Air Time

The Freshman Acrobat

There’s a period of time — maybe the first minute — during “Never Say Goodbye,” a piece in the Yale Dancers fall show, when the audience realizes that the duet, performed by Gracie White ’16 and Christian Probst ’16, must have had a different genesis than the pieces that came before.

It’s a stretch of gasps, cheers, oohs and ahs. She’s spinning vertically in a full split, she’s falling forward into a plank, then launching herself into a flip over Probst’s shoulder, she’s climbing up his back, then cartwheeling off in slow motion. There’s a pronounced fierceness to her movements, a captivating sort of “who’s that girl” moment that sends you fumbling in the dark for your program to do a name check.

And it’s Gracie. A tiny 5-foot-2-inch freshman Yale Dancer with piecey bangs as peppy as her name, Gracie has a high-pitched voice with a tinge of Minnesota that makes her sound excited about whatever she’s saying. She’s not what I expected from the trained circus performer I watched on stage.

Gracie ran away to the circus to alleviate summer boredom through Circus Juventus, a youth troupe, in St. Paul, Minn. On her first day, she got off the trapeze, already completely hooked. “It’s a feeling that you don’t get in everyday life,” she remembers thinking. “People are so grounded in everyday life, and then I got this incredible opportunity to fly.” She stretches the word a bit, as if letting it take flight itself. “It just made me so happy in a way that I hadn’t felt before.”

She dove (or cartwheeled) into a world of silks, hoops, trapeze, hand-to-hand partner work and teeterboard (a sort of seesaw used to launch performers into the air one at a time). By the time she reached high school, she was spending 4:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day under the big top. To accommodate her schedule, Gracie got her homework assignments early on Fridays and completed all her work for the coming week over the weekend.

By her senior year, Gracie had decided she wanted to go professional. She began the highly competitive audition process for the National Circus School in Canada, training ground for contemporary circus performers destined for avant-garde troupes. She made it through the physical rounds, but not the acting portion, a skill undeveloped through her circus training.

Gracie re-evaluated. Maybe it wasn’t the best career path for her. She considered the consequences of the daily strain on her body, the risk of loosing everything with one injury. “I had a brain, I did well in school,” she thought at the time. “Maybe I should put that to use instead of going after this very fun, but also difficult and limited, career.”

Then a happy solution presented itself. The director of Company XIV, an experimental New York City dance company, asked Gracie to spend a gap year with the company after working with her at Circus Juventus. Gracie jumped at the chance to play the eponymous heroine in their production of “Snow White,” and to add a new acrobatic element to their existing mélange of dance techniques.

The perfect compromise, the role offered her the opportunity to perform professionally for a short period of time before coming to Yale and gave her the artistic freedom to choreograph her own routines. Dancing alongside Julliard-trained ballerinas like principal dancer Laura Careless, White developed her dance technique working on a foundation of the skills she’d learned in circus.

Careless recognized White’s technical disadvantages, but marveled at her willingness to push herself to explore the unfamiliar art. White had a “level of comfort with the body and [was] very available to try anything,” Careless said. “There’s just a level of fear that’s not present.”

A circus performance community did not exist at Yale when White arrived. She remembered feeling at a loss without a big top at her disposal, thinking, “How can I still move my muscles in a way that I find enjoyable?” Eventually, she realized that the next best thing to silks and trapeze was already at her fingertips.

“It’s definitely dance. It’s noncompetitive, it’s creative, you can just feel your body,” she says, extending her arms a little and rotating her wrists, a reminder of her delicate but powerful muscles. In both circus and dance, intimacy with one’s own body is important. “What you do is so based on the inner workings of little tiny muscles that most people don’t know exist,” Gracie says.

So she auditioned for Yale Dancers, hopeful, but aware of her technical shortcomings. She remembers feeling lost through the audition process and wonders how she made it through.  Even after a semester, she still feels a little out of sync. “They’re all incredible, incredible dancers with amazing technique, and I’m still doing the ballet warm-ups [thinking], ‘Where is my foot supposed to go, I have no idea,’” she says, syncopating her words with random hand movements to imitate her misguided footwork.

Gracie knew that her contribution to the company would be of a different vein, so she proposed a freshman duet, asking Probst to be her partner. He agreed, not entirely aware of the nature of the project he had committed to. On their first day of rehearsal, White began by showing him videos of the circus routines she wanted to use as inspiration. Stunned, Probst remembers telling her, “Gracie, you have the wrong person.” Even in his retelling, he comes off as assertive and scared. “You picked the wrong person; I’ve never done this before. This looks ridiculous and crazy. I’m not going to be able to do this.”

White proved to be even more stubborn than he. She refused to accept his refusal, promising to guide him through the new techniques. They rehearsed for four hours every week starting the second week of school, building up a strong friendship alongside an intensely athletic dance composition.

Aside from a spotter, no one had seen “Never Say Goodbye” until the group’s dress rehearsal. YD Co-President Scott Simpson ’13 was taken aback. “I saw a confidence in her that I hadn’t seen before in rehearsals,” he remembered, in hindsight surprised by his surprise. “She was in her element, she was in control of the choreography, she was in control of her body.”

This confidence and power caught the eye of Charlie Polinger ’13, director of “Abyss,” a composite theater and dance piece conceived, as he describes it, as a fantastical epic journey through surreal worlds. Polinger was impressed with Gracie’s ability to create compelling images through movement. He recruited her for the production, casting her in a lead role as well as employing her talents in both choreography and art direction.

Circus adds an exciting but unanticipated element to “Abyss.” “It’s a poetic, abstracted version of real life,” Polinger says. “It allows you to do pretty much anything in a heightened way, and it’s visceral, and it’s powerful to watch.”

As much as White has welcomed the experience to place circus in a range of new contexts, she longs to fly again. At last, Yale Risk Management has approved her proposal to include aerial silks and a lyra (a dangling aerial hoop) in “Abyss.” For her part, Gracie has never doubted her own safety. “The ground is what can hurt you,” she says. “The air can’t.”

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