Suspended nearly 50 feet in the air, on a smooth, shiny, shimmering piece of fabric, sans safety harness or net, an aerial silk performer knows that death is only as far as the limits of their own sheer physical strength. Obviously this does not seem like the ideal job for many people. However for the few that dare try their hand, literally, at this dangerous profession, the exhilaration of aerial fabric performance can only be surpassed by the rewarding complete and total awe of human spirit and strength by its spectators. In this article we will explore the origins of aerial silk performance, the basics of the sport, the risks associated with it, and where aerial silk performance is at today.
The art of aerial silk, also known as aerial tissu, fabric, ribbon, or curtain, owes its conception to a man by the name of André Simard, an acrobatic research and development specialist for the world famous Cirque du Soleil. Simard began his career in the early 1970’s as a gymnast for Canada’s national gymnastics team. While training for the 1972 Munich Olympics, Simard was also attending the Institut des Arts Graphiques de Montréal and teaching clown performance at the Centre Immaculée-Conception, also in Montreal. It wasn’t long before Simard found an opportunity to combine his two passions at Cirque du Soleil in 1987, only 3 years after Cirque began. Simard’s assignment was to find new and innovative ways to lure and awe spectators in the field of acrobatics and aerial performance. By merging his passions for fine arts and gymnastics, Simard taught acrobats to not only be incredible athletes but moving performers as well. Simard’s instruction focused on performance storytelling using not just facial expressions, but the focused movements of the human body, and every inch of every limb and appendage thereof. It wasn’t long before Simard’s creations were being used in almost every Cirque production worldwide. However his most notable achievement wouldn’t be until 1995, when Simard invented the discipline of aerial silk.
The basics of the aerial silk involve a performer who climbs up a suspended fabric anywhere from 20-50 feet high, and uses the fabric to wrap, fall, spiral, swing, and contort their body. Various tricks such as drops, upside-down splits, and flips make for a very exciting demonstration of human strength and agility. Due to the twisting and contorting nature of sport, no safety lines or harnesses can be used for risk of hanging or other fatal injury. And contrary to its name, the fabrics most commonly used for the sport include chiffon, polyester, and other synthetic nylons. In addition, usually low-stretch fabrics are preferred by performers for their abilities to provide a high degree of control and accuracy when it comes to precision choreography. Furthermore, the width of the fabric depends largely upon the size of the performer. Smaller to average performers would need a 60”-84” fabric, which is narrow to medium width when opened and thin when gathered; whereas larger performers should use a fabric of 96”-108” width. In essence, fabrics should be able to be gripped by the performer when gathered, but wide enough to wrap around the performer as a support.
As with all performance sports, the more effortless the performer makes the aerial silk act seem the more breath-taken the audience. Typically an aerial silk routine starts with a climb, builds with various death-defying tricks, and culminates in a final drop back down to the floor. The most common ways of support and climb are through footlocks, in which the legs and feet interlock with the fabric to provide a strong and stable grip to build tricks. Some of the most common tricks include the crucifix, in which the performer holds a position with the fabric running behind the back underneath the arms, the upside down split, in which two separate fabrics wrap around each of the performers legs suspending them in the air, and the scissors hip key, in which the fabric is intertwined between the performers legs keeping the performer suspended in a horizontal position. Drops are performed by simply sliding down the fabric using the hands or feet, or wrapping the fabric around the body and allowing the body to spin on its axis as it tumbles down to the floor, also known as a windmill fall.
Besides the obvious risk of death, aerial silk runs the gamut in circus performance related injuries. Minor injuries include fabric burn, bruises, sprains, and dizziness, whereas more serious injuries include broken legs, broken arms, concussions, and even paralysis. Beginning aerial silk performers are encouraged to practice on extra long fabrics that run closer to the ground, where the risks of injury from falling are greatly lessened. More experienced performers will use shorter fabrics that climb higher up off the ground, to show off their expertise and skill.
Simard himself has been quoted as saying, “I fly a lot in my dreams.” So it’s only fitting that a sport such as aerial silk, which began as a way to show the human experience through aerial movement, has reached such new heights that not even our wildest dreams could imagine. Silk performers today have found even more innovative, more dangerous, and more astonishing ways to make audiences speechless. Aerial silk is at such a level that it has become not only a staple of the modern circus arena, but in many cases the main event.