Joanna Haigood's Flying Circus

Since when has tumbling off a 120-foot grain silo been a form of modern dance?

As buildings go, the Con Agra Marquette Grain Terminal on the Mississippi's East Bank isn't much to look at. The massive silos, built of seamless gray concrete, are crosshatched with the marks of age and weather. In the gathering darkness, the dozen or so connected cylinders look rather like the discarded six-pack of some besotted titan. It's an inert slab, outwardly remarkable only for the long shadow it casts on the surrounding railroad yard and barren scrubland. The place is, in every sense, earthbound.

When the veteran San Francisco-based choreographer Joanna Haigood first laid eyes on the terminal a year and a half ago, she saw possibility. "Coming to the site is spectacular," she says. "There's this village--a cluster of grain elevators--and you're completely overwhelmed by their presence. You're embraced and enclosed by these structures. I'm not sure I can explain it. But it was very exciting.

"The thing that I love about the place is that it's so simple in design, but so monumental in scale--majestic, almost. It's very old. It was built in 1919, I think, all by hand. You start to think about what a feat it was to build this thing. It's a testament to effort. And it's also spectacularly beautiful--penetrating, in a way."

For Haigood, the Con Agra terminal, which holds 3.5 billion bushels of grain, is a functional monument to the most basic process of human life. "To me, it represents sustenance. There's an inherent hope in it. It feeds us and sustains us, so it's something everybody has contact with."

This Friday at dusk, the industrial shell will also become Haigood's stage. Tethered by lines that stretch from the top of a 120-foot silo and out over the audience's heads, she and five other dancers will float along the vertical face in a precisely choreographed aerial ballet, framed in the glow of a video projection compiled by Powderhorn neighborhood teenagers. The performance, Haigood says, will be her ode to both the silo's environs and its symbolic dimensions. "There's going to be footage of the interior, and images that reflect the relevance of silos: grain pouring, wheat fields, and machinery. It's a metaphoric play about the neighborhood.

"Of course, that's all theoretical," she laughs lightly. "I actually have no idea how it's going to look."

Haigood has long made a practice of hanging around in odd places. In 1990 her Zaccho Dance company--the name refers to the base that anchors a column to the earth in classical Greek architecture--performed in an abandoned San Francisco mattress warehouse, scaling the walls and dangling from ladders as wood-burning braziers smoked in the inky darkness below. They have danced on the exposed steel skeleton of San Francisco's Exploratorium, and amid the crumbling stones of a Roman cemetery. They have pirouetted through a cloud of butterflies in a metamorphosis-influenced ballet. In 1998, after four years of research, Haigood finished Invisible Wings, an outdoor performance at the Jacob's Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts during which she and her dancers guided the audience through a narrative history of the Underground Railroad. That piece, which cemented Haigood's reputation as one of the most innovative site-specific choreographers in the world, ended with the image of a slave woman floating off into the starlit sky--a visual metaphor for both personal transcendence and history's redemption.

"Invisible Wings was life-changing because of its content," she says. "One side of my family is from South Carolina, so I had to look at what happened to my family and why we are the way we are. I felt like my family was a microcosm of what had happened in the history of the country."

Though Haigood's career trajectory corresponds to the rise of San Francisco's street-art scene in the 1970s, and, later, the cirque nouveau movement in France, her work is distinct from that of other in situ performance artists. Under her guidance, Zaccho's acrobatic performers have made the world their prop, dancing with industrial cranes, sofas bolted to ceilings, arc-welding torches, and moving automobiles. "All my work is three-dimensional," Haigood explains. "It's a vertical play. A lot of things can happen in the air that can't happen on the ground. For me, up was the only other place to go, the only way to describe space in greater volumes."

As with the performances of Elizabeth Streb and her Ringside company, Haigood's high-altitude acrobatics enthrall audiences who might otherwise have little interest in modern dance. Yet, though Haigood is happy to defy gravity, there is nothing carnivalesque about her choreography. "The aerial work is part of a larger picture," she explains. "It's a way to expand dimensions, and also break out, so I'm not stuck in one style or vocabulary. If you're working with concrete or steel or water, the body always responds differently."

Most of all, Haigood says, her dances must capture the gestalt of the places they're staged. Buildings, she believes, are physical repositories of memory. To scale them and explore their corners is to invoke their history. Yet, she explains, the logistics of turning industrial detritus into a dance partner also requires Zen-like concentration: Ballet becomes more strenuous when the consequence of a missed step is a face-plant against a concrete wall. "It takes a tremendous amount of focus. Nothing can be haphazard. You really can't afford to make errors, so your mind and body have to be working together. You have a chemical reaction to that. It brings you to a different state of consciousness."

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