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Mara Neimanis -- Flying High Over Baltimore

In-Flight Theater Art Dir., Mara Neimanis, during the Baltimore Aerial Festival - Arianne Teeple
In-Flight Theater Art Dir., Mara Neimanis, during the Baltimore Aerial Festival - Arianne Teeple

Mara Neimanis just can't keep her feet on the ground. She's addicted to flight and she's cultivating that addiction right here in Baltimore as the artistic director of In-Flight Theater.

Through a unique combination of spoken word, acting and circus arts � such as the flying trapeze � Neimanis and her In-Flight Theater lifts performance art off the ground. "I create stories in the air," she says.

Soaring high

In-Flight brings aerial performance to the community through original plays that travel to different venues in the region. It's the kind of storytelling that requires extreme physical and sometimes, mental prowess.

To manage the physical challenges of her work, Neimanis, 46, trains nearly every day. "It makes my life richer, that I have to really attend to it," she says of her regimen. Workouts include a combination of upper-body, abs and core muscle training, as well as regular yoga classes.

It may sound frightening to perform suspended, high above your audience, but Neimanis feels differently.

"It's a different way to experience life," she says. "It's a kind of heightened reality because you have to be really aware. You're upside down and 18-feet up. It's this amazing feeling, to be really on top of the 'now' with your whole body."

A load of fun

Neimanis, who moved to Baltimore in 2003, rehearses at Load of Fun, a warehouse-like space on West North Avenue in downtown. The building, once a car dealership built in the early 1900s, now houses a theater and several studios for visual and performing artists.

Neimanis' studio on the second floor is spacious and filled with light. It has exposed brick walls and gleaming wood floors. The large space echoes, but feels strangely intimate. Hanging by rope from beams overhead are various metal sculptures. A traditional trapeze is among them, but the others are less identifiable. Neimanis says these were created specifically for her work.

Tim Scofield, a Baltimore-based metal sculptor, is responsible for the unique metal apparatuses. Neimanis comes up with the initial concepts, but Scofield brings them to life. They've been working together for three years and Scofield describes their relationship as an ongoing, creative discussion. "When we collaborate it's very much, 'How will this work?' and 'How will this happen?' We work out the details," he said.

The results are pieces of art at the center of Neimanis' aerial storytelling. The largest and most complex is a 12-foot-tall spinning metal airplane, built in collaboration with artist Laura Shults. It is used in Neimanis' production of Air Heart, a solo show based on Amelia Earhart.

Neimanis says she sees these sculptures as vehicles for expression. Scofield agrees, "It rides a finer line than circus and tricks. She's actually trying to tell a story through apparatus and in telling this story it literally takes flight."

From NY to Bmore

Neimanis grew up in New York on the Canadian border, the first generation daughter of Latvian immigrant parents. As an adult, her pursuit of performance led her to clowning, an adventure that took her to Israel and Europe for nearly seven years.

Eventually Niemanis landed at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in San Francisco. It was there that she was drawn to aerial work. After applying to several graduate schools she decided on Towson University. "Towson recognized me as an actor who wanted to pursue aerial work further," Neimanis says. "Towson really nailed what I was looking for." In Maryland, Neimanis met her husband Bryce Butler, who directs her work and runs the sound booth for Air Heart.

Once in Baltimore, Neimanis was chosen for residency with Creative Alliance, a local arts organization that unites artists in the city by providing studios, holding workshops, performances and running a gallery. The residency provided Neimanis with studio space to explore her work for three years.

"This was a tremendous gift," Neimanis says adding that it introduced her to a cultural and political mixing pot of ideas. "In Baltimore there are so many people that are different." Neimanis says artists are drawn to the city because they can afford the space needed to create.

Neimanis connects with the community in more ways than just performance. She also offers a variety of classes, including one specifically for women over 40. They are well received. "I think that there is a sense of empowerment in this work," she says.

Although she admits the work is rigorous, even for beginners, she also says it's just plain fun. "People talk a lot about childhood. 'Wow I feel like I'm on a swing!' And indeed they are on a swing and it brings back this very childlike behavior and a behavior where you took risks."

Electric company

Sabrina Mandell, co-artistic director of Happenstance Theater, a performance troupe based in Rockville, MD, often collaborates with Neimanis. When asked what it is like to work with her, Mandell laughs and shouts, "Oh my god, it's the best thing ever! It's like dancing around a fire," she says. "She's incredibly wise and her energy is kind of like electricity."

Neimanis plans to stay in Baltimore and channel that 'electric' energy into future projects. "I want In-Flight Theater to keep on creating theater that goes up. Theater that uses a vertical space as well as a stage," she says.

Like her work, Neimanis' career is moving upward. She's finding more and more opportunities to perform and collaborate. She credits Baltimore and its rich community of artists for much of this success. "I'm a big fan of this city. It's treated me very well."

Up next is The Snow Queen, a five-member cast adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson tale. It will be performed at Maryland Institute College of Art in January.
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