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Circus Lexicon

Flowing Movements

Acro Dance or Movement Work
with Dylan Phillips

A body in flow, movements that merge into each other, change pace and fill the space. This is how one might describe Acro Dance. Acro Dance is probably only known to people who practice the sport themselves – or at the very least are connected to contemporary circus or dance.

Based on the name one might assume it’s a mix of dance and acrobatics: Acro Dance combines classical dance techniques with acrobatic elements which are embedded in a particular choreography. Traditionally, Acro Dance is performed in amateur dance competitions, but is now increasingly found in contemporary circus.

Acro Dance is a relatively young discipline which originated around 1900. For comparison, juggling, for instance, originated in the 11th century. The beginnings of Acro Dance can be traced back to vaudeville theatre in the United States and Canada. Individual acrobatic elements would appear in vaudeville dance, until over time it developed into a discipline of its own – which is still in a constant state of flux today. Thus, it’s not easy to find a specific definition for Acro Dance. The definition changes with the discipline: fluid, in constant motion, and intangible.

Because Acro Dance is not only found in amateur dance competitions, but is also an important discipline in contemporary circus. As a relatively young discipline in the still much younger genre of contemporary circus, Acro Dance and New Circus benefit from each other and enhance the mutual process of further development. Acro Dance and contemporary circus move along similar patterns: They bring together different classical disciplines, placing them in a narrative or choreographic framework.

Dylan Phillips is, among other things, a talented Acro Dancer. When his parents first sent him and his brothers to the children’s and youth circus for six months at the age of five, he wasn’t that thrilled at first. He quit – but eventually started unicycling. After he didn’t want to do anything else for a few years, he returned to the children’s and youth circus after starting with gymnastics. From there he moved on into different performance and high performance programs for acrobatics. Today he is one of the artists in the company Gravity and other Myths from Australia and is performing with them for a second time at Chamäleon Berlin. 2019, during his first season at Chamäleon with the production “Out of Chaos”, he had just started training Acro Dance or “movement work”.

Previously he had mainly trained and performed on stage as a handstand artist and ‘flyer’. In partner acrobatics ‘flyers’ are the people who are carried, lifted and thrown by the ‘base’ – the acrobats on the floor. As the name implies, they fly through the air a lot. As a handstand artist, Dylan has been on his hands for up to 7 hours a day while training.

When he started working with GOM, Dylan met Lewie West, a talented floor acrobat (‘tumbler’) and ‘mover’ who made a big impression on Dylan as a young boy. He watched Lewie’s videos never imagining that they would later be friends in the same company. Lewie inspired Dylan to start Acro Dancing: For the first production of “Out of Chaos” in 2019 at the Chamäleon, Dylan developed an Acro Dance solo, an important challenge for him.

Dylan’s journey in Acro Dance or “movement work” can be described from big to small. In the beginning, Dylan was interested in two or three seconds, one complex shape or figure that creates the biggest wow effect at first sight. Eventually, he became interested in a 5-second Acro Dance sequence that had an extremely high level of difficulty. After some time, however, the difficult and complicated sequences no longer interested him. He put his focus on the smallest details and the connecting movements between the different sequences.

His goal now is for the smallest movement to have the same effect as the most complicated sequence. It is satisfying when the sequence is inspired by an impulse from the outside: preferably in a way that structures but allows for relatively free improvisation.

When he trains, Dylan takes a very ambitious approach and tries to create something he has never done before. He picks a movement and tries it in as many variations as possible. Once he finds a particular thing about it – however simple – he focuses on this element and perfects it. He believes it’s the magical fusion of the virtuosity and dedication of the artists that captivates the audience the most.

For Dylan, what makes good Acro Dance or “movement work” is the way the artist fluently initiates the movement, creating a contrast to the rather rigid acrobatics. Tension should fall away in the movement, or at least the appearance should be given that the artist is relaxed within the movements. It is about the connected movements, which become a flow.

When you cannot spot a beginning and an end of a sequence – that makes a good mover in Dylan’s eyes. This level of body control can only be achieved after years of training and a fundamental understanding of the body. When the smallest movements have the same effect as the large complicated movements, an artist becomes unstoppable.

If you are now concerned that Acro Dance or Movement Work is purely the domain for the most talented artists, you can rest assured. There are many step-by-step videos by movers who discuss and demonstrate individual sequences. With a little space, a little practice and of course a soft carpet, you too can get a little taste of Acro Dance.

Text: Verena Schlegel
Photo: Andy Phillipson