Like many would-be artists, Rachel Strickland is a failed novelist. Unlike the rest of us, however, Strickland is an accomplished dancer and aerial acrobat who has performed across the country and around the world. Her newest show, Icarus, which premiers this week at the New Orleans Fringe Festival, started as a novel, but after a few stops and starts, Strickland turned to the medium she knows best.
“I was so in love with the images [in the book] that I didn’t want to leave it to my readers’ imaginations,” said Strickland. “I wanted to show them the things that I was thinking in the flesh.”
The story of Icarus is usually considered a cautionary tale for high fliers. For those unfamiliar, it goes something like this: Icarus and his father are imprisoned on the island of Crete, and the old man hatches an escape plan, building wings for himself and son using bird feathers and wax. The plan is to fly off the island, which actually works, but young Icarus, overjoyed by the sensation of flight, ignores his father’s warning and flies too close to the sun. The wax melts, the wings fall apart, and Icarus plummets to the sea. The parable is plain: stay within your limits or you’re bound to fall. Strickland, to put it mildly, doesn’t care much for this conventional interpretation of the myth.
“I felt that his story was wrong somehow, that it was urging people not to reach too high in their ambitions, or to warn them not to disobey authority,” says Strickland. “Which, of course, I believe is total horseshit.”
Strickland’s show tells a different story of Icarus, picking up where the old one leaves off. The story is told not as a conventional drama, but through the physical performances of Strickland and collaborator Meredith Starnes. Icarus falls under the broad category of “circus arts”--a catch-all term for performance art that combines dance, acrobatics, and aerial choreography. Strickland and Starnes use an aerial hoop and a harness rigged with cables and pulleys to simulate Icarus’s high-flying theatrics. The show opens with Icarus falling from the sky and plunging into the water below. He emerges from sea broken, but he puts his body back together on the beach, where he meets a criminal who, like Icarus is desperate for a way off the island.
Icarus draws from Strickland’s work over the last six years training and performing as an aerialist in Seattle and San Francisco. She says the experience inspired a kinship with the show’s title character.
“As a human, Icarus did godly things by flying,” she says. “Studying circus arts so often feels like a quest to push yourself more and farther than your abilities dictate.” Originally from rural North Carolina, Strickland left home to attend college at the University of North Carolina in Asheville (a “hippie school,” she says), where finding like-minded artists and performers was a revelation. She grew up studying ballet at home, studied modern dance and bellydance in college, then headed out west to study circus arts. In the last few years she has performed in Australia and Ireland and has been a part of nationally touring shows.
Icarus marks Strickland’s second time to perform at the New Orleans Fringe Fest. In 2011, she came to town with the Seattle troupe “ticktock” to perform in the show domestic variations (which I called “the best of the fest”), and she’s been eager to return ever since.
“When I stepped off the plane to go to our first New Orleans Fringe, I felt this is where I want to be,” says Strickland. “I had an amazing time. We were all just so happy the whole time we were there.”
In the last few years, circus arts performances have been steadily approaching the mainstream arts, thanks in part the cultural phenomenon of Cirque du Soliel and the proliferation of small, independent companies like ticktock and Strickland’s Madame Rex Entertainment. Strickland expected to study circus arts for a few years and move on to something else, but now she realizes that she’ll “never be done with it.” Performers have been attracting bigger audiences in bigger venues, and Strickland says the possibilities for creative expansion of circus arts are endless.
“If you look at what happened to dance when people decided to open the floodgates and take ballet and even more classically aligned modern dance and use it to tell stories, it just exploded,” Strickland says. “Now we’ve added all the space above the stage to that.”