It’s been more than a year since aerialist Seanna Sharpe was arrested for flying on silk from New York’s Williamsburg Bridge, and, eating beans with me in the café of the Jivamukti Yoga School, she’s still processing the lessons she learnt from that performance.
In July 2011, Sharpe, bound in white and red, climbed into the crown of the bridge’s latticework with accomplice Savage Skinner. Using a Double Silk Cloudswing technique adapted from a centuries-old Mexican genre, Sharpe twisted and danced on the hangings, flying 285 feet in the air over cars and subway trains. Mesmerised pedestrians uploaded videos and reports. Immediately arrested upon her descent, her bail was posted by friends and fans within two hours.
“For me it was obvious,” she tells me bluntly. “From the first moment I set eyes on the Williamsburg Bridge, I knew I would climb it. It was only a matter of time.” Sharpe had been performing in public spaces for seven years previously: “I’d already been rigging on scaffolding, trees, subway platforms, cathedrals… I was never formally charged with anything: every time we’d gone to court, the Judge had thrown it out, laughing in the cop’s face.” One officer charged her with “climbing trees”.
Aside from her unruly playfulness, and the delicious scandal of the Williamsburg performance, Sharpe recognises that there was a more profound significance to the action. Is bringing aerial work into the public arena relevant to the social dimensions of her work? For Sharpe, the piece engendered “a new understanding of the consequences of my actions on other people. I didn’t realise how much of an impact I would have, and how huge the reaction across the world would be. Going through that really seasoned me to understand humanity, and its needs as a society, and to be a lot less focussed on my individual journey; to be clear on my perspective as a piece of this massive puzzle.”
It’s a lesson she’s been forced to re-learn every month, due to what she euphamistically terms her “Achilles’ heel.” Sharpe has endometriosis, a condition in which other parts of the body act the same way as the uterus, producing monthly internal bleeding with no outlet; a pain she describes as “incapacitating”, and which, she confesses, she has hidden from the press until our meeting.
“It’s been a wonderful thing to have to battle this illness, and come out of it every month stronger, wiser, with a little bit more compassion for people who are hurting, and a little bit more exhilaration in the pleasure of my daily life, in the pleasure of being able to move without pain. It forces me to slow down: to stop in my tracks and feel my mortality, feel the presence of my life.”
But slowing down has had a healthy impact upon the quality of her work. Since the Williamsburg piece, she’s become more careful, more meticulous. Disappointed with the acrobatic merit of the stunt, she’s cut down on the parties she performs at, started to train regularly again, gone back to teaching.
Sharpe claims to feel “most fulfilled when I’m helping other people do something that they never thought they could do. When people take up aerial classes, it changes their perspective on their everyday lives. It gives them this knowledge that they can do something they never before thought possible. And by changing their perceptions of the possible, it changes what they’re capable of.”
She is committed to her community of students, and emphasises how important they find her classes and performances socially – the opportunity to “find their flock..” After all, “Circus has always been a social medium, in that in order to put on a circus, you need a circus family: it’s always a community. Because this craft takes such immense dedication, very few people stick to it long enough to get good at it, and those that do automatically become either friends or enemies. And then you have the ‘frenemies’ – those that respect who you are as an artist, but have jealousy or judgement of one form or another.”
Sharpe’s attitude to this hostility is slippery. Her own website describes her as “notorious”, and its with guilty pleasure that her friends relate to me how the Williamsburg stunt caused outrage in the aerial community by raising everyone’s insurance prices in the following weeks. She describes those close to her as “incredible people; amazing artists; brilliant, world-changing creators,” but outside of that group, she claims to have trouble getting on with “normal people”: “For people like me, its very difficult to imagine the way “normal” people think. I have a great deal of difficulty relating to humans in general. I have an easier time getting on with horses, cats, birds.”
Is this coyness disingenuous? In addition to the popularity of the bridge event, and the immediate financial support offered (“a humbling and honouring experience”) there were also hundreds of pieces of hate mail. “I had all of these idiots who were literally wishing me dead, people who threatened to shoot me down if I did it again, who said they wished I had fallen.”
Who were they? Sharpe offers a favourite quotation: “Man wants to own or kill anything bigger, or brighter, or a little more free than he is. They were people who were really unhappy with their own lives, and therefore get really upset when they see someone doing something they think they could never do. They’re nine-to-fivers, they’re blue-collar jobbers, they’re conservatives. They see it as an affront to the systemic way in which they live their daily lives.”
It’s no surprise, she explains, that such people – those “that are very human” – feel threatened by the circus performer, recognising something not-quite-human in her, that has its roots in the Big Top circuses boasting lions and tigers and bears.“Nouveau Cirque is all about the fact that we were once essentially animals within the circus world. So when Guy Laliberté [founder of Cirque du Soleil] changed the frontier of circus by creating one that was just humans, he didn’t take away from people’s expectations of seeing animals. He just put the idea of animals into a human body. That’s what makes an amazing acrobat, trapeze artist or dancer: someone whose movement is not quite human.”
Nevertheless, Sharpe stresses that this encounter with difference is carefully balanced with a need to relate. In fact, she muses, it’s precisely this tension that makes circus captivating: “If there was absolutely nothing that they could relate to, they wouldn’t even want to look at it. A huge part of what makes circus so interesting is that you’re waiting for the performer to fall, you’re waiting for them to fail. And when they do fail, and then they get back up and keep going, there’s this overwhelming gasp of exhilaration from the audience, who, in their minds, fell with you.
When audiences see a circus artist perform, they can relate to the mortality, they can relate to the danger, they can relate to the risk. It might even make them think about what risk they can take in their own lives in order to live a fuller, more alive existence.”
For information about forthcoming shows, classes and projects, please visit Seanna Sharpe’s website. Images by Eric Mindling of Esephoto.com and Julia Comita & Malakai Hom & Mary Lee of Twisted Lamb.