Video Shoot Paves Way for Live 'Extreme Dance' at Wolf Trap National Park

If you happened to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk, N.C., this past April, you might have seen another first flight — dancers soaring over the same sand dunes that witnessed the Wright Brothers' first brief journey 100 years ago. The dancers were there for a video shoot and press event used to create compelling imagery for the upcoming fourth installment of the Face of America series of live events at national parks around the country — this one dubbed A Celebration of Flight.


Dancer simulating flight during video shoot at Kitty Hawk to create unique images for upcoming live tribute to the Wright Brothers.

The event, slated for September, is being produced and staged by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts for the Face of America series. It's the brainchild of Terrence Jones, Wolf Trap's CEO and president.

“What we arrived at was a concept for Face of America using Wolf Trap as the only national park for the performing arts to reflect a light on other national parks in the system,” says Jones. “Basically, [the idea was to] select a national park, focus on that park, and interpret the essence and the spirit of that park through the performing arts.”

The Face of America series started in 2000 as a millennial celebration, with a troupe of dancers suspended above Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park. After that feat, Face of America moved in 2001 to the Coral Reef National Monument in Virgin Islands National Park and staged an underwater performance by the U. S. Olympic Synchronized Swim Team. In 2002, the program explored Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky with a dance performance set to regional music.

This year, the goal was to create a presentation revolving around the theme of technology. “The other thing we had wanted to do, since we were obviously moving into the 21st century, was to be creative in terms of technology, in terms of advancing the art forms forward,” says Jones. “So it developed into this sort of multimedia adventure series, incorporating adventuresome, artistic creators with high technology, and in our case, that would be high-definition television.”

Recording Flight Elements

Organizers used high-def acquisition technology at the April press event to capture the unique, live imagery that will be a central part of the show — Face of America 2003: A Celebration of Flight — which will be at the Filene Center indoor/outdoor theater at the Wolf Trap Park in Virginia. Their plan was to project those images onto giant screens at the theater, in combination with other live performances, which will take place in front of those screens. Officials say the show, timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, will be presented in partnership with NASA, the U.S. Centennial Flight Commission, the United States Air Force Centennial of Flight Office, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Tuskegee Airmen Association.

To execute this plan, Jones and Wolf Trap turned to Elizabeth Streb, a choreographer known for her extreme acrobatic dance works — a technique she calls PopAction. Her choreography is created through action rather than dance, and is an exploration of both the power and confines of gravity.

“One of the things I thought was so perfect about this commission was that I sort of believe in the foolish enterprise of human flight,” says Streb. “From the books that I've read about the Wright Brothers, they were considered sort of foolish. [They had] the guts to go forward with something that scientifically they felt could be accomplished.”

Streb visited Kitty Hawk earlier this year with the directors of the video shoot, Walter Rissmeyer and Joe Bruncsak of Blue Land Media, Arlington, Va. They discussed what shots to get, and Streb wanted to find “what we felt would be emblematic of the conditions being dealt with by Wilbur and Orville Wright back 100 years ago. There were the obvious ones: water, sand, sky, and wind. I tried to figure out how I could, with human movement, deal with the idea of their brains and their bodies being willing to create a machine that would take off of the ground, and then land back on to the ground.”

In April, Streb and company returned with a truck filled with equipment, rigging, pads, and a huge trampoline. The Park Service helped by transporting the equipment and dancers in off-road vehicles to the site, which was an adjacent state park called Jockey's Ridge. (Jockey's Ridge is not the exact spot of the Wright Brothers' flight, but after 100 years of shifting sands, organizers determined it was the place that most resembled the geography of what the Wright Brothers encountered.)

The trampoline and mats were complicated pieces of equipment to use in such an environment, according to Streb. “They're really pole-vaulting pit mats,” she explains. “They are about 10'×5'×1'. When we're trajectoring off a trampoline, we have about four of those mats, so our full rectangle for landing off the downstage edge of the trampoline is about 10'×20'. We have them Velcroed together because every hit they come apart because the force of the land is so intense.”

The six events Streb devised to be filmed centered around the trampoline. The dancers were framed in such a way that they appeared to be flying onscreen. Blue Land Media supplied the high-tech equipment, according to Rissmeyer.

“We brought down with us a large crane arm called a jib [manufactured by Cam-Mate], with a little over a 30ft. extension that allows us to move the two [Sony HDW-700A and HDW-750] cameras and have motion with the camera, but also to get perspectives that we obviously could never get on a tripod,” Rissmeyer says. “So you have the camera high up over the trampoline on the dunes, and you'd have dancers springing from the trampoline directly toward the camera as if they're going to fly right into the camera itself.”

What Comes Next

At press time, final preparations were being made for the event, which was scheduled for Sept. 6. Besides images of flying dancers, there will be a variety of other performances to watch.

“I think you're going to see an exciting multimedia mix of live performance, video performance, music — both recorded and live,” says producer Jones. “The dance will be performed live and recorded. Obviously, it's a work in progress. Until we see that performance in September, none of us will know exactly what we're going to see, but what we anticipate are three large video screens on the stage. Then, beneath each of those, Elizabeth will be performing with her dancers live, and, in a sense, taking them off the stage, into the screen, and into the air. So, you have a continuum going on where you see live performance moving into video performance and then back to live performance.”

Rissmeyer adds that he is bringing in a company called Left Hand Productions, Arlington, Va., to help set up and run the video displays during the event. “They bring out three very high-wattage DLP projectors [Lightning chassis 10 GV and 15 SX] and everything is run off [three Sony HDW-F500] decks,” he adds. The digital projectors, with thousands of micro-mirrors, can throw an intensely bright image over the nearly 4,000 seats which fill the covered portion of the Filene Center. “Also, it's a 21ft. screen, and there's ambient light to deal with. We start as it's getting dark, but it's not completely dark.”

Streb, however, has a secret weapon, which she plans to use during the park performance: a flying stage harness contraption that she fondly calls the Catastrophic Realizer.

“It creates such havoc and you can't really stop it unless you have about five people,” Streb says.

The goal behind its use in the performance is to produce 59 seconds of sustained flight, the same amount of time the Wright Brothers were aloft on their maiden voyage.

“It is a da Vinci-esque lever machine with counterweights on one end and a tuning fork-like swivel on the other end that a dancer wearing a gymnastic twisting harness [can use],” Streb says. “It's a prototype, which we invented over the last 15 years. We got the twisting belts from the gymnastic training schools, and we took it to a machinist and beefed them up a lot. We added universal swivels on the waistlines for the endpoints and we attach them to a spreader bar. This particular one has plates in it so it slides in the tuning fork and gets locked in the arm. What it provides — the belt twists laterally, like if you are standing vertically, you can turn like a top. It twists around like a person doing continual front flips or back flips. The swivel itself that is the tuning fork turns around so that gives you three orbits already, and the entire arm, which is counterweighted at the other end, is attached to a fulcrum and that turns.

“So the dancer basically weighs about 12lbs. when they're in this contraption, and they soar in the air. If they get enough momentum going, they can stay in the air for quite a long time.

“We're not going to, obviously, be unaided. To do a free-fall straight down for 59 seconds, one would have to be 5,000ft. off the ground or something. When you think about how long it's possible, in natural terms, to stay up and resist 32ft. per second squared, which is the pull of gravity, it's just a tremendous amount of negotiating you have to do.”


Darroch Greer is a documentary filmmaker and historical researcher. He writes, produces, and directs documentaries which have appeared on PBS, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and VH1.

Email him at darroch@sodbusterpictures.com.