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The symphony takes flight with Moksha Aerial Studio Collective

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Inside a large warehouse on Missoula's Westside, Britta Remes and Nicole McCauley are locked in an embrace, dangling upside-down 15 feet above the ground. Their only antidote to gravity is a long piece of silky purple cloth that's hooked to the ceiling, around which they've wrapped their legs and bare feet. Otherwise they seem to be levitating. The embrace is undone when Remes lets go of McCauley and gracefully lowers herself to the floor, where she grabs hold of the silk, lifts her feet and spins in a circle, letting the fabric billow around her like wings. Finally she holds the silk taut and at an angle as McCauley glides head-first down the cloth like a jungle snake.

It's Saturday morning, and the two aerial artists are practicing for their upcoming show, Symphonic Cirque, a collaboration between the Moksha Aerial Studio Collective and the Missoula Symphony Orchestra. The production consists of five pieces performed by members of the collective. Today they're working with pre-recorded music, but the real show will feature live music performed by seven orchestra members, mostly percussionists and electric violinists. Symphonic Cirque will deliver an all-ages experience that MSO and MASC hope will attract new audiences, something that both groups are always looking for.

"We're trying to spread our wings and get out there and do new and different things," says Shanna Ungate, MSO's director of patron services and special events. "And Symphonic Cirque definitely falls into that category."

It seems like an unlikely collaboration. The symphony is more traditional, "and people have this perception that it's the stuffy above-65 crowd," Ungate says. "But the attendance for this show so far ranges from a 3-year-old to an 85-year-old and everything in between." On the other end of the spectrum, MASC presents a traveling circus vibe. Their work is seen in a more alternative light, at least by people who know what they do.

Aerial artists Britta Remes, left, and Nicole McCauley practice their piece for Symphonic Cirque. - PHOTO BY PARKER SEIBOLD
  • photo by Parker Seibold
  • Aerial artists Britta Remes, left, and Nicole McCauley practice their piece for Symphonic Cirque.

"This is what we're immersed in all the time, so I sometimes forget," McCauley says. "I always have to put myself back in square one and remember that a lot of people have no idea what this is. For the longest time, my family didn't even understand what I was doing. They had no idea I was up in the air."

Remes has had a similar experience. For the longest time, her family thought she was a ribbon dancer. "I didn't think anything of it," she says. "I just thought, OK, that's what they're going to choose to call what I do.'" Later she had to explain that, no, she wasn't one of those acrobats you see at the Olympics doing backflips with a ribbon in hand.

MASC began in 2012 as a program within a nonprofit looking to offer healthy activities for youth. In 2014 founder Bethany Stanbery and Sally Jo Beck turned it into a stand-alone collective, where people of all ages and abilities can take classes in aerial arts, barre and pilates. (Their space can also be rented out for private events). That's when they developed an apprenticeship program, which involves an intensive curriculum of aerial, acrobatics, flow (juggling, poi, hoops) and fire arts, after the completion of which students are inducted into the artisans' guild. MASC is the only circus troupe in Missoula, and its members often travel in groups or as solo acts nationwide.

"A lot of our aerialists have extensive background in ballet and technique, and a lot of our performers have training in contortion and fire eating and fire breathing," Remes says. "I like the alternative aspect of it. I'm kind of a rebel at heart, and this is a safer, healthier way to engage in that tendency."

MASC and MSO present Symphonic Cirque at MASC Studio Thu., Aug. 24, at 7 PM. $35.

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