When Suzanne Kenney discovered her passion for aerial dance, circus was a word associated with lions, ringmasters, and the Ringling Brothers. Over the span of her 20-year career, she has seen the art form evolve. Thanks in part to acts like Cirque du Soleil, circus has developed into a popular genre of performance art that blends traditional circus skills like trapeze with a modern storytelling approach.
This contemporary approach has been pioneered by Suzanne since 1996 when she co-founded Aero/Betty, Portland’s first aerial dance company. After working there for four years, she left to open her own company – Pendulum Aerial Arts – in 2000. Part school, part performance group, Pendulum is now the longest-running circus company in Portland.
I was first exposed to aerial dance when I played the fairy Pease Blossom in a Portland Center Stage production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had only been in Portland for six months when I auditioned for the role. Robert Davidson, who was an early pioneer in aerial dance, choreographed the play and put the cast of fairies in the air. I immediately fell in love with flying.
At the end of the run of the show, myself and another local dancer named Mike Barber bought the equipment from the theater and started our own company called Aero/Betty. Honestly, it was so naïve. I got on the trapeze and I just knew that this was what I was meant to do. Since there wasn’t anybody else doing it, there wasn’t an option to go perform in someone else’s company. We were creating the art form. We had to have a company because there wasn’t anybody else doing it. In 1996 there were five aerial dance companies in all of the United States.
I knew that I had stories that I wanted to tell and that I wanted to start a program for middle school girls in aerial arts because that was a very difficult time for me in my life. I wanted to give girls a place to not only feel empowered, but to feel good about their body image and find a passion early in life. The French American International School (FAIS) was very supportive of me starting that program. And I’m now entering my 17th year at FAIS. It’s a really amazing, unique partnership that I have with them.
For many years, kids were able to start taking classes when they were in middle school, around the ages of 11 or 12. Now if we wait that long, it’s almost too late. They will have spent too much time sitting around on the computer, not getting enough physical activity. Our students now generally start around the age of 7. They are getting younger and younger with their talents. We don’t typically work with adults. Normally our focus is on youth between the ages of 7 and 18.
We offer programs for various skill levels. There is a recreational program where students can come one day a week, or an intermediate program where they come three days a week. Our professional training program requires 22 hours a week. The kids that are the most serious students participate in corporate events. They perform at our shows and can go on tour. The people who come out of the professional training program often go on to pursue careers in circus. We have some students who have gone on to work for Cirque du Soleil.
Initially, it was just a program through FAIS, and then slowly it began to open up into being for the public. Now I have students that come from all over the United States to do our professional training programs. We have after-school programs for students at FAIS, and then we have our own recreational programs and a professional 3-year training program.
When I started the company my main motivation was to do performances and share my passion for this burgeoning art form. I love to perform and have always been a performer. I created over 22 public performances and that doesn’t include all of the corporate shows that we have done. With a growing company it is always a challenge trying to manage the office and everything that goes along with running a non-profit. For a time, I was doing everything. I was running the school, trying to do the creations and performing at the same time. Now I have someone who has helped me by taking over the education portion of the company. This will finally leave me time to do projects that are collaborative in nature, thought provoking, and interesting for the public.
When I’m performing I feel the most connected to myself. Creating stories that I am able to perform for the public is very cathartic for me.
I have had a long relationship with my dance partner and friend, Luis Torres. We’ve known each other since 2002 and have a great connection. People come and go in the company, and he has always been there and stuck around. We don’t know how much longer we will be performing together. Every year we think it will be our last. We’re getting up there.
If you hadn’t been a performer, what would you have done?
I would have been a costume designer. Hands down. I’m obsessed with fashion. I wanted to go to fashion school when I was 18, but ended up becoming a dancer instead. That’s why Pendulum has been a great creative outlet for me. I am able to tell stories and play with the visuals, lighting, and costume design. It’s not always easy to run a nonprofit, but Pendulum has rewarded me with some of the finest moments of my life. I am very proud of all the young artists who started with Pendulum Aerial Arts and the inspiration I shared with them.