Some event planners use acrobatics to dazzle audiences. Here’s a look at the creative and business issues behind staging aerial antics with the New York group AntiGravity.
The corporate event market, which has rebounded significantly since Sept. 11, accounts for about 50% of AntiGravity’s business, says company president Christopher Harrison.
WHERE DO WORLD CHAMPION gymnasts go when they retire from the rigors of international competition? A hearty few have joined AntiGravity, an aerial gymnastics company based in New York City that offers event producers the option of incorporating gravity-defying acrobatics into their shows.
Using a wide range of devices, from bungee cords to trampolines to the group's latest invention — the “anti-gravity boot,” which are actual boots configured with powerful springs that allow the performers to jump 15ft. in the air like back-flipping kangaroos — AntiGravity combines athleticism with a dance troupe's sense of aesthetics and a bit of fun to create performances that have been in high demand by event planners.
In the last year, the group was featured at such high-visibility events as the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and the MTV Video Music Awards held at Radio City Music Hall. They also perform regularly at product launches and sales meetings for companies such as Microsoft and Pepsi, and have even bounced and flipped their way around trade show booths in order to deliver particular corporate messages.
Bred in the New York theater and nightclub world, AntiGravity is currently hoping to travel to Las Vegas later this year to showcase an original theatrical work — their comical, physically dazzling performance called “Crash Test Dummies,” which won rave reviews during a brief test run in New York in May 2001.
AntiGravity owes its existence to Christopher Harrison, a champion gymnast himself, who founded the company in 1990. Although he worked as a Broadway dancer for seven years, Harrison wanted to create a new medium that would take full advantage of the unique physical talents that champion gymnasts have to offer. Today, AntiGravity sports a roster of 50 performers dedicated to helping Harrison achieve that vision.
Harrison recently chatted with SRO about AntiGravity's philosophy, evolution, and its ultimate success in the event marketplace.
SRO: How has AntiGravity evolved over the years?
Harrison: We started as a gymnastics performance troupe and acrobatics company. Our first paying job was at Radio City Music Hall, and we had a number where we tumbled and jumped on mini tramps and just did a lot of flipping. And even though that served us well for a number of years, I found that defying gravity by pushing off the floor as hard as we could was not as exciting as defying gravity by using aerial devices. So as we grew and the budgets grew, we were able to use aerials. We started to develop techniques that would allow us to get into the air any way possible. Most recently, we've developed the anti-gravity boot.
SRO: Do you have any competitors who do what you do?
Harrison: Not really. People like to equate us to Cirque du Soleil because they don't have any other frame of reference. But the truth is, Cirque du Soleil is very European and fantasy-based. We are very American and very real. I always encourage [our performers] to show the joy we get from our sport and from performing. And we've got an edge that comes from being urban American. We are very much downtown New Yorkers, and we enjoy living on the edge, so we take that and incorporate it into our work.
SRO: How did your particular style develop?
Harrison: Truthfully, we really like to have fun. There is this one aspect of our company — these amazing physical feats — and there is another aspect to our company that really likes to party and have a good time. When we go out to a club, we tear up the floor, and the ceiling and walls. So I basically took my company of champion athletes who were trained in a very disciplined and confining sport, and I kind of took the lid off by putting them into a nightclub, and building a show that combines the spirit we have with the training. That's where we developed our style. It's a style that has emerged in the last four or five years since I took us into the nightclub world. And after doing anywhere between 50 and 70 projects per year, the style just continues to develop.
SRO: How do you go about planning a show for a particular event?
Harrison: First, it's always based on who the client is and what they have to say, and they tend to be rather specific. When we did something for Pepsi, for example, we needed to incorporate their product wherever we could. So we incorporated a lot of those inflatable Pepsi products into our work.
AntiGravity performers wear anti-gravity boots in their original production, “Crash Test Dummies,” which is expected to begin a run in Las Vegas this year.
Then, of course, there's the space. It always starts with the space. How big is the space? Do I have rigging points? How high is the ceiling? What is the stage surface like? What are the variables? Is there a lectern on the stage? And so on. We look at the space to see how we can best use it.
My objective as a choreographer is to just fill the room. I think it's so much more interesting to have all the air space filled, to have things happening over your head and around you, and to bring in an element of surprise. So we always have things that the audience has to do to keep them involved with the show.
Finally, after considering the theme and the space, I have to cast my team. I have a roster of 50 different players. Some are based in Las Vegas, some in Orlando, but most are based here in New York. So I go to my roster and decide which of the people on my team are going to help me tell my story the best, and then I cast accordingly.
SRO: Are there some venues that pose particularly difficult logistical challenges?
Harrison: The most difficult are the ones that don't have high ceilings. The ballrooms that only have 16ft. ceilings can be difficult. But I think the toughest one was actually the Atlanta Georgia Dome because it has 80ft. ceilings. On the one hand, we're in heaven because we can really fly, but there's a lot of height there, and you never get a lot of time to tech [to set up the equipment and rigging and rehearse the show]. You have to be able to make something happen in a short amount of time that works with a tight tech schedule, and the schedule is always tight. Sometimes, you have to tech in the dark because other people are working on lights or video at the same time. There was one time we did a show for Mercedes, and because there was so much teching happening in the middle of the day, we did our techs in the middle of the night just to make sure we weren't in anybody's way.
SRO: Which of your stunts draws the biggest reaction from the crowd?
Harrison: Definitely the anti-gravity boots. I tend to love to combine things. So I love putting the anti-gravity boots on stage with bungees, which is what we did for the MTV Video Awards, because then you have people dropping out of the ceiling at the same time as you have people bouncing around on a device you haven't seen before. And at the end, I'll put giant balloons in the air so it feels like the entire room is just jumping all around. That always gets a great response.
SRO: Given your success, are there any events that are too small to consider?
Harrison: Not really. We prefer to say ‘yes’ around here. The fact is, we like working. I've got a big roster of people and I like keeping everybody working. So when somebody doesn't have as large a budget as we are accustomed to, we look at it and say, ‘What can we build for that money?’
SRO: Do you use much video and lighting in your performances?
Harrison: Yes, and that's one of the joys of working in the industrial sector — they tend to have decent-size budgets. So I get to work with all the latest equipment when it comes to lights and video, and I get to work with some amazing video designers and lighting designers.
We recently did a project for Schering Plough, a pharmaceutical company that made use of the most amazing wrap-around video — all 3D imagery. So we integrated the 3D imagery with our bodies. You don't really get that luxury in a theater. We've been really spoiled by being able to do some fresh and exciting things in the industrial sector.
SRO: Are video and lights ever difficult to work with logistically, in terms of getting in the way of your performers?
Harrison: We have to work carefully with the lighting director to make sure our rigging points and apparatus are not going to inhibit his ability to light. And also to be sure he's got enough lights to be able to catch us and see what we are doing. We are very careful in pre-production to have those conversations.
Everyone always thinks that we don't want to have a flash in our eyes while we perform, but the reality is we often work in nightclubs. If you can work in a nightclub, you can work anywhere. Definitely for us, the most important part of any show is safety. Knock on wood, we have never had an accident due to negligence. In our company, we've built what we do into a science. We don't over-rehearse, and we make sure we have enough conversations with the right players and enough emails going with the right questions so we can be sure we are not going to get into something that will be a catastrophe when we get to the site.
SRO: Any advice you'd like to share with potential future clients?
Harrison: The best advice would be to find a great venue, and the more lead time you have, the better. The success of a project is always determined by how much planning someone can have beforehand. Beyond that, probably the best advice is to be willing to think out of the box. A lot of times, people don't quite know how to fit us in. They'll say, ‘I've got this event, but I don't quite know how to use you.’ And sometimes, in the initial conversation, there are a million ideas that suddenly pop. So just be willing to think out of the box — there's always a way to use physicality within a show.
Stephen Porter is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.