For rock climber and dance artist Julia Taffe, Vancouver’s Library Square is much more than a place to read and reflect. The building is also a spot for her to scale like it’s the Stawamus Chief and a platform to push off from—literally—in her heart-stopping aerial choreography.
Taffe’s Aeriosa Dance Society will present In Situ, a free contemporary-dance production unlike any other, at Vancouver Public Library’s central branch from Wednesday to next Saturday (March 17 to 20) as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It’s not just site-specific, taking place in, on, and around Moshe Safdie’s architecture, but the ensemble piece is also spectacular, with dancers sometimes performing 80 metres above the ground.
“So much work and a lot of crazy dreaming has gone into this,” Taffe says of what she considers the highlight of her artistic career in an interview at Granville Island. “This is exactly where I want to be.”
The way Taffe sees things, the library is especially conducive to wishful thinking.
“It has a special energy,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to it. It’s such a beautiful building. It’s so spacious. It’s an inviting place, and it’s developed its own culture. There’s so much room for dreaming.”
Taffe has dreamed about In Situ for a long time. It isn’t the first piece Aeriosa has mounted at the VPL, but it is her troupe’s grandest.
It features a cast of 20: 12 dancers as well as eight musicians. Members of RedShift Music Society’s Vertical Orchestra will position themselves at varying heights while inside the atrium then will travel with the performers to the adjoining 21-storey federal government office building to the tall colonnades outside.
Choreographing In Situ is Taffe’s mentor-turned-friend, Amelia Rudolph. She founded Project Bandaloop, a California company that specializes in aerial dance, and introduced Taffe to the form. The two met in Banff, where Taffe, who grew up in Winnipeg studying ballet, tap, jazz, and modern dance, was working as a climbing guide.
Although the production requires riggers for the performers themselves—the dancers wear harnesses and work with ropes—Aeriosa’s style is as graceful as it is risky.
“The goal is not to execute acrobatic stunts,” Taffe explains. “It’s not a circus performance. It’s contemporary dance. We’re interested in transforming perspectives of dance, offering different ways to view dance.
“We view vertical surfaces as a dance floor, and the audience gets a bird’s-eye perspective that they can’t achieve in a theatre. The effect of gravity on our bodies is different and so our range of motion is changed and transformed.
“Safety is a really important part of what we do. Ropes and harnesses are to keep dancers safe, not to provoke a daredevil mentality. There’s risk involved when working at height, but it’s not dangerous. It’s a safety culture and we do everything we can to educate every single person in the system to make safe and good judgments.”
Just as the library informs In Situ’s choreography, so too does it provide its thematic heart.
“A collision of cultures shaped and inspired the work,” Taffe says. “It’s a collision of worlds, of fictional literary characters, library denizens, and workers. So many people use that space: readers, writers, students, arts patrons, sports patrons. It’s a tribute to the community of the library.”