Performance Art at its Darkest: A Chat with Anna Yanushkevich

This weekend, I took a plane to Oakland for a single day just to catch Anna Yanushkevich’s independently produced aerial and dance performance based on Suspiria.

Two dangle as one: Anna Yanushkevich and Cola Claret. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

Two dangle as one: Anna Yanushkevich and Cola Claret. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

It has always been easy for me to connect horror themes with the circus performance of aerial. The ethereal grace, the preternatural body contortions, the defiance of the both the face of death and the power of gravity, the very real danger on display—all of these things combine to imbue an aerial performance with a potent transferal of dark or awe-inspiring emotions. This is not to say that aerial is to be considered a necessarily dark, just that it can be effectively calibrated to celebrate the darkness.

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Anna prefers the darkness. Her background in ballet, circus, and other techniques weaves aerial, hoop, ballet, and interpretive dance with hypnotic, almost nightmarish, imagery that includes themes of insanity, witchcraft, Satanism, death, and bodily incapacitation. These performances include her award-winning “Nocturnicon,” her Black Mass, her “CoVen,” and this weekend’s “Suspiria.” They all take advantage of a form that twists and contorts the human body, and use it in order to express something a little more disturbing than people may expect.

Like many of us who work with outré content, Anna has noticed that the more horrific the shows she produces, the more difficult it can be to sell tickets. Since I stayed with Anna during my brief trip, and—full disclosure—she has produced acts for Horrible Imaginings in the past—I got to chatting with her about her process a bit:

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Anna: People don’t seem as into horror stuff as I thought.

Well, do you think that is an overall statement, or one that speaks to the audience who would normally go to an aerial performance?

Yeah, I think it is part that. I wish I could find the real way to get people to show up. The Harry Potter show was super popular and people want an Alice in Wonderland theme, but I don’t want to do just that. It is hard to find that balance.

I think horror fans or regular consumers of horror content just wouldn’t know or think to look for something like this. Classical storytelling and art forms have this reverse stigma to them—where horror has the stigma of being a low genre, ballet or opera have the stigma of being snooty forms that would look down on us.

Yes, and this is why it can be hard to get people to shows.

I named my film festival after a line from a Shakespeare play, but if I produced that play I don’t know if I can get my audience there. To me it’s all just storytelling.

Yeah, I feel the same way.

How much wear and tear do you think you do to your body?

Well I go to PT, and that keeps me walking!

That seems like a minimal qualification.

Otherwise, like. . .everyone I know has an injury. We all have shoulder problems, most of us have hip problems. Some of it is from overuse, but some of it is from not being able to condition as much as we should. for what we do. I mean we definitely do condition, we warm up and we stretch, but some of the training is supposed to be just daily conditioning and flexibility training.

Michelle Ong bends in a way a body should not. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

Michelle Ong bends in a way a body should not. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

You’re using your movement to elicit or express a response.

I think it depends on the show or what I’m doing. Sometimes you just hear a song and you hear how that song should be manifested in physical form.

So it can can be a purely technical representation of the sounds in time?

Yeah thats some of it, at least for me. For some people, they hear a song and they have more of an idea of a life to a song, and they see more of a story. I feel like floor work can offer more of a connection or back and forth response from the performer to the audience. I feel like there is less of that with aerial. I could be wrong.

Aerial seems inherently dark to me.

You are doing things that normal bodies don’t do. Why can ballet be so great? We are attracted to how everything they do is unnatural, but it is done in such a way that even people who aren’t attracted to weird things are fascinated by the grace and beauty of it. It is a balance between the grace and the unnatural. I like to highlight the unnatural part. 

Kasia Meow’s primal dance. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

Kasia Meow’s primal dance. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

The actual performance, one of just two nights, consisted of eight separate acts with one intermission. The acts were inspired by both the original and the remake of Suspiria, with Argento’s inspiring the color schemes and Luca Guadagnino’s definitely showing in the costume design. What struck me was that the performers were forced to not only display their acrobatic talents, but were also forced to act in order to show sometimes that their acts were a scene of them getting manipulated, tortured, or killed in some way. I do see how a person hoping to just see some graceful ballet can be put off by seeing the dancer get dragged off and hanged by an unseen force.

Jessica Roginsky’s final hanging. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

Jessica Roginsky’s final hanging. Photo by Justin Brown @alwaysjustinphotography

But, to me, having an audience get more than they bargained for is a large part of the joy!

Anna Yanushkevich choreographs a circus show for Dragon Theater in Redwood City, California. I was shocked to discover she has never repeated a theme.

Me: You do a different show every month?

Anna: Yes, it is always something new.


Because I am crazy! Some of the shows are with students, because they want perform, too, and they should be able to perform in a venue like Dragon Theater, which is nice and not at a bar where they are being followed out by creepy people. Luckily, we can provide this for people, and it’s nice! The Wonderland show is going to be with students, which kind of gives me a break. I only have to do one act!

Despite the challenges inherent to these types of performances and the challenges with getting the word out to people who might have their eyes opened by watching them, I am glad to see artists like Anna take them on anyway. I think most creators I have met who have taken some bumps and keep working would agree that there seems to be little choice in the matter.