Air Heart

Alternative Performance
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Editorial Review

Theater review: The 2007 Fringe Festival production of "Air Heart"

Lifting Her Spirits: When Her Strength Deserted Her, Mara Neimanis Grew Wings

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gravity, what a downer. Always getting in the way. How do you tell the story of Amelia Earhart, for instance, particularly the last few minutes of her fateful 1937 flight around the world, when you're an earthbound mortal performing in a theater space?

Aerial artist Mara Neimanis solves that problem with a 12-foot-tall rotating sculpture of a plane -- and a lot of elbow grease. More precisely, it's extraordinary shoulder, arm and abdominal strength. Her hour-long one-woman show, "Air Heart," running Friday through July 29 in a converted Washington storefront known as the Scientarium at Seventh and D streets NW as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, is an upper body workout to put many a gym rat to shame.

Rehearsing the piece in her sweltering warehouse studio near Baltimore's Station North Arts District, Neimanis, dressed in a tank top and stretch pants tucked into boots, makes the impossible look supremely easy. She uses a stylized plane -- something like a cross between an aircraft and a jungle gym -- that is bolted onto a broad base. At one point, she stands beneath it, and reaching up to grab the sides of the nose, she draws herself into it with a slow, clean pull-up. Then she flips around to hang from a bar by her knees, arms floating out like wings.

The strength moves are there for more than the whoa! factor. Portraying both a straight-talking Earhart and a more poetic narrator, Neimanis uses her muscular grace to emphasize the aviator's unblinking courage, her "madness" for flight and her accomplishments on the ground, advocating for women's rights and an end to war.

The square-jawed performer takes a markedly different approach to aerial work. The art of suspending oneself from trapezes, ropes and other apparatus is dominated by dancers and acrobats. But Neimanis, 42, is no dancer, nor does she look like your typical underfed acrobat. With her firm gaze, deep voice and wide, thrown-back shoulders, there is a distinct force about her. She has the upper torso of a champion swimmer, coupled with a curvy body. She was an actor before she discovered flight, and she calls her work "aerial theater."

"I came to aerial as a storytelling device," she says. "I'm trying to support a narrative. I'm pointing out that this bit is important, this bit and this bit and suddenly ba-boom!" -- she snaps her fingers -- "you have Amelia."

As you watch her moving through the piece, it's clear Neimanis is an unusually powerful woman. Her strength, however, nearly killed her.

Having grown up in a family of actors, Neimanis always knew she'd go into the theater. Her father's parents had acted in the national theater of their native Latvia until they immigrated to this country. Her actress mother had studied with the legendary director and teacher Lee Strasberg. Neimanis recalls that when she was a child in Buffalo, family outings to the movies invariably led to heated discussions afterward. Her parents drummed into her an enduring principle: Technique is all. "If you don't have craft," Neimanis says over lunch after the rehearsal, jabbing a thick finger into the tablecloth, "you shouldn't be on the stage."

But Neimanis, who craved physical activity, knew conventional acting wasn't going to be enough for her. With her strong build and boundless energy, she was cut out for physical theater -- the circus arts and movement. After college, Neimanis moved to Israel and studied clowning. She went on to mime and the masked acting of the improvised Italian commedia dell'arte. She studied at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Northern California, becoming an instructor and a company member. Stage workouts and even cycling didn't begin to exhaust her. Reveling in her physical powers, she says, "I felt superhuman strong."

Then came a grim discovery: The source of her strength was neither good genes nor good health nor the adrenaline rush of self-fulfillment, but a disease.

It started with unusual aches in her feet. Tests showed Neimanis has something called multiple endocrine neoplasia, an incurable disease that can cause benign tumors to grow on her endocrine glands, the hormone-producing organs that regulate growth and tissue function. A tumor on her pituitary gland was causing an overproduction of growth hormone, resulting in a disorder called acromegaly.

In children, this can lead to "gigantism," or extreme height. In Neimanis's case, however, the physical changes were more subtle. Her rib cage and feet expanded (she went from a size 7 1/2 shoe to a 10), while an onslaught of testosterone gave her the surging strength and sense of invincibility.

In time, acromegaly might have crippled or even killed her, as it can lead to joint, heart and kidney problems. Risky brain surgery to remove the tumor was necessary. But from Neimanis's point of view, the tumor was all good. The cure -- which meant shrinking feet, thinner arms -- was nothing to celebrate.

The operation was a success, but, at age 32, the patient was a wreck.

"I was like a heavyweight fighter who had his steroids cut off," Neimanis says. "I wasn't really happy afterwards." The change was radical; the feeling of weakness, immediate. Who was she now? she wondered. How would she go on performing?

"All that stuff I thought was me was actually a tumor," she says dryly. She began pondering how to get her physical power back. One night, she dreamed of stage curtains opening to reveal delighted children swinging on trapezes. And her path became clear.

Aerial performance, says Neimanis, became a way "to recapture that kind of presence of body."

But she wasn't interested in the acrobatic Cirque du Soleil type of aerial work. Neimanis wanted to get off the ground as a way to enhance her acting. She began studying with aerial dance pioneer Terry Sendgraff in Oakland, Calif., who was no stranger to using flying apparatus for self-empowerment. Sendgraff, a breast cancer survivor, performed an aerial work after her mastectomy, wearing nothing but a G-string.

Neimanis has known a few other aerialists who have survived brain tumors, and Sendgraff says women often gravitate to aerial work after a hardship because of its symbolism and the extreme focus it requires.

"You're rising above it all," Sendgraff, 73, said in a phone interview. "It's a challenge to the nervous system. . . . You're not just in your mind anymore."

The especially intense Neimanis, recalls Sendgraff, took to that idea right away: "She was not willing to settle back and be secure."

Neimanis's first aerial work explored her experience with the tumor, down to a surgical scene that took place on a trapeze. "The idea of hanging in midair was a big metaphoric idea -- the idea of suspension, of trusting one's own strength," Neimanis says.

"It really allowed me to tell my story."

* * *

Neimanis still bears vestiges of hormonal overflow; she is so full of extra calcium, she says, that she can fling herself violently around the cockpit in "Air Heart," simulating Earhart's crash, and never break a bone. Her torso has retained its breadth, though the muscles have been rebuilt through hard work.

She has struggled to find a niche for her hybrid art form in the performance world. "I'm too much of an actor for the dancers and too much of a dancer for the actors," she laments. Performance opportunities are limited; mostly, she teaches.

She moved to Baltimore three years ago to pursue an MFA at Towson University, where she met her husband, Bryce Butler, a fellow actor. She wrote the script for "Air Heart"; he directed it. Another key partnership developed through the Creative Alliance's live-work art space, where Neimanis met sculptors Laura Shults and Tim Scofield, who made her plane.

Strength has taken on a different meaning for her now. Neimanis took up aerial work to get back her sense of the superhuman. The irony is it returned to her a powerful notion of humanity. For that is what physical theater lends itself to best. Think of the street-corner mime, or of the Tony Award-winning actor-mime Bill Irwin (Neimanis is a fan). They bring to light the Everyman. They explore why we laugh -- and particularly, why we fail.

Think of Earhart. "We don't like to think of it this way, but Amelia Earhart's story is about failure," Neimanis says. "She failed. But she also triumphed in the failure. Her mystery continues to feed us."

It feeds Neimanis in both complex and simple ways. She relates to the aviator as a woman who would not be bound, as a high-energy daredevil, as an addict of the air. Neimanis's obsession with flight may take a different form from Earhart's, but she feels they have asked a similar question: How can we translate our dreams? "Can my body do what my imagination wants it to do?" Neimanis asks.

"When I go into that studio and I'm playing with the trapeze," she continues, her pale eyes the color of high, open sky, "I feel like I know how she felt when she was up in the air alone -- just her and her plane and she has peace and quiet.

"I am sure -- I am sure-- that it's the same thing I feel."