As an aerial dancer, Gabrielle Martin ascended to the highest level anyone can rise to in that industry.
From 2015 to 2019, as the principal character in the Cirque du Soleil show TORUK—The First Flight, the Vancouver dance artist performed aerial solos that left audiences around the world gasping in astonishment and roaring with approval.
But things weren’t always as glamorous as they may have seemed to the outside world. That’s due to the extreme competition for such a plum role, plus the physical toll of doing seven to 10 shows a week.
“You would be performing with a lot of pain a lot of the time,” Martin told the Straight by phone. “The external validation was nice because there wasn’t always the same internal validation within the company.”
In 2018, during a break in the tour, she and the lead male performer in TORUK, Jeremiah Hughes, visited one of the world’s premiere events for circus and aerial-dance artists, the Deltebre Dansa festival in Spain.
Martin said that she and Hughes are “very generous spectators” when it comes to appreciating what goes into creating a show. But they noticed that their sensibilities still weren’t being reflected there.
“Even though it was a festival that was programming both dance and circus, we didn’t see a lot of intersection,” she stated.
It was then that Martin and Hughes embarked on creating their own contemporary aerial-dance show, one that would truly bring those two art forms together and reflect their passion for dance and high-flying wizardry.
Film premiere at Dancing on the Edge
While on tour with Cirque, they found rehearsal spaces in different cities where they could work on that show. In fact, Martin said, she and Hughes were the only two cast members in TORUK with a dance background, as all the others came from either gymnastics or circuses.
“After so many years of touring, we needed something for ourselves,” Martin revealed. “And something that…demonstrated our own worth and our own voice as artists outside the show we had been doing for so many years.”
The resulting show, called Limb(e)s, was presented live in Montréal and Edinburgh in 2019 by Company Ci, which they created. Half the choreography took place in the air, performed to the music of composer Nicolas Bernier.
“It’s not circus and it’s not dance—it really blends the two,” Martin said. “Just to be honest, I haven’t seen much of this.”
The Dancing on the Edge festival will present the world premiere of the 40-minute filmed version of Limb(e)s. One screening is being offered inside the Firehall Arts Centre and others are available through the $25 Festival Film Package.
“The first part is exploring what it means to hold on or let go of one another in our darkest hour,” Martin said. “We really worked with Sophie Tang, the lighting designer, and Jessica Han, the cinematographer, to create this dystopian landscape.”
The title is a play on the French word for limbo, as well as the apparatus of rope cradles designed for the show.
Martin revealed that she did a great deal of work on the aerial fabric and ropes so that this contraption resembles a body. According to her, the cradles are like limbs, either holding or constraining the artists.
“It’s also this limbo space that we’re exploring that is the result of loss,” Martin said.
Bungee trapezes, harnesses, and aerial ropes
Martin has come a long way since being a home-schooled kid—or, as her family likes to say, "unschooled"—growing up in Vancouver's Commercial Drive neighbourhood.
She attributes being schooled at home with keeping her curiosity alive.
"It made me very independent in terms of really going after what interests me," Martin said.
An early passion was sports and she played ice hockey at the provincial level. Then she became captivated by dance, moving to Montreal to focus on this at Concordia University.
"I think one of the reasons I found my way to aerial dance is it married the physical intensity that I loved from sport with the artistry and the room for individual expression that my creative self needed."
After completing her education, she was hired by Cavalia, which performed equestrian ballets featuring horses, acrobats, gymnasts, and dancers performing in huge tents. Martin performed dance numbers with bungee trapezes, harnesses, and aerial ropes.
"There was a rider on horse and I would, like, jump from side to side and then do a little dance with the rider," she recalled.
That naturally led to this question: did she ever feel fear.
The answer was "yes"—in the early days, she had to stand on a 13-metre platform with spotlights that blinded her to all that was around her.
"Then I would dive head first into the audience," Martin said. "I was wearing a harness connected to bungeees.
"Then I would free-fall for, like, 15 feet and then be caught in the bungee and do rotations," she continued. "Yeah, it was terrifying, but also thrilling. And I love a challenge."
With Cirque, the fear came from being exhausted with all the touring and wondering if she could get through each aerial number.
For Martin, showing the filmed version of Limb(e)s in Vancouver is like a homecoming.
"It's the first time I'm presenting my own work here," she said with pride.