Bala Sarasvati Sends Students Soaring at the University of Georgia

Sarasvati's aerial program at UGA is focused on dance more than acrobatics. Photo courtesy of Sarasvati

University of Georgia professor Bala Sarasvati has dedicated the past 16 years to investigating aerial dance. So it may come as a surprise that it wasn't a part of her extensive college and graduate training. But now, at UGA—where she's been on faculty for 26 years—she's made sure that it's a part of her students' education. As artistic director of the dance program's performance company, Sarasvati has transformed what was a typical modern-based student troupe into a flourishing aerial dance company with a focus on multimedia collaboration.


A Soaring Start

The Athens-based university student company first began to explore aerial work in 1999, when Sarasvati purchased some bungee cords. She hung them from the ceiling and began to experiment with how the cords changed dancers' relationship to gravity, momentum and dynamics. The result was a bungee-jumping piece—and an insatiable thirst for more aerial dance knowledge. When fellow aerial artist Susan Murphy introduced her to the trapeze a year later, Sarasvati was hooked.

Since she didn't have experience with the various apparatuses, she brought in experts, like Elsie Smith of Cirque du Soleil. “Anytime we would do a new advanced skill, I'd bring in a professional to oversee it, because we have them locally," says Sarasvati, referencing the growing number of circus art practitioners in the greater Atlanta area. She gradually added new equipment every few years, partly funded by her own research endowment. Today, students can try any one of six different types of aerial work: trapeze, triple trapeze, silks, lyra, slings and bungees.

Although there is no curricular requirement to take aerial dance, UGA students who are a part of the company receive credit hours toward their BFAs. “They're doing intense studio practice and performing," she says. “And many of them have performed in New York and internationally." Sarasvati took the company on a performance tour to China in 2005, and in 2008, she took a group to Liverpool to study aerial bungee.

A Different Kind of Aerial

Where UGA differs from other aerial arts college programs is its emphasis on dance, rather than acrobatics. “Other programs have started opening themselves up to more circus art, whereas this stays more within the arena of dance," says Sarasvati. “The circus arts are more skill-based and attract a broader range of people."

Sarasvati is certified in Laban Movement Analysis, and her work reflects that influence. Her aerial choreography, for instance, takes place much lower to the ground. “It's about how to move on and off the floor," she says. “I can remember being on the floor in the studios in New York for hours and hours every day. For me, there was a natural evolution that took the idea of level change into the air." In her aerial choreography, Sarasvati remains mindful of traditional elements of composition like phrasing, shape, flow and transition, especially when getting on and off the equipment. “It truly is a form of aerial dance that is an extension from the ground into the air," she says.

Sarasvati coaches a student on silks. Photo by Jacquelyn Kibbe, courtesy of Sarasvati

New Heights

Something else that sets Sarasvati's aerial approach apart is her collaboration with other university departments to create multimedia aerial productions. For one of her earliest works at UGA, she worked with the school of ecology to create Forest Dreams, a piece about the rain forest.

Her most recent multimedia collaboration was with UGA astronomy and physics professors: DAAP Stellar and the Dream Chasers! Original student-created animation was projected on 20-foot weather balloons alongside dancers performing with silks, a bungee, a lyra and a triple trapeze. The projections showed famous scientists and explained scientific facts about physics and astronomy.

One of the challenges of aerial work, Sarasvati admits, is simply showing it. Most performance spaces don't have the necessary provisions for aerial rigging. “A lot of people don't even realize what we've been doing, because hardly any venues will take it," she says.

Sarasvati hopes to keep finding new ways to present aerial dance in conjunction with other mediums. “It's not a Cirque du Soleil kind of model. It's not a 21st-century-dance kind of model. It's just a new model," she says. “I envision moving out of a concert stage and into a different kind of arena that is suitable for larger audiences. I love the idea of bringing together the arts, science and technology all into one idea." DT

News
Layeelah Muhammad, courtesy DAYPC

This summer's outcry to fully see and celebrate Black lives was a wake-up call to dance organizations.

And while many dance education programs are newly inspired to incorporate social justice into their curriculums, four in the San Francisco Bay area have been elevating marginalized youth and focusing on social change for decades.

GIRLFLY, Grrrl Brigade, The Alphabet Rockers and Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company fuse dance with education around race, gender, climate change and more, empowering young artists to become leaders in their communities. Here's how they do it.

Keep reading... Show less
Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

Keep reading... Show less
Music
Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.