It is July 11, 2011, 7:10 p.m. in New York City. Between the gigantic steel scaffolding of the Williamsburg Bridge, a young aerialist is hanging off a 20-foot piece of white silky fabric making beautiful shapes in the sky. She guides her body -- an exceptional vessel of strength and grace -- through a series of pikes, twists and double hangs. 285 feet below -- an 11 story building drop -- rush hour traffic and trains hurtle past. Cyclists and pedestrians have stopped in their tracks, and gaze up at the spectacle in amazement and wonder.
At one point she tucks her legs around the fabric and stretches her hands out in to the 40 mph winds. "Look! No hands!"
This is Seanna Sharpe -- a 24-year-old aerialist, artist, acrobat, dancer, designer, choreographer, "a creative, a wanderer and an insane."
Seanna trained at Le Cirque Centre on the West coast, then "danced across" 26 countries, before moving to New York in 2008. She has flown for the Cirque du Soleil, the Guggenheim and Beyonce amongst many others, and performed at over 300 parties, festivals, theaters, galleries, and events, across the country and the world.
The Williamsburg Bridge performance was beautiful, mesmerizing, breathtaking -- "but probably one of my worst, from an aerial- artist perspective," confirms Seanna. Obviously, she had to wrestle with some pretty intense mental circumstances. Her case has been named "The Philippe Petit Defense" in court, and Philippe Petit himself congratulated her on making "great use of the city's infinite resources." (There are rumors that she will be making use of Paris' resources -- namely the Eiffel Tower -- next spring.)
News of Seanna's illegal performance spread throughout the country, and internationally. Some people judged it as "unnecessary," "sensationalist," "selfish," or another example of vapid attention-seeking "non-art." But before dismissing or railing against art that is overtly extreme, controversial, or non-sensical I think, in most cases, it is worth taking a moment to take a closer look at the artist and their work.
Recently, I made arrangements to meet the artist in her studio near DUMBO. I had seen her briefly the week before, at an intimate improvised performance in Lower East Side. She was much tinier than I had imagined, but she exuded a fierce confidence and energy. Then, sitting in her studio, the fire was definitely still there, but she was relaxed and talkative.
Her wild spirit, audaciousness and resilience were fostered as a young child. An eldest twin of six siblings, she grew up on a farm in Montana. Survival skills, work ethic and integrity were an integral part of the education provided by her parents. She excelled at everything that was thrown at her. "I was brilliant, but totally crazy".
At 4 years-old, she fell in love with Peter Pan. She wanted to fly. And the Peter Pan persona of the "eternal child" has ostensibly become her most instinctual operating system. She walked into the world with no preconception about what was impossible, but rather with a feeling -- a conviction -- that she could create herself as anything she wanted to be.
For her young age Seanna articulates her beliefs, values and vision of the world with incredible insight and passion. She wants people to let go of their fears, to acknowledge their own human potential and to fly in the fullest manifestation of that potential... "because it's going to change everybody it touches in such a beautiful way." Mostly though, she is "here for the children." She has lived in orphanages and worked with Circo Piccolino in Brazil, where she took children off the streets to give them an education as well as an occupation, beginning her tradition of circus for social change.
And this outlook is, demonstrably, what engulfs her art, and her approach to art.
Seanna has co-founded performance companies Ri Ki Kai, Speculosity, The White Ink Society and Mad Sharp Productions, which she insists are built on passion and integrity, not material and commercial values. The productions range from philosophical or conceptual theatrical tableaus, to aerial dance installations to guerrilla circus performances.
Her intention is to create an impactful experience for the audience, rather than a mere (re)presentation. Their presence, connection and reaction is paramount. She strives to create a feeling of community, vulnerability and empowerment both for her audiences as well as her co-performers. The venues are intimate, the members of the audience are close to the performers, they can move in and amongst them, see their faces -- even talk to them. As a result the viewers' responses are often markedly emotional and visceral.
Narcissa Starving -- Mad Sharp Production's first full-length show which debuted in March this year -- was heralded as an incredibly transformative experience. Audience members have recounted that they "walked away changed;" some were moved to tears.
The performances are very intuitively conceived, Seanna points out. Sometimes, as with her upcoming show next January, Les Etoiles, the narrative is formed entirely through dreams. However, the performances are so exquisitely beautiful and sensual, and so sophisticated and poetic in their execution, that the conceptual is often drowned out.
Given that so much contemporary art demands a verbal explanation, it is refreshing to experience art on an intuitive level. And in a world that has become so anesthetized and materialistic, Seanna provides a breath of fresh air.