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at Orton Park in Madison,


By Terry Brennan

The late-August fair at Orton Park in Madison is in some ways a typical small-town fair: booths strung along the park's asphalt paths are selling barbecue, sweet corn roasted in the husk, and clothes. Big trees shelter a band, and a few couples dance in the parking lot. But some details suggest a midwestern college town: clothes made from politically correct Guatemalan cloth, and an unusually large number of men in ponytails and beards as well as women with the quiet, focused look of academics. Three trapezes hang from the branches of a huge tree next to the band, and several people in blue jeans and T-shirts are stringing electrical cords to lights around the tree and to a stereo on a folding table. A few people, mostly kids, are already sitting at the edge of a half circle marked around the tree with rope. When the band stops playing and dusk settles in, a crowd of a few hundred gather to sit on the grass or on blankets, and Cycropia's show begins.

Cycropia is a modern-dance troupe founded in 1989 that works mainly on trapezes, which are hung low--about four feet off the ground--and anchored at a single point above. The performers' simplest, most characteristic movement is holding onto the trapeze with one hand and running in a circle: centrifugal force quickly takes over, and the person starts to half walk, half fly in ten-foot strides. The Cycropians look a lot like astronauts slowly hopping at moon gravity, and in fact the word that keeps coming up, even from the performers themselves, is "flying."

Circus trapeze acts evoke a visceral response because of the ever-present danger of falling. In artspeak, circus trapeze acts are about falling and the superhuman effort required to avoid it; in deconstructionist art-speak these acts have a Christian subtext of fall and redemption. But with Cycropia, the focus is on the illusion of flight--slow, sustained motion through the air followed by a sudden reversal, like a starling's motion. A Cycropian might run at a trapeze, grab it, and be lifted into the air above the audience, then look calmly down like a monkey in a tree gazing at people in the zoo. And if the Cycropians swing on their trapezes as high as they can, often it's just to create a strong enough pendulum motion so that they can carry off a slower, more luxurious movement, such as twining the body around a trapeze bar.

The Cycropians give exactly enough muscle to make a movement work: part of the thrill of watching them is their apparently effortless flight. But as with all dancers, that "effortlessness" is the result of years of effort--a fact immediately apparent in the back of one of the Cycropians, Gretchen Miller. Although she's small and delicate boned, every muscle in her back is defined, and she can tell you which muscles need the most strengthening to work on the trapeze. As Cycropia's leader, Rob Summerbell, says, "Trained dancers have this phenomenal vessel, but it exists from the waist down. We've had dancers try to do trapeze work, but they get discouraged quickly."

Relaxation is as much a key as strength. Cycropia's style comes from Skinner release technique: the Cycropians relax every body part that's not needed, which gives them their gracefulness in flight. A workshop revealed how that relaxation is achieved. The students began by "checking in"--sitting in a circle and telling everyone how they were feeling. One student said she'd just woken up from a wonderful dream, while another told a funny story about a dazed woodchuck with heatstroke that had wandered onto his porch to cool down. Pairing off, the students then massaged each other, which evolved into weight sharing: one person leaned gradually against another until the supporting person was holding the other up. This in turn evolved into an improvised dance, each person alternately pouring his or her weight onto the other.

The initial work with the trapezes, focusing on technique, is a kind of ballet barre for the flying. The students might work on how to do the astronaut bounce three different ways, or on having three dancers on different trapezes do a movement in unison. Then the work becomes more expressive, as Summerbell urges the students, "Treat the trapeze like a partner, not just an inanimate object. Run up to it like you're running up to your friend, and take it out to the edge of the circle like you're taking its hand and running down the block." Finally the students and teachers just play around. Two people may get on a trapeze together, others hang upside down by their knees. Miller lies languidly along the trapeze bar and lets it gently swing and twist. Ken Loud swings up to the ceiling. Summerbell swings high, then hangs upside down so that when the trapeze is at its lowest point his head almost grazes the floor.

The Cycropians are best when they're just playing around: they're still learning how to choreograph dances that will have an impact in performance. But it's clear to an audience which dances work. The best dance at Orton Park was Miller's Moth Diary (Cycropia takes its name from cecropia, a moth that grows to be as big as a human hand). The caterpillar phase is enacted by people with tiny glowing green lights strapped to their heads crawling through the grass and shinnying up the ropes that hold the trapezes--an effective illusion on a warm summer night. In the cocoon phase, Miller is perched inside a circular trapeze and covered with white cloth. The winged phase is short but exuberant, with Miller riding the circular trapeze by resting the small of her back there and arching back as a man swings her higher and higher. Clearly the silliest piece was Tree Invocation, a quasi-Druid ritual of worshiping the tree where the trapezes were hung.

Like other projects incubated in small college towns, Cycropia is new, interesting, and not fully formed. The members come from varied backgrounds: Miller studied dance in college but was working as a commercial photographer when she discovered Cycropia. Loud designed lighting for an early Cycropia performance, stayed for the party afterward, and ended up swinging to the ceiling. Summerbell, once a competition skateboarder, was Cycropia's wild man when he first joined. He sustained the group after the traffic-accident death of its original visionary, Pamela Maye, in 1991; for a while, only Summerbell kept working. He can be as much a daredevil as Loud but can also perform a slow, intricate move almost as well as Miller.

Summerbell's fusion of sport and art is one of Cycropia's most interesting aspects. A slender man with long, kinky red hair and pale, freckled skin, he works for a natural-foods distributor and has been involved in subscription farming. He, Miller, and several others live together in a big pink stucco house with a garden in the back (Summerbell and Miller have married since last summer). When I visited, it seemed the quintessential hippie household, right down to the five-gallon cans of peanut butter.

Madison's huge hippie community faded a long time ago, but it's left unexpected traces on groups like Cycropia, who are almost accidental artists: they've simply found something they love to do. And if that embodies hippie values--the importance of play, childlike delight, the body, optimism, community, taking risks, and flying high--well, then, they're just being themselves.

Cycropia performs May 31-June 2 and June 6-8 at Turner Hall, 21 S. Butler in Madison; $5-$10. Call 608-278-8793 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Terry Anderson.

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