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November 18, 2019

The Expert: Annie Dugan

Aerial artist Annie Dugan hangs from a limb and shares what she knows about the circus and her craft.

Who: Annie Dugan

Job: Artistic Director, Firefly Theatre

Experience: A typical day for Annie Dugan involves swinging from a trapeze or hurtling through the air on a rope. In the late 1980s, at 21, she flirted with heights for the Great Wallenda Shrine Circus.  After graduating from Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California, Dugan put together her own four-person physical theatre group and toured western Canada. After the 1998 Edmonton International Fringe Festival, Dugan was so  impressed by the city’s artistic climate that she she relocated and co-founded Firefly Theatre and Circus with her  husband, stage actor John Ullyatt. In 2004, they launched the Firefly Aerial Arts Program to train others on rope, trapeze and aerial skills. Business is growing; in April, Firefly moved into its new 4,000-square-foot space.

– “Being an aerialist requires a very healthy lifestyle. You need lots of sleep, you need to be sober. But it’s different from other sports because there’s a creative, expressionistic aspect and there’s an amazing sense of satisfaction knowing you can lift yourself.

– “Any kind of dance, along with gymnastics, yoga, pilates – anything where you’re using your core – will help with aerial training. However, the only way to build the specific muscles we use in circus is to do circus.

– “There’s nothing that takes the place of climbing that rope, doing straddle ups, or bringing your legs and hips over your head. One winter, there was a particularly long stretch of minus-30 weather; for about three weeks I didn’t climb rope.I did pull-ups instead. I could still climb, but definitely wasn’t as strong.

– “If you watch people on YouTube or at Burning Man and think you’re going to do the hard tricks quickly, you’re a danger to yourself and society. It’s serious. It’s so popular now that people seem to forget how dangerous it is; you can have a serious injury within seconds. It takes years to build up the ability to do the hard moves, and at least 10 hours a week of training just to maintain that professional level.

– “You’re putting yourself in a precarious position; it’s like jumping out of a plane. You’re going to have that adrenaline rush of hoping everything stays right – ‘I hope my body stays tight; I hope I go in the right direction.’ You’d think after a while those feelings wouldn’t exist, but they prevail.

– “Each geographic pocket of aerialists has different names for different moves. You can have a fun descriptive name for something – a ‘butterfly,’ or the ‘revolving door’ – but then you can also have your technical name for things that aerialists will know no matter where they live. [In western Canada], the revolving door is named, because you flip all the way around on silks or ropes. Sometimes we call it the ‘nut buster’ because we give guys who are learning an advance warning.

– “If we do our job well, it looks effortless and easy, but it’s all about pain management. The ‘toe hang’ is rather painful – after all, you’re hanging from a metal bar from the tops of your feet. If the ‘two-toe hang’ isn’t painful enough for you, you can take it to a one-toe hang. And if that’s not painful enough for you, we’ve got ‘neck hangs.’

– “The circus has a long history – it’s been around for 2,000 years – but many of the tricks we do are relatively new. The silks and bungees were developed in the late 1980s in France.

– “Nowadays there are a lot of invented apparatuses. I have friends who took three hoops and welded them together. They also have something called a tippy hoop, which is a hoop that revolves. And we have a cargo net, which is used like a rope or a net to climb inside. It’s uncomfortable; it’s hard and it gets in your toes.”

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