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."

Transcendence doesn't come easily, of course. And, in the case of Haigood's latest piece, there were greater hurdles to overleap than physical strain. According to Philip Bither, curator of performing arts at the Walker, which commissioned the silo dance, preparations for Picture Powderhorn began two years ago (after the Minneapolis performance, the piece will travel, largely intact, to grain elevators in Brooklyn and San Francisco). "There were lots of people to convince of what we were trying to achieve. We had to tell people who Joanna is and how she works. Then we had to explain the concept of taking dance off the stage and elevating it." Among those initially unconvinced: police, lawyers, insurance company representatives, and Con Agra executives who wondered, reasonably, why anyone would want to hang by ropes from the side of their grain silo.

After the expenditure of "lots of money" and many carefully worded assurances that there would be no lawsuit-inspiring accidents, Bither continues, Con Agra was won over. High school students were then recruited through the Walker and the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, and asked to contribute suggestions and video footage--later worked into montage form by the New York videographer Mary Ellen Strom.

Under Haigood's tutelage, the students were sent out into Powderhorn to observe the physical language of people on the street, then to incorporate their movements into choreographed steps. "I don't want to sound all goofy and spiritual," says Maggie Majewski, a senior at South High School. "But I never really stopped and observed how beautiful something like water dripping, or people hanging out on their front stoop, or a little girl on a swing can be. Now I observe stuff like that all the time. It's something I can never, ever take for granted again."

 

On a windy and warm afternoon, with the logistics smoothed away and the dance choreographed, Haigood and her troupe are ready to begin rehearsal. "It's a sense of floating unlike anything else," explains a friendly, sun-freckled young woman who, minutes earlier, had scampered Spider-Man-style over the silo's horizontal plane. "Time just stops as you float away from the wall. It's like you're flying."

Haigood, a still center in the flurry of activity, is watching quietly from a director's chair set directly in front of the silo, with a megaphone placed strategically on a folding table in front of her. As she takes a cell-phone call, a gaggle of workers--who look very small and fragile atop the enormous cylinders--make adjustments to the rock-climbing gear and winch-rigged zip line that will lift the dancers 100 feet above the audience. A second coterie of rigging technicians and assorted assistants squats in the shadow of the scaffold that will eventually support the enormous, enormously expensive video-projection array.

Another of Zaccho's dancers goes over the lip of the silo for the first time, and bounces tentatively down, obviously struggling to overcome the natural instinct for self-preservation. The company, the freckled woman says, is spending the day acclimating themselves to the texture and curvature of the silo. Though the troupe has worked at such precarious heights before, the idiosyncrasies of the structure mean hours of practice before they'll be able to navigate it comfortably. "It's like watching a fire or a waterfall," she remarks as her colleague executes what looks like a zero-gravity Olympic high-dive. "Endlessly interesting." The unused ropes dangling along the length of the terminal thrash violently in a sudden updraft.

As a graffiti-covered freight train thunders into the yard, the dancer, whose rope was briefly entangled in a set of power lines running along the silo's side, reaches the ground. "How was it," the woman asks. "Scary," he grins as he wobbles toward a Port-a-Potty installed a few yards away. After some consultation, Haigood rises from her chair and heads for the elevator that transports the dancers to the top. A few minutes later, she appears on the roof with a rappelling harness wrapped snugly around her waist. Her disciples gather silently in a circle near the base of the terminal. "Our fearless leader's going to show us how it's done," someone whispers.

With the coterie watching from below, Haigood does a series of graceful back flips across the silo's concrete face. "That's your mama up there," one of the dancers informs Haigood's infant son, who is in attendance for the afternoon rehearsal. As the baby coos his approval, Haigood does a slow somersault and lands softly with her knees tucked against her stomach and her pile of corkscrew black hair bouncing in the wind. "How was that?" she calls down to the watching crowd, who are momentarily spellbound by the fluid elegance of her acrobatics.

A man driving a yellow tractor stops below the silo and tips his hard-hat away from his eyes. "Looks like fun," he says. The man shakes his head, then goes back to work, his tractor kicking up a cloud of dust as it rumbles away.

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