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Performative solar rituals with Aerocene

by Renae Shadler, in conversation with Ally Bisshop and Maikon K.

‘Under my Gaze’ is a dance quartet performed by three people and an Aerocene sculpture. The project was presented at St. Elisabeth Church Park in summer 2022 as well as 2023, and has an upcoming expert in the Tanz Im August – Interconnecting Dance & Ecology program later this month. It is the first part of a trilogy of performances combining dance and the Aerocene, led by choreographer and dancer Renae Shadler whose research is centered around making ‘more-than-human’ relations tangible in performance.

Renae together with Ally Bisshop and Maikon K, the two dramaturgs working on the project, share how they collaborated with Aerocene as a means to dissolve the perceived border between human and non-human bodies.

Renae: The title ‘Under my Gaze’ came from a short film entitled the ‘New Sun’ (2017) by Agnieszka Polska who presents the sun as a child-like witness to the Earth’s development. It was also inspired by an experience I had in an Aerocene launch with Susurrus Group (2017-2020: Samuel Hertz, Maria Nurmela, Kalle Ropponen, Renae Shadler) when someone suggested I dance with the sculpture and I felt completely paralyzed. How could I move with something as massive as 400m3? 

As I unpacked my inhibitions, I came to appreciate the Aerocene as a mediator for the sun, encompassing the gigantic nature of the star which powers it. 

An invitation then formed  – how can I create a performance that acknowledges the sun as the driver of Earth’s ecosystem? And move with its forces instead of the perceived human anthropocentric center? 

Ally: This solar gaze is present in the sound design accompanying the performance, which offers a playful first-person narration from the sun’s perspective. However, the dancers also have moments of being under the gaze of Aerocene. Humans can’t look directly at the sun, but they can look to the Aerocene and relate to its movements and shadow as a proxy.

During the process we thought about what kind of gaze the sun has: Is it witnessing? Is it ambivalent? Or, does it have feelings about what it touches? What can we say about a gaze that is billions of years old? And, what kind of movements can a perspective that is distributed across that body of time have?

Maikon: The group explored different ways to perceive the sun, drawing inspiration from human and non-human bodies such as underwater Hydra that senses light with their tentacles and phototrophic plants. The project also worked closely with ‘Solar Anus’ (Georges Bataille, 1927) and his writings around the ‘pineal eye’ which he places in the crown of one’s head.  

Ally: The gaze became a metaphor for the direction of solar energy and how it creates all these direct and indirect interrelationships that change what you do and how you do it. The sun has shifted how organisms grow and shaped the ecologies that we live in. Not only in its presence but also in absence, which is important for different animals that shy away from the sun and thrive in those dark spaces. 

For example, you worked with this Renae, in the ‘shadow duet’ where dancer Dorota Michalak moves only in the shadow of Aerocene, tracing its outline with limb and skin.

Renae: Yes, the choreography was mostly created through a score-based movement language informed by the sculpture’s physicality, lightness/darkness as well as the guiding principles of the sun’s gravitational pull, magnetic field and combustive power. I also drew on techniques I developed as a researcher at ‘SenseLAB – Center for Philosophy in Motion’ that focus on attunement to minor gestures and micro-socialities (reference to cultural theorist and SenseLAB founder, Erin Manning). These techniques enabled the dancers and myself to attune to the sculpture’s detailed oscillating movements and magnify them through our own bodies, dancing in relation to the sculpture and our surroundings. 

It was important when creating ‘Under my Gaze’ that it was not about understanding or studying something but rather an attempt to ‘coexist with’.

Renae: This brings us to the topic of ritual, which is especially present during the ‘eyes closed solo’ when I step into the inflated Aerocene sculpture and am enveloped by it, drawing a parallel to the sacrificial elements within sun rituals.

Ally: There is definitely an emerging interest in how ecological studies and activist practices can think about ritual as a way of recalibrating a relationship to the environment, precisely because it asks us to stop and take care. Ritual has a long history in first-nation knowledges that come from deep and embedded relationships with place. I think rituals are useful because they are performative embodied storytelling practices that provide a pathway for thinking about our relation with things that aren’t rationally graspable.

Maikon: In many cultures the sun is interpreted as a masculine force and the moon is associated with the feminine. If you see these ancient sacrifices and rituals for the sun they are often violent. But, in this performance there is also something erotic because there is a thirst for the sun, a desire to drink in its rays which fuels the movement. For me, it’s similar to a tantric relation and how the two women, one man and the Aerocene deal with this relation are very different. It is a symbiotic dance.

Renae: This dance also led the set designer – Camille Lacadee and costume designer – Geraldine Arnold to develop technology that enabled the dancers to fly the sculpture hands-free. Through the use of carabiners, reels, waist belts and chest harnesses the designers built a system that allowed the dancers to steer the sculpture from their chests, forming a poetic connection between their solar plexus and the sculpture’s tethering point. Renae: Since my first Aerocene launch in 2018 I’ve been interested in the sculpture as an envelope that gives a physical form to the air, wind and sun that animate it. We see the effects of these forces all the time – when a tree moves, when a big gust of wind knocks something over or we get sunburned – but it is not something we can pinpoint and hold in our hands. Aerocene gives a ‘body’ to the often unseen forces that stir and surround us, collaborating as a dance partner in the creation of ‘Under my Gaze’. 

Concept, Choreography, Performance: Renae Shadler | Performance: emeka ene, Dorota Michalak, Initial Performance: Mickey Mahar | Composition: Samuel Hertz | Set design: Camille Lacadee | Costume design: Geraldine Arnold | Dramaturgy: Ally Bisshop, Maikon K | Production, Distribution: Dörte Wolter | Production assistant: Undine Sommers | Photos: Piotr Pietrus | Video: Camille Lacadee | Inspired by Susurrus group, 2017-2020: Samuel Hertz, Maria Nurmela, Kalle Ropponen, Renae Shadler


Presented by Renae Shadler & Collaborators in collaboration with Aerocene Foundation. Supported by Fonds Darstellende Künste with funds from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media within the program NEUSTART KULTUR.