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Aerial Theater Takes Audience to New Heights

Mara Neimanis, artistic director of In-Flight Theater, at her studio
Mara Neimanis, artistic director of In-Flight Theater, at her studio - Steve Ruark
Mara Neimanis leads the way up a few flights of creaky steps in an aging building at 120 North Ave. in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Pushing open double doors, she enters a spacious studio made moody by exposed brick walls and dark wood floors. Huge windows on one side of the room let in natural light, which shines on an enormous metal structure that looks like an oversized, boxy ladder and dangles from the soaring ceiling. Entwined in the metal structure, 47-year-old Neimanis alternately climbs, hangs, and flies through the air—while acting out a theatrical performance.

It’s here that the globetrotting aerialist-slash-actress hones this hybrid art form that she created, a blend of high-flying circus arts and theater called, appropriately enough, In-Flight Theater. Though Neimanis has taught her craft in places as far-flung as Israel, Latvia, Canada and Costa Rica, Baltimore is where she's decided to put down her roots for now and, quite literally, take off.

Neimanis has rented space in the Load of Fun Studio for the past five years. There she holds classes on her gravity-defying
feats and practices routines for her aerial shows, which she performs at festivals and regional stages. She will be performing at the Baltimore Theatre Project Nov. 1-11 and at her own studios in December.

“I’m just doing theater in a different and new way,” Neimanis says. “One of the nicest things about being in the aerial community in Baltimore is that I don’t have a lot of competition. “

What Neimanis has found here is enough support to advance her unorthodox career. Solid opportunities to practice her innovative form of theater, studio space to accommodate her art form, and the welcome collaboration of local artists have enticed her to stay and fed her interest in sharing aerial theater with the public.   

Serving as a resident artist at the Creative Alliance between 2005 and 2007 jump started Neimanis’s aerial theater career in Baltimore. “The Creative Alliance took me on, gave me the experience of being an artist that was parallel to none,” Neimanis says, referring to the city organization that supports budding artists and provides them space in a historic movie theater-turned-community arts center in Patterson Park.
"The Creative Alliance took me on, gave me the experience of being an artist that was parallel to none."
During her residency at the Creative Alliance, Neimanis crafted a performance that allowed her to explore personal issues in a public forum, via theater and aerial acts. The resulting show, Naomi’s Flight, uses aerial elements to tell a story about dementia and care giving—something Neimanis was going through with her own mother. In the performance, directed as are all her performances by her husband Bryce Butler, Neimanis illustrates her personal frustration with the health care system, which she perceives as broken and backwards, by hanging upside down from a metal structure.

That the performance resonated so strongly with audiences came as a surprise to Neimanis. “I had no idea I was speaking for my generation,” she says. It debuted at the Creative Alliance and will be performed at the Theatre Project in February and March of next year.

One of the first artists-in-residence at the Creative Alliance, Neimanis came to the Creative Alliance from the Pacific Northwest where she created mask theater with Native American communities, says Creative Alliance Program Director Megan Hamilton. While at the Creative Alliance, she collaborated with another artist to create a performance based on the life of Amelia Earhart set atop a 12-foot-high rotating plane sculpture. 

"It was brilliant and set a high bar for the residency program that remain today."
Neimanis teaches and supports other artists, which has helped an aerial community coalesce around her studio, Hamilton says.

One of her artistic collaborators is Tim Scofield, a sculptor who makes the metal structures that act as mediums for many of the aerial moves in her performances.

“We basically talk about what we want something to be able to do, and he says ‘I’ll give it a shot,'" Neimanis says. "We never know what we’ll get until we get it. Then we work with what we get, rather than having a pre-ordained plan."

“There’s definitely a multidisciplinary spirit in the city.”

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as parenting and public health. She writes for several local print and web outlets, universities, and medical centers.

All photos by STEVE RUARK 
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