Suspended animation

Aerial scene has taken off . . . and landed in Somerville

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By Christine Liu
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2010

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SOMERVILLE — Wedged between a hulking parking deck and condos, it’s a curious entrance. But follow the brick alley into a garage and a peculiar world is revealed — one featuring a trapeze, a hoop, and brilliant blue silks suspended from the ceiling.

The space is called Aircraft, an aerial arts instructional studio that Jill Maio opened in the winter. Through word of mouth and a smattering of flyers, Aircraft is drawing a curious assortment of would-be aerialists, from interested novices to what Maio calls “a community of circus-y people.’’

A trapeze and swaths of silk make the space sound sumptuous and elegant, but passersby would never mistake Aircraft for an evening at Cirque du Soleil. Aircraft has a gritty, DIY vibe, what with the cinderblock walls and boat stored in the space till summer.

“I kind of like the boat; I think it adds character,’’ confessed student Rachel Fichtenbaum, 27, with a laugh.

As it happens, Aircraft is not the only player on the local aerial scene. Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain hosts an aerials open studio, albeit one without formal instructors. Littleton is home to Flying Squirrel Consortium, an aerial arts school, while the New England Center for Circus Arts is located in Brattleboro, Vt.

If you’re thinking, what exactly are aerials, here’s a primer. Perhaps you’ve witnessed dizzyingly elevated trapeze routines at a Cirque du Soleil performance or seen lithe actors cavorting in silks in the American Repertory Theater’s long-running production of “The Donkey Show.’’ But the essential art form consists of gracefully maneuvering oneself on various hoops and ropes and other apparatus.

The challenge lies in “trying to reconcile the huge amount of strength required, and ignoring the discomfort, to create this beautiful move,’’ says Miss Mina, an aerials student and cofounder and artistic director of burlesque troop the Boston Babydolls. “It’s an amazing contrast.’’

The aerials scene seems to be emerging from its subcultural status (punctuated by a recent appearance by Pink, who performed while suspended from the ceiling at the Grammys), and New England is a part of it, along with the Circus Center in San Francisco, the Aloft Loft in Chicago, and the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, founded by Shana Kennedy, who trained Maio.

Maio, 36, a resident of Jamaica Plain and lecturer in creative writing at Boston University, remembers her first aerials lesson with Kennedy: “Just as someone trying to write a book, doing a day job at an arts nonprofit, I just had a lack of fun and exercise. I just kind of sat around in coffee shops or at a desk most of the time.’’

She quickly took to the art, becoming an instructor at Kennedy’s school after a few years, and performing professionally at every type of event, from a bar mitzvah to a hotel-launch extravaganza in Baltimore where she bumped into Olympian Michael Phelps in an elevator.

“All these gigs are always funny,’’ Maio said.

After some travel abroad (including teaching at Edinburgh Aerial & Acrobatic Convention last fall), and once situated in Boston for her BU position, Maio combed Craigslist for suitable spots to open an aerials studio, after realizing a dedicated practice space in Boston didn’t exist. “It became necessary,’’ Maio says, “if I wanted to be able to do aerials, and keep teaching any number of students, I had to open my place. There just wasn’t an alternative.’’

The Somerville garage seemed destined to be the home of Aircraft.

“[The landlord] didn’t really blink an eye too much when I told him what I wanted to do,’’ Maio recalls. “It was very old-school — we decided we were both good people and it would be fun to use the space how I wanted.’’

Fichtenbaum (who studied at the Philadelphia circus school before moving to Somerville) didn’t train regularly with Maio in Philly, but did have a private lesson, which encouraged her to seek her out here.

“The things I loved about [Jill’s] teaching style are the things that make me excited to work with her: friendly, patient, meeting people where they’re at, really positive,’’ Fichtenbaum said.

Pam Shwartz, a 27-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, began her aerial studies five years ago while living in Philadelphia (where she first met Maio). A coincidental reunion in a JP Licks months ago inspired her to resume classes under Maio’s instruction at Aircraft.

“It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush,’’ said Shwartz. “I just have a ridiculously stressful life right now, and the only time when my brain shuts off is when I’m doing aerials. It’s a break.’’

“My goal is really to get myself into the best shape of my life,’’ said Karen Galluccio, 39, of Newton, who took her first aerials class at Aircraft several weeks ago after spotting a flyer in Bloc 11 cafe.

“I always used to think of myself as someone who wasn’t very outgoing or athletic,’’ Galluccio said, but the self-pacing of aerials “is perfect for me.’’

She was invigorated by her progress (climbing the rope up to the ceiling) and the support of her fellow students.

“I can’t think of a better way to spend my Sunday afternoon.’’

Workout or not, aerials are undoubtedly a thing of beauty. “I just love it,’’ said Miss Mina. “It’s the closest thing to flying.’’

Aircraft Aerial Arts, 495 Columbia St., Somerville, also accessible from 80 Webster Ave.