Interview: Montana DeBor, Mark Harding, Gwynne Flanagan Cox, and Elise “Teddy” Sipos from Sweet Spot Aerial Production’s ‘Smoky Mirrors’

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“My faith is a great weight hung on a small wire.” – Anne Sexton

Each performer in Sweet Spot Aerial’s Smoky Mirrors places great faith in materials: fabric, rope, chains, muscle. There’s also a relationship – built, too, on trust – with an audience: Can I, the performer, communicate not just the truth, but the intention of each move? Will they follow the story? Can the appreciate this shared vulnerability?

Smoky Mirrors is a gorgeous, breathtaking, challenging piece of art that explores questions of identity from a variety of assumptions. The company itself was born from a stifling lack of opportunities for queer performers within traditional circus acts – so the very existence of the show is a call and response to the received idea of traditional gender, sexuality, and desires, even in what is already a non-traditional space.

I was able to talk to the four principle performers of Smoky Mirrors to understand, from my purposefully sedentary point of view, what goes into creating art like this.

Mike Bevel: Give a very brief autobiography of how you ended up suspended high above the floor. Was this from childhood? A later love, as an adult?

Montana DeBor: I was a gymnast when I was younger and fell in love with circus while I was in college. I went to school originally for business—

So you had a circus background.

Montana DeBor. Photo by Rich Riggins.

DeBor: But switched to studying illustration to pursue my love of art. During that transitional period, I discovered my local circus community and began training on rope and aerial fabric. I found it a perfect blend of art and athleticism.

Mark Harding: The first job I accepted was as a costume designer for a circus company in Chicago. As soon as I arrived at my first rehearsal, I knew I had found what was to become my life’s work. The idea of gymnastics and theatre combined had never occurred to me; I wasn’t exposed to circus in my youth. It was literally the next day that I dropped the design contract and started training both acrobatics and aerials. I never thought twice about it and felt that developing both my passions equally within one pursuit was a much-needed balance in my life at the time.

Gwynne Flanagan Cox: Circus performing saved my sanity and got me back in touch with my love of physical, non-verbal performing.

Elise “Teddy” Sipos: I’ve been dancing since I was very young and found circus arts in my mid-twenties. Translating dance from the floor into the air on an apparatus felt like the perfect evolution for my work.

Cox: I come from a theater background, having earned my MFA in acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Early in my career I worked as a stunt actor in Taiwan. I found circus when I was 28 years old, living in NYC.

Mark Harding. Photo by Rich Riggins.

What was the first routine where you felt like, “Yes. This is the thing my body was meant to do, and it does it well”?

DeBor: I remember watching the shadows of fellow performers backstage at the first Sweet Spot Aerial Productions show and thinking, “I can do this, we can do this. We can tell these stories on stage through circus.”

I’m so glad you mentioned shadows, because there are several moments where the lighting in Smoky Mirrors does this amazing thing and silhouettes sort of perform in time with the performers. And for a show that is so focused on identity and the importance of deconstructing it, those shadow performers continue to haunt me.

Sipos: I started working on my particular apparatus, aerial halo, five years ago. From the early days, it’s felt like the space where I can be my most authentic self. Even when I’m developing new choreography and the movement isn’t quite right, I still know it’s where I want to be and the work I want to pursue.

Cox: My first duo performance was in 2011, on fabric / aerial silks. The woman I performed with, Kate Winston, has since become one of my best friends. When we are performing together, I feel invincible. I’m 38 now, and have been studying, training, and creating circus for 10 years. It’s only been recently that I’ve felt close to being considered “good” and “professional.” However, I often feel too old too even TRY for big companies and contracts.

Are any of you ever sort of in your own way?

Harding: Usually those kinds of feelings come about when I’m in pursuit of opportunities that don’t genuinely fit my aesthetic or my objectives in the art. The circus industry has been rapidly evolving for many years. Young artists, just starting to understand themselves, can fall in line with projects or productions that don’t fit right. When I found myself in those situations, I seemed to take fault in my own feelings and push myself harder in directions that later seemed like distractions form my work. For several years this left a lasting impression of discouragement, but as I continued to grow and observe the art, I was/am better able to reflect on my role both as an artist and an individual.

Elise “Teddy” Sipos. Photo by Rich Riggins.

Who do you get the most worried emails/phone calls from, regarding your general safety?

Sipos: My mom still gasps when she is able to attend performances, but soft enough so I can’t hear her. My family just tells me they love me, so if anyone is overly concerned, they keep it amongst themselves.

Cox: My father was/is a jet fighter test pilot. EVERY SINGLE TIME we speak on the phone, he closes with, “Remember, gravity is 24-7.”

DeBor: I love hearing people gasp. It’s one of my favorite parts of circus. And when people express concern over my safety, I usually respond with, “DC traffic is a much scarier act.”

Sipos: When friends, acquaintances, or complete strangers tell me they are afraid of heights and I must not be, I assure them I most certainly am – and explain how I work low and with thick mats until I’m as certain as one can be that the moves I’m showcasing are repeatable. I also have backup plans if something goes wrong, and safety checkpoints for several of my tough moves. At a certain point, it becomes about what you know you are capable of, regardless of height.

In your most recent show, “Smoky Mirrors,” what is the easiest thing you do that gets the most applause, and then what is the hardest thing you do that doesn’t get the applause it deserves?

Sipos: The splits almost always get applause, it’s basically a rule.

Cox: Splits always get the most applause.

Harding: In my duo act, I do the splits on fabric and there is thunderous applause – unavoidable and in no way a challenging skill.

Would you like to see me try to do the splits right now? [Uncomfortable silence all around.]

DeBor: A fast one arm spin on Spanish web usually gets the most applause – it is by far the most fun part of the act, but ironically, the easiest. But sometimes quiet moments of character growth are greater in silence. That silence can be more satisfying than applause. You can feel the audience emotionally responding in a powerful way.

Harding: My solo act was not at any point in pursuit of applause. The biggest challenge in choreographing the piece was to ensure that the skill set did not distract form the tone and intent of the movement.

Sipos: Several of my transitions from one move to the next are what I’m most proud to have developed and finessed. However, if I’m doing them correctly, the general audience would most likely not understand how difficult making those moments seamless has been – and that’s really the point from my choreographic perspective.

Gwynne Flanagan Cox. Photo by Rich Riggins.

That’s such an interesting echo, in a way, of this concept that reverberates throughout this piece about performative v. authentic personas. This key element for you – these seamless moves and transitions – is best when it goes unnoticed.

Cox: Yeah, making transitions from trick to trick seamless, that rarely gets attention from a regular audience.

Can you describe what it feels like, in your body, when you’re doing these performances? From the audience, it looks ethereal and effortless – does it feel that way, too?

Sipos: It can feel that way, even when you know you are working hard. It’s my constant goal to find the state of ease that comes with time and comfort with the act. But not every performance will feel great to your body or mind, and it’s the work of an artist to still present the particular aesthetic of the piece to the audience regardless of how it feels internally.

DeBor: Once I’m on stage I feel the music, the movement and forget any pain or discomfort. I condition thoroughly to ensure I don’t get tired on stage.

Harding: The way an act feels on stage is purely vulnerable and honest. It never feels the same twice, and every audience asks something different of your performance.

Cox: There is nothing like performing an aerial piece. Training an act is different from performing one. It’s the purest form of focus I have in my life. It is NOT effortless or easy, but it IS full of a psychological grace and divinity that makes the pain, long hours, and doubt, worth it.

LINK:

Magic Time! Sweet Spot Aerial Productions’ ‘Smoky Mirrors’ at Atlas Performing Arts Center by John Stoltenberg.

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