As it turns out, rock climbing is a pretty good skill if you want to make a living in the theater world. Growing up in Missoula, Shaneca Adams had little aerial experience beyond rapelling off rocky terrain in the Bitterroots. But after spending his youth in the outdoor landscape, Adams headed to New York City in 1997 and landed a gig with the aerial Off-Broadway show De La Guarda, where he spent his evenings soaring above audiences and walking on ceilings using the ropes and karabiners used for climbing.
"Just kicking it rock climbing—repelling and swinging way out—that was pretty much as close as I'd ever gotten to doing aerial until then," says Adams.
When you think of aerialists, it's easy to envision sleek aesthetic acrobats like those showcased in Cirque du Soleil. But aerial work in De La Guarda was never meant to focus solely on physical feats. It's about creating a visceral experience that includes heavy audience participation. In De La Guarda there was no seating for the show. The crowd stood in the midst of the action, often getting wet as the performers stomped through water. By the finale, the performance turned into an all-out dance party instigated by the aerialists—shirt swapping and sweaty hugging ensued whether the audience liked it or not.
"Some people, unfortunately, would think they were going to see something like Cats," laughs Adams. "They'd be like, 'Where are the seats?' and instead they'd be in a crazy dark box wearing their nicest suits getting wet."
The buzz surrounding De La Guarda also brought in a slew of celebrities.
"It was this successful Off-Broadway show and so everybody wanted to come and see it," says Adams. "Michael Jackson came. Janet came. Wesley Snipes came. Sting. Everybody."
Adams met Veronica deSoyza while working on the show. DeSoyza, a dancer, had spent time in the famous Fame school and traveled around Europe with dance companies in her early 20s. She made the leap to aerial work after trying to put together an art project she'd envisioned that included people walking on walls.
"That same week I was looking in the paper and here was De La Guarda, and it showed a picture of two women running on a wall," she says. "At first I was like, 'Oh, it's already been done.' Then I thought, 'I gotta do that!' I learned all my aerial [moves] those first few weeks before the show [opened]. And I ended up realizing I was fearless. I had no fear jumping off 30 feet in the air."
Adams and deSoyza married and continued to stitch together gigs to support themselves. They co-produced a show called Sunny Side Up, an abstract dance that was a response to 9/11, but still provided some playful delights.
"We hatched a bunch of people out of eggs and served the audience cake," says Adams.
Adams also made it into high-profile productions like Stomp and Blue Man Group (in Boston and New York City). He got to dance with Beyonce and Sean Paul for an MTV music awards live show in 2006. Meanwhile, DeSoyza was cast in the Broadway show Tarzan, for which she sang on the original cast record with Phil Collins. But it was really the couple's aerial experience with De La Guarda that got them from gig to gig.
"We did a piece for a family in the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a Halloween parade," says Adams. "They have a four story townhouse and so we just tied ropes off the top window and we sent superheroes down the side of the building—Spiderman and Batman. It was unbelievable for the kids."
In 2006, they performed for Red Bull's Ascension Party. In 2007, Microsoft hired them for the Vista launch to be among a handful of aerialists creating a "human billboard" at NYC's Terminal Warehouse Building. Later that year hip-hop artist Usher signed them for a live show celebrating his fragrance—Usher For Him and Usher For Her.
"Aerial became pretty hot for a while," says deSoyza. "Everybody wanted it."
A few years ago, the crumbling economy hit the arts community hard. Shows like De La Guarda closed, corporations slimmed down their campaigns and Broadway shows shaved down their casts.
But for Adams and deSoyza, it opened a door down a different path.
"I was tired of the grind," admits deSoyza. "And I felt satisfied with my career and wanted to focus on yoga and teaching yoga."
The couple moved to Missoula with their son over a year ago to settle back in the valley in which Adams grew up. It's been a chance, they say, to be with family and spend some time in a different arts community.
In Missoula, the two aerialists have joined a group of local performers who will showcase their circus-esque skills in a production called Bellatrix this week at the Missoula Winery. The show, directed by Montana native Anita Maddux, boasts acrobats, sword fighters, breakdancers, belly dancers, fire performers, hoopers, burlesque dancers, a "hip hop-notist," a house band and Adams and deSoyza performing aerial theatrics. It's the second Bellatrix show. Last year's was held at the Top Hat for which the bar owners installed a permanent aerial point in the ceiling so the performers could hang from it. This year, the Missoula Winery has followed suit, hiring Rocky Mountain Rigging to set up the aerial infrastructure. In fact, Bellatrix is one of several recent performances that have featured aerialists—The Montana Rep had a silk aerialist perform for its theater gala this year and First Night showcased local aerialist Raven Summer performing at the Wilma Theatre.
"I think there's a renaissance in Missoula as far as arts go," says Adams. "And there definitely is a community of aerialists here. The tools are here and that's one of the reasons we came back."
Along with the other Bellatrix performers, Adams and deSoyza plan to help build Missoula's performing arts community. Though resources—equipment, venues and props—are more scarce here than what the couple had at their fingertips in New York City, the support they've seen in the local community has given them hope for a strong aerial niche.
What happens at the winery is just a quarter of what it can be," says deSoyza. "It's a taste of what we can bring if we have the chance."
Bellatrix shows at the Missoula Winery Friday, Feb. 25, and Saturday, Feb. 26, at 8 PM nightly. Doors open at 7 PM. $12/$10 advance at Ear Candy Music and Rockin Rudy's. 21+.