Lisa Natoli is a Brooklyn-based aerialist and artistic director of Lisa’s Bright Ideas, which has presented work at Galapagos Art Space, Gowanus Ballroom, Monkeytown, Cantina Royal, Irondale Theater, and CBGB’s Gallery. She has also performed aerials with Constellation Moving Company, Above and Beyond Dance, Emily Power Dance, and General Mischief Dance Theater. Lisa teaches aerial silks and rope at The Skybox and Embody Studios, and has led workshops at Bumpershoot Aerial in St. Louis, Miraas Aerial in Denver, and The Muse, Brooklyn.
I got together with Lisa for drinks and conversation at her Park Slope apartment, where we discussed her travels, her work, and her future plans.
Interview conducted and transcribed by
Elvis VanBuren, 2012, NYC
So, you’ve had a busy year. Let’s go back a few months to March or April…
I performed at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret in Denver, Colorado. I was out there to dance with a company based in Denver that was combining aerial with dance, Emily Power Dance. I collaborated with Emily on her ideas. The piece she came up with had interactive video, dancers and then the aerial.
And then it was back to Brooklyn?
No, I went to St. Louis and performed at the opening for a club called The Coliseum, it was part of the Show Me Burlesque Festival, and I also performed at … on Cherokee Street? I can’t think of the name of the place (laughs)… It was an art collective.
And you did some teaching in St. Louis?
I taught at Bumbershoot Aerial Arts, and I also taught in Denver at Miraas Aerial. These were variations of the same workshop in two different places, covering mostly rope, some silks, various levels.
So this was all in April?
Mostly April. I came back [to Brooklyn] in June. I left for Denver the day after I hosted a huge Easter brunch.
That was your send-off.
Mm-hm. I historically send myself off.
That sounds like fun. Um, you like Easter? Is that your favorite holiday?
Mm-hm. I love Easter.
You always cook up a big bash for Easter? What was in the making this year?
Oh, Easter pie … I made lamb chops, homemade pasta, an olive oil cake, baked eggs with ham, there was a lot of stuff. It’s hard to remember because the last workshop I taught, I opened it up with a pot-luck dinner.
Is there a big connection between aerial and food in your world?
It seems that way. It’s possibly why I’m heavier than most of the other aerialists. [laughs]
I don’t think that’s true, but you love food and you love aerial.
You love good food, I should say.
Yeah, and good beer, not bad beer.
You’re drinking a beer right now…
Yeah, Stillwater American Farmhouse Ale.
Ok, so, a couple months working out of town, and you came back and taught a joint workshop at The Muse in Brooklyn with Juanita Cardenas and Jan Manke. What was that all about?
We had about thirty students. It was about creating a non-linear narrative through the “Seven Deadly Sins”, or our individual interpretations of them. It ended in a student performance show we called “Apple-kalypse.” It wasn’t act-driven. Like most variety shows you see solo, solo, solo. This was ensemble work, which you don’t see often in aerial.
The other instructors and I divided the sins –
Which ones did you get?
I got Wrath, Pride and the opening scene, which was Eve in the Garden of Eden. No one wanted Lust, so Juanita got stuck with it. I didn’t really want the opening, I think I just went for it.
You thought it was a challenge? Why?
‘Cause we wanted to show as many students as possible in the opening and closing scenes. Jan actually accomplished that during the closing number by putting thirty people onstage at the same time in a small space.
So how did it go?
In the end, it went well. It was my first time teaching in a sort of ensemble situation. I thought parts were overwhelming and we’d know how to do it better the next time.
So, you taught, but you learned something too.
Ok, so what came next?
The Skybox, where I’ve been teaching for about a year, decided to do their [student workshop.] I found a lot of support and encouragement from that studio.
You’re talking now about The Skybox in general?
Yeah, just in general. The Skybox was a space created by some renegade aerialists that decided to build a space and an aerial rig inside of an old icehouse in Brooklyn.
What do you teach there?
It’s a class called “Mostly Ropes” on Mondays from 6 to 7pm. I have a mix of students including beginners and then a lot of the Skybox instructors also take my class, which is fun, because they’re at a high skill level, so I can teach them longer sequences.
You feel that when you’re teaching a class of peers, is there an exchange? You have people that are all at an advanced skill level, do you actually have something to teach each other?
Usually, yeah. I think you always have something to learn, I think it’s stupid when people say they don’t want to go to class or swap skills because there’s nothing new for them to learn. Sometimes it’s just learning how to deal with other personalities.
Ok, so, the workshop at The Skybox is in progress. What’s the low-down on that workshop?
Anya Sapozhnikova organized it with Elena Delgado, and they are the directors, and they also help teach and rig. There’s five teachers this time: Juanita, Jan, Anya, Elena and I. It has a narrative and students get to keep their costumes at the end. It’s a Dr. Seuss-themed aerial adventure. It’s “Horton Hears A Who” with added characters like The Cat In The Hat, and the Sneetches … the Star-bellied Sneetches?
Just the Star-bellied Sneetches?
Hmm, I don’t know…
You gotta have both kinds of Sneetches, otherwise …
We have Thing 1 and Thing 2?
Ok, so it’s kind of romp through the world of Dr. Seuss. Obviously this culminates in another student show, at The Skybox?
Yes, the second week in October. Three dates.
This week you performed twice at the legendary Dixon Place on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
Yep. Monday was a variety show curated by Cody Schreger. Performers she likes, and some of her students. Aerial, music and floorwork, dance. I showed a rope trio with Susie Williams and Maia Ramnath. It’s a work-in-progress that I feel like, as part of my process, I need to see it in front of an audience to know exactly what it is. Because the first piece I ever did I thought was very funny, but when it met the audience it was very dark.
You’re talking about your first piece, now?
Yes, not this new one.
I see, you found it funny, but you felt it came off as dark or that people didn’t get your sense of humor, maybe.
They had no sense of humor, I discovered [laughs.]
It’s like how people don’t see the sense of humor in The Smiths.
Yeah, or Beckett.
So this is part of a longer piece?
It’s supposed to be an evening about how we compartmentalize each other and our lives, and hold people into their compartment even as our lives change.
When you say you need to look at it, you’re waiting to watch the tape?
Hear feedback. I don’t learn from watching video. It’s not dimensional enough.
Well, I was going to ask if something about the process of … like, you’re in the piece, so you don’t get to sit back and watch, so I was wondering if something about going through the motions of performing it in front of an audience, rather than in a rehearsal space, gave you a different perspective, or if that’s not possible because you’re performing it?
It’s hard to see, I feel like I get lost a lot in some of the evenings I’ve done, like I’ve had to take choreography away from myself so that I could step out and see it, and I never really got to learn my own choreography. So in this process I’m trying to show it in sections so that I can piece it together, and even if I step out as the performer, I still will have gained skill and been a part of the performance process.
And you’re saying you have various peers in the audience you can get feedback from?
Peers or non-peers. I think sometimes non-peers are better.
And then this past Thursday, you showcased another piece of yours at Dixon Place, right?
Yes. It was a variation of the trio done in a duet form with Susie Williams. It’s always my goal to create enough choreography that if you can’t pay people, you can show it as a solo, a duet, a trio, or, if you have money, a quartet.
And this Saturday you’re at the Galapagos Floating Kabarette in Brooklyn. Kind of a standard gig for you.
Galapagos allows you a nice amount of freedom to do what you want, and by doing that you find the pieces that you’re attracted to, and when you do them, they develop even more character.
Uh … I’m not sure. I was thinking of doing another aerial salon at Cantina Royal in Williamsburg. They make really good margaritas there. It’s a really interesting space because it’s really hard to light. It’s like being in somebody’s basement.
Is the intimacy one of the things that continues to attract you to that space?
Yes. I’ve always thought of myself as a small space performer. Although I love Irondale … which is still pretty small.
What do you prefer about smaller space?
That the audience becomes part of the performance. I like to have a relationship with my audience.
I think that’s one of the cool things about your work. It’s artful, but it’s accessible in that it’s inviting, vulnerable and human. It invites the audience in, it leaves the door open for the audience. Where would you most like to perform in New York that you haven’t already?
Why do you like BAM?
I have no idea [laughs]. They bring some bad stuff circus-wise.
Is it about prestige? I mean would it feel like some sort of vindication or is there something about the space?
Well, I like the BAM Harvey. It’s more of a raw space. I like that. There’s also an old synagogue or church on the Lower East Side that I’d love to perform in. It’s out of my price range. I can never remember the name of it. It’s been a theater for a long time.
I’m trying to think of a good ending question. Anything I forgot, that you want to talk about?
There’s always so much to talk about. The criticism I always get is why don’t I use live music. I don’t think you would ask the director of a movie that. I believe performers should be paid regardless of my finances, so sometimes that leaves out live music. I’m not going to ask someone to work for free.
Let’s talk about the music you do choose to use.
I get a lot of comments about the music. In modern dance you’re not allowed to use [music with] lyrics, as an aerialist you’re allowed.
What do you mean, “allowed”?
You just don’t want to spoon-feed the audience I guess—
Oh, because the lyrics are going to have a narrative, it’s going to color the piece …
In aerial, why don’t you feel there’s the same danger?
I’m not sure. I’m also known for changing the music the day of the performance, which drives my collaborators crazy.
That would sort of reinforce the idea that the two things aren’t connected.
I think it’s a nod to Cunningham. He felt like each component should be able to stand on its own.
How do you know when a piece of music is right for a piece of performance?
I think they find each other. I go through huge Tigerlillies phases. I think they inspire character that, as a modern dancer, I never learned how to develop.
Are there musicians you keep coming back to?
I go to Nick Cave. I go to the Tigerlillies and … I’ve used the Creatures quite a lot but I only really have one Creatures piece. Still looking for pedal steel music, which is BJ Cole, but I think it’s time for me to not use that anymore.
Your first performance was with Bob Hofnar on live pedal steel.
You’d like to perform with live musicians—
If I could.
Is there music you would never use?
Uh, I always say Tom Waits, but I have a Tom Waits piece.
Do you hate Tom Waits?
I love Tom Waits. I would never use … oh, what is that song? It’s a Leonard Cohen song that Jeff Buckley covers?
Never use that. It’s just a rule.
What’s one thing you’re going to accomplish in the next six months?
To hopefully reach out to other places like maybe Philadelphia or Chicago. I wish there was a space I knew about in New Orleans to go teach at.
Let’s talk about what inspires you. What makes you want to create?
Kevin O’Connor makes me want to create, one of my rope teachers. James Thierry.
What have you seen recently that made you want to climb a rope?
When I was in St. Louis, the students were so open-minded there, and have this like non-manufactured idea of how to create projects, that I found it really inspiring and liberating. The students there make me want to continue in my own direction.
You’ve also seen a few things at The Sugarbox?
[Laughs] Yes. It’s an underground performance venue that is a criticism of current performances. So it’s like a live review of things you may have just seen.
It is very fascinating. I was there last night, ‘cause I wanted an extra beer after my performance. And uh … I was doubled-over in laughter and couldn’t breathe. But it is a live review of the highlights and low points of the performances that are currently going on.
I guess you don’t want to see your work onstage at The Sugarbox?
No, you don’t want … well, they do show highlights sometimes.
So there’s good with the bad?
How does one find out about—
Oh, it’s all word of mouth but I can’t even tell you where it is.
Is that against the rules?
It’s kind of against the rules. You have to be invited. You can’t just show up.
What’s one thing you love about New York?
[Laughs] Coney Island.
What’s one thing you hate about New York?
People’s spacial awareness. [Laughter]
Alright, thanks Lisa.