obvious but in case it is not I have grown the greatest respect for The Cabiri and their work. I hope some of that passion will rub off on all who read this. Truly, it has been an honor to spend so much time with them and to be accepted finally as, if not one of their own, at least one who is traveling companion.

I hope you have enjoyed this series. It will be back again next month, with another Working Artist: Paige Barnes. In the meanwhile, we wander into Cabiria one last time.

How does one get into aerial arts, anyway? How do they educate their audiences of the future?

It is no secret that one of the great problems of the performing arts is creating continuity. Not only continuity of style, and not only continuity of tradition, but also continuity of knowledge among practitioners as well as among audiences. For quite sometime in Seattle it has been fashionable among theater artists to talk about educating their audiences. The goal is noble but difficult. Performing groups rarely have the time and resources to invest in long cycles of teaching. Outside of universities and schools, performing arts education tends to be diffuse: a class here, a class there, sometimes a peer discussion but mostly long periods of time without any discussion at all.

Cabiri Managing Director Charly McCreary has been a serious student of aerial dance since 2001, studying with Frederique Debitte, learning Joan Skinner’s releasing techniques and low-flying dance trapeze with Robert Davidson, high static circus trapeze with former Cirque du Soleil cast members including the legendary Sam Alvarez and the renown “Trapeze Twins” Elsie and Serenity Smith. This may seem quite far away from traditional education. But The Cabiri are quite far away from a traditional performing group.

“The common element in all of these experiences,” says Ms. McCreary, “is the profound sense of connection, presence within my body, and inspiration I felt while dancing in the air and the incredible sense of accomplishment and growth I gained as a result of my aerial training.”

Many performing artists like Ms. McCreary recognize the need for education, and dedicate much of their free time–if you can call it free time–to teaching. “In 2006, I realized a need in the Seattle community that was not being filled – aerial dance instruction for adults,” Ms. McCreary notes. “I taught my first class in April of that year, with a carefully designed warm-up and curriculum for my students. Much to my relief, every class I have taught since then has been full to capacity. I have developed a loyal group of students, some of whom have advanced to assist me with instruction and have performed with my aerial dance troupe The Cabiri.”

Since then they have taught classes in aerial silks, trapeze, fire dancing and rituals, and all things lumped into the category of “new circus arts.” This is demanding work for students. How much more demanding, then, for teachers.
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The benefits of teaching adults are numerous. The adult students themselves often feel a sense of accomplishment at something seasoned professionals treat as second nature–such as mounting the bar. The sense of accomplishment also creates a sense of humility within the students. This is not simply idle messing around. Combined with Artistic Director John Murphy’s deadpan seriousness about myth and ritual storytelling through the aerial arts, the students can appreciate how very much there is to learn, not only about the aerial arts themselves but also about the relationship of the aerial arts to ritual and ultimately the connections between performance and life itself: a deeper appreciation of how the sacred rites of performance lie somewhat hidden but always behind the more mundane rites of social existence.

“While we are absolutely a secular organization with members from all kinds of backgrounds and belief systems, for me personally the Cabiri is a big part of my connection to spirituality,” Ms. McCreary tells me. “I think of myself as a performing artist who is also a profound agnostic, inspired by the ancient stories I get to bring to life through dance and by the natural world around me. I also share John’s belief that storytelling and connection to each other as a culture through storytelling are critical to maintaining our humanity.”

I know exactly what she means. One doesn’t have to be too much of a Jungian or reader of Joseph Campbell to be aware of the importance of myth and ritual in life, but the more sensitive one is to such rituals, the more frustrating it is to see them turned into something spectacularly empty and bland. Many actors and dancers are profoundly unaware of the religious basis of their art. It is, in our contemporary society all too hip to pretend such things are meaningless and have no relevance to contemporary life. Think of the last play you read that was actually about religion and the religious impulse in humankind not on a facile level like Freud’s Last Session but actually about faith, sacrament, acceptance of divinity in human life. Major playwrights in other countries have no problems with such things, particularly French dramatists.

Certainly teaching people how to release properly and work with spinning on various apparati is not going to restore a sense of the holiness of art to modern society all by itself. Nevertheless, the respect that adult students develop for performance by performing themselves may and often does encourage them to lift the patina of “art” a little to peek behind and see the profound depths of what lies beneath it all. This is something they may then impart to their friends, their offspring, their associates.

“Storytelling has become nearly extinct in first world countries in the last few centuries, so part of our mission is also to keep the art of ritual theater and storytelling alive. I feel we have much more in our lives to experience via theater and dance that touch us at a deep level than we can ever learn from an LCD screen.”

Classes at SANCA

In teaching both the young and the adult, The Cabiri work to restore the crucial link of active participation in the ritual of performance. Where the Ancients could take for granted that everyone in their city-states and kingdoms knew the tribal and regional mythologies, the modern artist has no such assurance. One cannot even base a story on a Biblical or Koranic story and expect that her audience will necessarily understand. While many groups like the Madrona Youth Theatre and the like offer the opportunity to participate in the arts, these opportunities are less frequent for those 19-30. Lacking as it does a true rite of passage, American culture does not carry over such lessons from childhood into adult life, preferring to dismiss storytelling as an activity for the young–or worse, for the “talented.”

Creating more adult students and offering them the experience of art helps to alleviate this prejudice. The goal need not be converting more adults into artists, any more than having adults read modern fiction converts them inevitably into authors. “In the six years since I began teaching,” Ms. McCreary says, “I have brought my teaching philosophy into focus. It has been a journey to discover what is most important to me for my students, and what is my raison d’être as a dance instructor.

“As I tell my new students on their first day of class, the only thing that is more important than leaving class in about the same condition they entered (a few bruises notwithstanding), is that they enjoy themselves and take something away from the experience. Whether they get up on the bar the first time, or they struggle for two hours and then finally make their way up there, I want all of my students to leave class feeling like they accomplished something tangible and real. I strive to cultivate the safest, most supportive environment possible.”

It is an extremely noble goal.

“I’m not teaching to produce professional aerial dancers. I’m teaching to inspire people to move, to be present in their bodies, and to find a sense of personal, artistic expression. In our world of computers, televisions, and the internet we have become profoundly disconnected with our bodies. Average American adults are out of shape, inflexible, and have little means of creative expression. By challenging new (and sometimes experienced) dancers to move into the air, try something new, take a little bit of a risk, grow stronger and more confident, I’d like to think I’m changing the world, even if it’s just one student at a time.”
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Filed under Culture, Dance, Performing Arts, Society, Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net