There’s a sign that hangs on Ninette Paloma’s office wall, just outside the studio door. Against a pink background, the pretty cursive script is polite but clear in its message: “Please leave your shoes and your self-doubt.”
“I don’t indulge too much in self-doubt,” Paloma admits. We’re sitting together in the entry hall of her school, Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Arts (SBCAA), which is also the home of her aerial dance company, La Petite Chouette. Barefoot, wearing a pink dance skirt and a grey sweatshirt, the director and dancer sits cross-legged on a cushioned bench. Beside us stands an old-fashioned linen cart stuffed with pink and black tutus. “Self-doubt is dangerous when you’re in the air,” Paloma continues. “It has no place in the work. It’s something you deal with when you’ve got two feet on the ground.”
For Paloma, “in the air” and “on the ground” aren’t just metaphors. She’s talking about what she teaches every day: how to ascend ropes and bolts of fabric safely and to hang suspended midair.
She’s also talking about the very attitude that has brought her to this point. Five years ago, she was living in an artist’s loft and offering aerial classes to a handful of students in her living room. Today, her Gutierrez Street school draws over 150 students each year to three dedicated dance and aerial studios. Her adult company, which puts on two evening-length productions every year, is now beginning to tour nationally and internationally. This summer, SBCAA will offer an aerial dance intensive, bringing in guest teachers from around the state and drawing students from around the country. And in February 2014, Paloma’s planning to host Santa Barbara’s first international aerial dance festival.
Oh, and she’s done it all without a single grant or philanthropic gift.
When your job involves gravity-defying stunts and superhuman strength, maybe anything seems possible. Yet when Paloma talks about the growth of her school and company, she doesn’t sound unreservedly zealous. She sounds steady, and determined.
“For a long time, we were known as a dance company — La Petite Chouette — that taught classes at our studio,” she explains. “But we had beginners coming in, adults and youth, and we realized they needed a real curriculum.” Quietly, in the hours after the studio closed, Paloma went to work creating what she calls a “comprehensive aerial arts program” to school students of all levels in technique, conditioning, choreography, and stage presence. In August 2010, she moved the company to its previous location — a Quonset hut on lower Milpas Street. One year later, she secured a lease at the current site, growing the space from one to two studios. Then, just five months ago, she expanded into the suite next door, adding a dedicated dance and stretching room, and renaming the school to reflect her growing emphasis on teaching.
Though Paloma still puts a lot of focus on La Petite Chouette, her company of six highly accomplished aerialists, she’s just as proud of her beginning students, and of the risk they take in trying aerial. “We see every kind of person walk through the door: parents getting divorced, people with all kinds of life circumstances,” she says. “That’s why we have that sign by the door — so that for one hour they can suspend all of that self-doubt. I think that’s why people keep coming back.”
In a city where many arts institutions have held on for decades, sometimes with little growth, launching a highly specialized dance school and growing it at this rate has raised some eyebrows. Paloma’s not concerned. “There are one hundred and one people who will point out all the ways something can go wrong,” she says. “I just don’t live my life that way.”
Instead, she focuses on what’s in front of her. First on that list is a production at the Lobero Theatre next Friday, May 17. The Violet Hour is Paloma’s homage to that transitional period when the workday is over and the evening hasn’t yet begun. Taken from a line in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” it’s a work in two acts performed on five aerial apparatus, including the brand-new aerial kite, created by a colleague of Paloma’s who has performed with Cirque du Soleil. The show features the all-female La Petite Chouette and includes a cameo appearance by some of the school’s younger aerialists.
Though aerial dance requires significant upper-body strength (which tends to come more readily to men than to women), the majority of Paloma’s students are female. That doesn’t bother her at all. “If aerial happens to attract women who will build their power and self-confidence, then I’m not going to worry about how we can change that,” she quips. “In this genre, we don’t have to wait for a man to hold us up; we can do it ourselves.”
One month after performing The Violet Hour at the Lobero, La Petite Chouette flies to France, where they’ll present an excerpt from the show and take part in workshops at an aerial dance festival in La Baule, in southern Brittany. Then it’s back to Santa Barbara, where SBCAA puts on a seven-week summer intensive July 8-August 23. Meanwhile, Paloma’s waiting to hear back from a dance festival in New York that has shown interest in the company’s work, and two of her longtime students are preparing to audition for the National Circus School in Montreal.
From the outside, SBCAA’s rise looks meteoric. From Paloma’s perspective, it’s slow and steady, and always very conscious.
“The whole basis of aerial work is safety, and focus, and control, and moving in a very present way,” she says. “At the same time, simply by doing that, we’re breaking new ground every time we get up on the apparatus. Do I think it’s worth it? Every day.”
Until you’ve tried climbing up a bolt of silky fabric and hanging upside down, it’s hard to understand this curious blend of solidity and spaciousness, certainty and risk that characterizes aerial dance. Paloma’s doors are open to all who are curious, but she’s not waiting around for anyone’s support.
“I’ve never been one to stand around and wait,” she says. “No, we don’t have time for that — there’s fabulous art to create.”
La Petite Chouette will perform The Violet Hour at the Lobero Theatre on Friday, May 17, at 7 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info. To learn more about Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Arts, call (805) 284-8785 or visit sbaerial.com.