Recent LSU graduate Ashley Gieg, left, and communication studies junior Lauren Hilton practice aerial silks routines in the LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts’ movement studio. While not a credited course, students from various concentrations can gather to try their hand at the performance art under the guidance and supervision of Nick Erickson, an associate professor in the college’s Department of Theatre and associate head of the college’s Master of Fine Arts acting program.
Students Take to the Skies for Aerial Silks Exhibitions at LSU Day
Ask most who have witnessed professional theater companies such as Cirque du Soleil and others, and they can tell you that aerial silk performance can be a captivating method of theatric presentation that incorporates athleticism, coordination and flexibility while defying gravity at the same time.
However, many may not know that such exhibitions and a place to practice the craft can be found locally on the LSU campus.
Under the guidance and supervision of Nick Erickson, an associate professor in the LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts’ Department of Theatre and the associate head of the college’s Master of Fine Arts acting program, students from various concentrations can gather in the Music and Dramatic Arts Building’s movement studio to try their hand at the art.
“The students love the possibilities,” Erickson said. “They feel like when they can do this, they can do anything. This is physical and mental work all put together.”
Aerial silk is a type of performance in which one or more artists perform aerial acrobatics while suspended by a special flexible fabric hanging from the ceiling. The performers climb the suspended silks without the use of safety lines and use the fabric to wrap, suspend, fall, swing and twist their body into and out of various positions. Aerial silks may be used to fly through the air, striking poses and figures from above the stage.
“It can range from simple maneuvers to complex forms,” Erickson said. “It forces a person to deal with real risk. It’s sort of like mountain climbing in that it’s a very physical activity that requires your entire body to participate. You have to commit to it 100 percent.”
LSU students will perform such aerial feats during LSU Day on Saturday, April 24. Demonstrations will take place in Room 166 of the Music & Dramatic Arts Building from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Erickson brought aerial silks to LSU in 2003. Prior to arriving at the university in 2001, he was one of the founding members of the world renowned acrobatic dance company Diavolo. After “having withdrawals,” he returned to California in the summer of 2003 to work with a new theater company. While there, he studied aerial silks under aerialist and choreographer Dreya Weber.
“Dreya has been a choreographer for artists including Michael Jackson, Pink and Madonna,” he said. “She taught me some basic skills, and that’s what got me interested.”
Upon returning to LSU in the fall, Erickson then purchased his own aerial silks, offering students in his movement classes the chance to learn the form. He then began bringing aerialists to Baton Rouge and traveling to California himself to continue to develop his skills.
“I often suggest to my students to give this a try if they have an interest,” he said. “We’re trying to keep students here in Louisiana, whether it’s undergrad or graduate students, to counter the historic talent drain in the state. Having an aerial silks practice studio like this here is great because it keeps students here, instead of them having to go elsewhere to find a facility that offers silks.”
Aerial silk is a performance art where artists conduct aerial acrobatics while suspended by a special flexible fabric hanging from the ceiling. Maneuvers can range from simple to complex, and are both physically and mentally demanding. It can also be a valuable training tool for actors and dancers, a form of exercise and can also be a chosen career path.
The new movement studio offers a 27-foot ceiling, as compared to a 17-foot ceiling in the former studio space in Hatcher Hall.
“Having the higher ceiling is actually safer,” Erickson said. “It gives more room to move, and students don’t have to worry about hitting their heads on the ceiling anymore. Thankfully, no one has been injured to this day.”
For aerials, 60-foot long silks are hung from the ceiling and doubled, Erickson said. The studio also offers gymnastics floor mats for safety, and a larger crash pad that is used for more demanding moves.
“We also have spotters who watch out for the other aerialists,” he said. “There are protocols in place to ensure safety as well. We pay serious attention to detail.”
However, because the style is so physically demanding, it is not currently offered as a credited course, Erickson said.
“It’s basically a general forum for people who have an interest in aerial silks,” Erickson said. “They come in based on their schedules and level of commitment. Not everyone that takes part is a performance major.”
Silks performance levels vary dramatically, Erickson said.
“Only about 5 percent of people can even begin this kind of work,” he said. “That’s why I don’t teach it in a class. I devote regular time outside of my class schedule to supervise anyone who wants to come and try it, and I also work with some students in an independent study program. Many of the people who take part are in other disciplines.
Because the aerialist community is very small, Erickson said, finding places to hone such skills is difficult.
“It’s a very elite group,” he said. “It takes a lot of core strength and upper body strength just to begin the work. Because of that, there aren’t a lot of people in the world doing it.”
There are also no set standards in the field, Erickson said.
“For any aerialist you talk to, they will even disagree on the names of moves,” he said. “It’s difficult to categorize these kinds of movements.”
Aerial silk training can serve multiple purposes, Erickson said. It can be a valuable training tool for actors and dancers, a form of exercise and can also be a chosen career path.
Ashley Gieg — who recently graduated from LSU in general studies with a focus on theater, film and art and English — said she learned about the class through taking Erickson’s movement class her freshman year.
“When I took his class, I saw a silk hanging in the studio,” Gieg said. “I didn’t really know what it was. I’d seen Cirque shows, and I’d always wanted to try it. I’ve done gymnastics and dance in the past. When I told Nick that I’d like to try it, he first asked me to try to just climb it. I did, and he offered to help me with an independent study program.
“This is a great training program for any dance company,” she said. “It’s something great to put on your resume, and it’s so much fun. How often do you get a chance to do something like this? There’s nowhere else that I know of in this city that has silks.”
Erickson and his students have worked with area dance companies to choreograph aerial productions. He recently choreographed two aerial silk pieces using current and former LSU students that were performed during “Aqua,” which was presented by local dance company Of Moving Colors at the Manship Theatre. Gieg was one of the performers in “Aqua,” and also recently interned with Diavolo. She said she would like to continue working in aerials as a career.
“Actually getting a chance to perform in the [“Aqua”] show was excellent,” she said. “People were impressed with seeing this type of theater. You can't always see silks performances around here. It was my first real performance, and it was amazing. That’s what pushes me to really focus on this and try to make it into a great company this summer.”
For sophomore theater major Christopher Silva, his first time in the studio opened his eyes to what aerial silk training offers.
“Before I came to try it out, I talked to some of the students already doing it,” he said. “They said that it was a great workout. It gives you a greater appreciation and sense of physical awareness. Just for the short time I’ve been in here, I’ve found that it’s physically taxing, but I really do enjoy it.”
Silva said he preferred that aerial silks not be offered as a credited course.
“I think that it’s better this way, because it’s something you have to motivate yourself to learn,” he said. “If someone tells you that you have to do something, it may not stick. This way, you do it because you want to be here and you want to prove something to yourself.”
Sarah Smith, a native of Rabun Gap, Ga., in her second year of the university’s master’s acting program, said she learned about the aerial equipment after speaking with Erickson.
“This was one of the only programs I could find that mentioned it, much less offered it,” Smith said.
Smith said she felt having such a space in Baton Rouge helps to enrich the university as well as the local arts community.
“I think this puts LSU and Baton Rouge arts on the map,” she said. “It creates a depth of character as well. We’re not only a football university anymore. I think this helps the university as well to grow artistically, which in turn helps the arts in the community to grow as well. It gives people another opportunity to come in and be bedazzled and to have an escape.”
“We want to inspire youth and the public,” Erickson said. “For LSU to let me do this is very generous and, I feel, a gift to the arts as well.”
To learn more about aerial silks at LSU, contact Erickson at 225-578-4331 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on LSU Day, including a full schedule of events, visit www.lsuday.com or call 225-578-6380.
Aaron Looney | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations