Grounded with Rachel Strickland
My name is Rachel Strickland. I’m a US-based circus artist, specialising in aerial hoop choreography. I’m also a mentor, and a storyteller- so I’m going to tell you a story…
I was bone-weary of traveling. It was August of 2019, and I had just returned from another journey. Earlier that year, I’d had the sublime privilege of coaching an aerial retreat in Thailand, and festivals and other work in Charlotte (twice), Savannah, Nashville, and my beloved Irish Aerial Dance Festival in Letterkenny, Ireland. My coaching and performance career had many legs, and they never stopped moving. I was so, so lucky. I was so honoured by the work I got to do. And I was exhausted.
I made a decision- I wanted to go a whole year without getting on a plane. In my entire adult life, I had never gone more than three months without flying somewhere.
A dancer and aerialist specialising in aerial hoop choreography, I’d attacked my aerial career with gusto since 2007 when I first set foot in Circus Center, in San Francisco. Those hallowed halls in 2007 were still the lair of a relatively new-to-most discipline. It was not the friendly place it is today, it was a place where you had to earn the right to be smiled at, and the only way to earn it was to put in your time. And I did – remaking my body in the first years of training, going to sleep with my hands numb and my hamstrings buzzing with pins and needles. I got stronger, my callouses thickened, and deltoids sprouted on my shoulders like mushrooms. Aerial fabric was my first obsession, which quickly faded into a past romance the first time I saw Chloe Axelrod spinning on a hoop. I wanted to be THAT.
The audacity of the new artist was strong in me; that precious period of time when you’re nothing but hunger and ambition, and very little practical application to bog you down. I leveraged this ambition and found my people over the world, and for the next 13 years I did not stop. I had no idea what I was doing – spoiler alert – no one does. I said yes to events even when I didn’t have mastery of the apparatus, I invented new pieces for every possible opportunity, and I charged money I didn’t know was much too low for most of them. Then I charged too much. Mistakes gave way to understanding, and as my career grew I learned. And I started sharing what I’d learned as soon as I learned it.
Now it was nearly 1.5 decades later, and I was desperate for some stillness. There was another side to my decision not to get on a plane for a year. I needed to retire from teaching circus skills. Nothing could have terrified me more…my coaching career was booming, it took me around the world coaching aerial hoop and creative practices, it gave me the honor of coaching spectacular human beings who peopled my life with their magic. It supported me. And I was just going to …stop?
Yes. I needed to stop. I wasn’t tired of teaching skills – but there was something I wanted more. There were works inside of me waiting to come out, but they never had the space to grow much. I was always getting on planes, going to coach workshops, festivals, classes, retreats. It was amazing. It was a dream come true.
What I really wanted was the time and space to explore my own work. What pieces were in me? What creations lingered on the edges of the primordial soup of my subconscious? I wanted to know. I wanted to give them a line and coax them limb by horrifying limb out from the netherworld. Would they be monsters? Would they be angels? I didn’t know – I had been too busy to find out.
So I dug in my heels, and I ground to a halt the huge, heavy wheel of my circus coaching career. With the exception of The Audacity Project, an online course which required no travel, I stopped coaching entirely. It was not easy. I said no to a lot of work, both coaching and performing. I said no to people I loved. If I was not going to get on a plane for a year, and if I was going to focus on my own work, that would not happen without sacrifice. The wheel had to be stopped. So I said no, over and over, and remained in Charleston, SC where I had lived for 6 months but barely inhabited.
I made a Patreon, and poured my energy into giving life to the work I had always wanted to make. To my shock and delight, people showed up. And because I had made room for it, the work also showed up. I created a brand-new aerial hoop piece scored by my good friend Jym Daly (Fidget Feet Aerial Dance, IE). Bizarre characters like the Quadruped (pictured below) emerged. Pieces took shape that had long been out of reach on the “someday, when I have time” shelf like Midas is King, a video project on aerial sling, covered in gold leaf. I collaborated and performed locally, anywhere within a few hours drive. I was delighted- the space I had made in my life for creation was proving fecund. Like some mad scientist, I was amazed that it was actually working, Eureka! It’s alive!
Six months into my self-imposed year of no planes, in March of 2020, the wheel of the world also stopped. It would no longer be hard to not get on a plane and fulfill my promise to myself. A friend jokingly wrote to me: “I know you didn’t want to fly for a year but I think this is overkill.”
Midas is King, the biggest project I had taken on since this time began, was cancelled one week before filming. That’s nothing compared to what so many others lost. Amidst the grief and sorrow of COVID-19 sweeping the globe, the size of my world went from anywhere within driving distance to my own backyard. Now I would really learn what stillness was. We all would.
And we waited. We stayed in our burrows. We sprayed our grocery bags with alcohol. We clung to whatever was real around us, and kept waiting.
I don’t have to tell you what it was like. You were there.
Now it’s time for a confession. Like many people who identify as introverts, lockdown was a relief. Introverts everywhere blossomed without the looming obligation of That Place You Have to Go To and Those Things You Have to Do. There was no place to go, and nothing to do. I think I am not alone in experiencing a quiet happiness in that stillness, and also a gnawing guilt for being happy in it.
Yes – there was an immense amount of grief. Yes – it sucked. I hated watching opportunities being snatched away, especially from emerging artists just testing their wings. But in my honesty, I have to confess there was a relief in this forced stillness for myself – I felt like I had room to breathe. Even though I had made room for the work to emerge, I was still buzzing all over the place like a crazed rabbit, and while the work was emerging, my exhaustion had not budged.
What I’ve learned in quarantine…
After the initial bread baking extravaganza of early quarantine, the dust began to settle as people adapted to these bizarre new circumstances. I noticed something happening on a large scale. People started creating again. It was under duress, it was in living rooms, it was smaller than anyone wanted but it was there. I was no exception – what other choice did we have?
Artists are freaking legends. After all this time I still feel like it is something I aspire to be, rather than something I am. I’ve always respected that path – after the past year I’m in awe of it. The work I’ve seen come out of this period of time could not have been made in any other environment. And the point of the work wasn’t necessarily to make money or even advance a career, the point was the work itself. The point was to exercise the muscle of creation.
If you plant a tree in a box, it will grow box-shaped roots. Creation is tenacious.
I’ve learned to trust that more, and to stop throttling the process and demanding output from it.
It took many more months, but Midas is King did finally get filmed. It was weird, and masked, and no one hugged, but it was made. And you know, it was better than it would have been for the months of extra time it took to get there. If I’d had my way, it would have been filmed in March and been a subpar product.
I had been forced to really learn how to rest, and found a joy inside of it. And to my annoyance, the work was better because of it.
Advice to new artists …
Here is your job: show up. Tell the truth. Don’t be attached to a specific outcome.
That’s it. That’s your job. Not to judge your work as more or less valuable, not to judge someone else’s work, your job is to show up, and tell the truth. Let it become what it is without trying to force it to be a certain thing. It is probably not going to look the way you thought it would, it has to be allowed to change. You have to be allowed to change. You have to be allowed to stop the wheel when you need to, or get off the wheel entirely.
I am not the creature I was who decided not to get on a plane for a year. I was an aerialist and coach who specialised in aerial hoop, and who was desperate for a rest. Today I am a person who makes things. I mentor artists, and I make work. Some of that work is in the air. Some of it is on the page. I never know what it’s going to be anymore, I just show up and try to tell the truth.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You can find out more about Rachel here:
Midas photo credit Max Cooper