Issue 40: ProFile with Aerial Experience

In a time when the kite flying community is very much reaching out for greater exposure in the realm of professional performance status, there is a duo doing exactly that… Lee and Debbie Park first came on the kite scene through a chance meeting just about 3 years ago, and have since become one of the best known performance groups in the community with an exciting blend of artistic performance, gymnastics and kite flying, not to mention having expanded their realm into international arenas such as Cirque du Soleil and Stars on Icewhich see tremendous media coverage.

If you have not seen Lee and Debbie perform yet, I heartily encourage you to attend one of their demonstrations and get a taste of the magic for yourself… We’ve certainly been inspired, and are pleased to share some of their thoughts and experiences with you, our readers.

For starters, give our readers an idea of your early amateur gymnastic careers, and tell us how you happened to get together. Tell me a bit about you two joining forces, both as a couple and as performance artists.

L&D:  We met at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs , Colorado in 1987 leaving the following day to perform for the summer on a gymnastics tour to Asia and South America .  We taught clinics and did exhibitions and fell in love.  We married just a year after meeting.  We grew up on separate coasts, but shared similar experiences.  Most of our childhood was spent in training in private gymnastics clubs and competing.  We have always loved training, performing, and traveling.  Careers as performance artists were a natural extension of our childhood dreams and fantasies.  As far as performing as a couple; we love to support, encourage and challenge one another, so performing together is a perfect fit.

We now have a couple of longtime gymnasts who’ve joined together and started touring professionally, how on earth did you happen to get into kiting?

Lee:  Marc Ricketts and Curtiss Mitchell were the key to our successful transition from being captivated by indoor kites to actually flying them and becoming involved in kiting.  Marc and Curtiss, we guess, must have laughed after receiving our telephone call saying…

“Hi, we are Lee & Debbie Park, a couple of professional figure skaters and acrobats from California .  We saw a dance show last night in Los Angeles which included a fabulous indoor kite solo by David Brittain.  We went on the internet, searched for indoor kiting and found a telephone number for some guy out East named Roger Chewning who we called to ask if he would teach us how to fly indoor kites.  Roger gave us your number and said you are the best ones to teach indoor kiting… Will you teach us? Where do we get kites? And if you will teach us, can we come there to Wisconsin tomorrow?!” 

I don’t think I took a breath.  We were so excited to have found a new act that appeared to perfectly match our talents.

Marc and Curtiss graciously agreed to completely set aside 3 full days to teach us their art.  We took video, pictures and good notes during our intensive training session in Madison , Wisconsin flying all sorts of indoor and outdoor kite models, each more intriguing than the last.  It wasn’t long before Marc and Curtiss were chuckling as Debbie, just getting the hang and circle flying on Day #2 began trying to find a way to somersault while flying a quadline kite.  I think they knew they had a couple of “live ones” on their hands.

We took the experience home and began actively training 6-8 hours a day, putting the Aerial Experience twist to this new learned art form.

So how did you transition from being interested observers to active indoor pilots?

Lee:  As soon as the production companies found out that we were training a new act they wanted it in their show.  Soon after receiving our first indoor kites in the mail, we already had professional show contracts to fly kites in 14 shows in Utah , Wyoming and Montana .  Needless to say, this was very motivating.  We had to learn to fly synchronized patterns in a tight area, coordinated steps, over the heads of audience members (who paid big money not to get hit in the face with a kite!), be musical and entertaining!  Wow…what a task.  Grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate our new love for indoor kites we trained intensely to prepare.  The new act was a tremendous success and additional kiting contracts quickly followed.

Deb:  I traveled to Madison , Wisconsin mostly to support Lee.  I intended to help him develop a solo act with indoor kites.  I have terrible hand-eye coordination and never imagined being involved with props…especially kites.  When we arrived, Marc and Curtiss quickly handed kites to both of us and the rest is history.  By Day #2 I couldn’t imagine not being involved…flying kites is just too fun to be left out!  With great patience Marc and Curtiss encouraged me to come face to face with my hand-eye coordination problem which I did…by stepping on and breaking several of their favorite kites.  I stuck it out and once we had the professional show contracts we had already decided to fly as a team.

Since establishing your presence in the kiting community, what other kinds of “acts” have you added?

L&D:  Flying kites has brought a new spark to our performance repertoire.  We originally imagined indoor kite flying could be a part of some other acrobatic routine; however, it has blossomed to the point where kite routines stand alone.  We are creating many stage numbers only utilizing indoor kite props.  Corporations, parties and events are equally amazed by the artistry of these beautiful, magical flying objects.

The most exciting new act we have added was developed as we spent time in Las Vegas teaching indoor kite flying to Irina and Dimitri Bogatirev, Cirque du Soleil’s comedy superstars from the show at Bellagio Casino Hotel called “O”.  Irina and Dimitri have since moved on to create their own show production called Aga-Boom, a hysterical look into the “do’s and don’ts”, of life culminating in one of the most incredible paper fights you will ever experience.

The Bogatirev’s comedic approach to indoor kiting sparked an idea for the many ice skating productions we do.  French National Figure Skating Champion, Laurent Tobel, a hilarious comedy ice skating performer, has been doing parody ice acts for years and is now working with us at Aerial Experience creating parodies of aerial, ice and indoor kite flying numbers.

What countries have you performed in while using kites as part of your show?

L&D:  We have been privileged to travel throughout most of the world, visiting places most would only dream about.  An interesting tidbit to know about seeing distant lands and experiencing other cultures is that there is something special about each place.  Every country offers diversity, interest and thrill.  Those with good coffee usually rate highest.

Italy, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Canada and the United States have seen our kite flying performances.  Indoor kite flying will be added to more of the Aerial Experience acts this year, so the list will grow dramatically.

What other individuals have been a major inspiration, and why?

Lee:  Kite flyers around the world have been a very welcoming group.  They have all inspired and encouraged us.  A few people that were there at the beginning who really went out of their way to encourage us about indoor kiting were the Gombergs, Lee Sedgwick, Lam Hoac, Harold Ames, and of course, Marc Ricketts and Curtiss Mitchell.  The kiting world inspires us because it is filled with people who understand and appreciate the combination of artistry and sport.

Kite makers and flyers alike tend to push the limits.  There appears to be no “arrival” in kiting where you have created the perfect kite or flown the perfect routine… There is always room for improvement, innovation and creation.  We love to be around people who are pushing the barriers a little further down the road!

Deb:  Nadia Comenici is always at the top of my list of inspiring people.  When I saw her in the Olympics in 1976, she made me want to do what she did… To me, that’s the real definition of inspiration… When someone makes you want to emulate them… And does it with such perfection that it looks easy, it makes you believe that you can do it.  Nadia did that for me when she was 14 and didn’t even know me.  Through the years, many more tangible situations, people and relationships have inspired and kept me going in so many ways I could probably write a book.

What do you look for when selecting a new kite for your performances?

Lee:  Number one factor… Can it fly without wind?  We are interested in utilizing all types of kites in our indoor performances; however, many kite makers have not created versions light enough to fly indoors.  As everyone knows by now, there are no true windless kites.  All kites require some air flowing over the sail.  Certainly, the limits need to be pushed with kites and we think many people would be surprised to find that their favorite outdoor kites fly quite well in a windless environment.

Other questions we ask when choosing kites include:  Is it different?  Does it have an uncommon shape or coloration?  Does it make a statement?  Does it have some special artistic feature?  Does it have the ability to demonstrate both sport and art?

Many of our current clients have special needs for their shows which require us to custom create new indoor kites such as the pair of Luna Moths we recently flew for a major drug company product launch in Las Vegas.  Aerial Experience will continue to grow its team of artists, kite makers, graphic designers and printers to meet this increasing need; however, there are many companies like Prism, Guildworks, Windfire Designs and Revolution who are already running forward to meet the increasing interest in indoor kiting.  There is also a fast growing group of kite designers in Europe including Ramlal Tien, Didier Ferment, and Fridolin Anders who are creating amazing indoor kites.

Deb: The first thing I look at is the “footprint” the kite makes in space.  It has to have a silhouette that I like and that expresses the concept that I want to create.  The color is important as well because not all kite fabric is visible in show lights.  Lighter colors so far have worked best.  Next, I look at how the kite flies… and whether its movement pattern will compliment the style of music I’m using. Finally, I have to like flying it!  It has to be fun to play with!

How do you go about selecting music, and what do you look for?

Deb:  I respect creators of music all over the world. It is always inspiring to go to small theater shows and hear independent musicians in concert.  I love street performers and always tip them when they’re good, and buy their CDs when they’re really good.  Independent musicians are always a good source of inspiration for music choices and they are often willing to create custom pieces for performances.  I look for music with a lot of changes, and a mixture of textures from modern electronics to traditional cultural music instruments from all over the world.  It is always amazing to me that there is so much music in the world with such great variety!  So many people are incredibly talented and creative.

Do you have set routines? How much do you improvise each time?

L&D:  We reserve all the improvisation for training times.  One of our favorite dances is tango.  Most tango dancing is an improvisational dance where the gentleman makes various dancing suggestions to the lady throughout the dance and she chooses either to follow exactly as was suggested or throw a twist at the gentleman and perhaps catch him off guard.  This little teasing and play game makes the dance so much fun.  Debbie and I treat our kite training sessions much the same way.

We try to read subtle suggestions the other one is making to follow, turn, speed up or slow down.  We use many non-verbal cues such as quick eye contacts, body lean, or kite spacing to match our synchronization patterns.  We don’t discuss who will be the leader and who will be the follower.  This process has dramatically helped our synchronized flying because we can basically “read each other’s minds”.  Of course, the game is full of surprises because our basic strategy is the same… We want the other one to mess up!  In the beginning, the games were short, usually ending after just a minute when one or the other would crash into the ground or the other person’s kite.

Today, we read each other’s movements quite well and typically fly like this for several non-stop 30 minute sessions each practice.  Our show routines are completely choreographed hopefully, with no surprises in them.  We are attempting to choreograph more sophisticated routines which actually require us to coordinate steps, small body movements and sometimes when to take a breath.

What kind of experience do you apply to creating new routines, or performances?

Deb: Each project is different.  Occasionally, we have time pressures and limitations which change our preparation time.  When I have my way though, I love to take my time and really train seriously.  Between training sessions, I like to do a lot of mental “walk-throughs” and “edit” choreography using videos of our practice sessions.  At some point in the process, we will usually work with a choreographer or sometimes even a team of choreographers depending on the project.

What kind of a practice schedule do you maintain?

Lee:  We have known nothing but training most of our lives.  This has led to a training regimen of lifestyle fitness.  Since our performance acts are so diverse, our bodies and minds have many fitness needs.  We mix up the training from month to month, week to week and sometimes daily.  All movement is beneficial to your body.  You could be bike riding up a volcano in Hawaii and the physical benefits will cross over to improved kite flying.  You could swim a mile in the “hot water” beaches off Hong Kong helping you to dance better.  You could walk 13 miles to the Starbucks coffee shop in Frankfurt , Germany and help…well…help make you warm and happy anyway!

Our objective is to maintain overall fitness first…then on to specific movement training.  We find the specific activity training to be so much easier when we start with a base that is already fit, flexible and happy.  Kite flying practice…well…we take kites everywhere and fly everywhere.  Much of our day is spent indoors, setting up, rehearsing or tearing down from shows, so we have a lot of time inside of large performance venues to practice and play.

How do you prepare for a festival beforehand?

L&D:  Our lifestyle is one of almost constant training so that side goes without saying too much.  We attempt to have numbers choreographed far in advance of events so that we are comfortable performing them when the “moment of truth” arrives.  We spend a lot of time double checking equipment, costumes and props.  We leave very little to chance.  A double-checked bag has probably not been checked enough times!  We bring doubles of almost everything we will use.  We typically pack our gear in separate bags so that if one is lost we can still perform.  We try to stay positive about what we will do in our performance routines… Even if we are not feeling completely prepared.  Once the events arrive, we can no longer train for them… It is time to remember why we do this in the first place… TO HAVE FUN!

When you dream of that “next level” of performing, what is it that you see?

L&D:  The future is bright.  It will be filled with grand performances involving whole teams of dancers, acrobats, and indoor kite flyers.  Shows will include professional lighting and staging, custom costuming, unique video projection and puppetry as well as live music.  Aerial Experience will strive to involve the audience fully in the show experiences to help move people emotionally and take them mentally to places otherwise unknown through a fantastic journey in air!

What are your philosophies on the mental aspect of reaching out to an audience?

Lee:  As a performer you must realize that the audience is just like you.  If you are sold on your routine, they also will be sold.  If you are passionate about your work, they also will be passionate about watching your work.  Practice your work, prepare your routines carefully, and believe in what you are doing and you will touch the audience.  Our desire since the first day of performing has been to try to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, captivated, so they dare not blink lest they miss an important trick.  We want to create performances that move the audience to another place and paint beautiful dramatic images in their minds.  We also try to consolidate routines so they end before the audience is ready.  Our philosophy is to always keep them wanting more!

Deb:  Once, while working with Cirque du Soleil choreographer, Debra Brown, I was told something that really stuck.   While coaching me how to improve on acrobatics and dance she said…”Take me with you”!  That was a revolutionary statement… It totally changed how I approached performance art from that time forward. Instead of stopping with “reaching out” to audiences, I try to look at people as if they are coming with me on this “journey” as we create these intangible artistic abstractions in space together. Now, I try to help people feel as if they are actually participating with me.   Performing is more of an “interactive” process and not so, “flat screen”.

What thoughts do you have on kiting’s influence on global culture?

Lee:  We travel every week to some far destination in the world.  A typical month for us circles the entire globe.  One thing has become quite clear; people are the same all over the world.  They want peace, happiness and freedom.  They all love, dream and play.  Kiting is a pure activity that allows them to enjoy life… Whether in Shanghai , Moscow or Quebec , kiting is the same… A fun activity that brings people together to celebrate life.  Standing on the hillside at Fort El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico any Saturday afternoon of the year, kiting’s influence on global culture can be seen in all its glory.  There stands an extremely diverse population of individuals and families numbering in the hundreds and sometimes thousands, flying kites on the ocean breezes in perfect harmony, cooperation and peace.  A homemade plastic shopping bag kite flies perfectly well alongside the newest Prism Quantum Pro.  People are happy and content.  Kiting is a wonderful activity that reminds people how much they are alike instead of the many daily struggles that remind them how different they are.

Deb:  All over the world, everyone likes kites!  For some reason, it takes people to a “happy place”.  There is a deep reassurance people feel when something they can’t see (like wind) has a tangible effect (like holding up a kite)… and indoors the wonderment is multiplied, and in some deeper hidden place, people believe that the impossible is possible in some small way.  That’s a good thing.  More people should fly kites.

Do you have any sponsors?

L&D:  We are proud to have Prism Kites as a sponsor and look forward to announcing our sponsorship relationships with several other companies in the coming months.

What is it about kiting that most appeals to you now and keeps you involved?

Lee:  The beauty and grace that captivated us from day one is still alive and well.  We sometimes giggle in amazement at what these flying objects can do. Probably the number one thing that keeps us flying every day (sometimes 3 sessions, 2 to 3 hours long) is that we know there is more that can be done with the kites… And hey, someone’s gotta do it!

Deb:  As a performance art, it’s still very original, especially indoor synchronization and acrobatic choreography.  As a sport, it has all the elements that I enjoy.  It can be relaxing, and it can be challenging depending on what you want to work on.  It has all the elements of relieving stress — or sometimes creating it!  The variety of choices keeps me interested personally.  I get bored with things that are too easy, but things that are too hard can be really stressful, so it’s nice to have an activity like kiting that can be all the extremes in one.

What are some of your favorite kite festivals so far?

L&D:  So far, the American Kitefliers Association National Conventions have been highlights for us.  There are so many dedicated volunteers involved in running a smooth kite festival that it makes for a grand spectacle.  The events come off with such fluidity and professionalism that everyone involved should be very proud.

Another favorite, which we will attend again in March of this year is a small indoor only kite festival in Lincoln City, Oregon.  The cooperation of the organizers, sponsors, and the city is helping to create what is certain to become the biggest and best indoor kite festival in the world!  There isn’t an indoor kite enthusiast in the country that should miss this fantastic 4 day event.

What do you enjoy the most about performing for an audience?

Deb: I totally respect the position we are in when performing for an audience and am constantly amazed that people are willing give their attention and appreciation in such a way.  I suppose there is always a sort of risk when people experience a live performance.   Occasionally, surprising things happen that can’t be repeated… And you really have to watch to catch those moments… Sometimes it’s a great moment and sometimes it can be …well… a story to tell your friends later… And a chance to laugh at yourself.

Do you have any recommendations to someone who is thinking of flying indoors?

Lee:  Yes… DO IT!   We need more indoor flyers.  If you haven’t tried it, just imagine the excitement of controlling every aspect of your kite in a 360 degree wind window with no dependence on the breeze.  I am certain the dance will enthrall and captivate you just as it did Debbie and I.  Be patient though… Gravity applies!  There is nothing like a good backwards walking marathon first thing in the morning!

Deb:  Do it… It’s fun!  Don’t be too too picky about techniques… Just watch it fly, and be amazed.

Do you feel the kiting scene will ever become a mainstream sport or pastime, and how might we go about making it happen?

Lee:  Kiting is already mainstream… Just have a look at the festival in Dieppe!  Thousands and thousands of people attend, admire and fly.  There are more serious competition kite flyers than there are serious football players in the NFL.  There are probably just as many kite flyers around the world as there are people who play football.

High profile and high level are different stories though.  High profile and mainstream will only come when we have more superstar flyers who fly with such perfect accuracy, precision and drama that the fans cannot turn away to watch another sport.  We need the highest quality of kites with the best materials the world has to offer and serious training time.  Not to mention the fact that the sport has yet to really grab the attention of corporate sponsorship.

All sports which move to the “mainstream” arena have corporate sponsors knocking down their doors; however, it will require the kiting community to knock first.

– Interview by Dave “Geezer” Shattuck –

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