Many people spend the majority of their lives looking for their passion, that one thing that gets them up in the morning and excited about the day ahead. For some that passion may involve making a lasting mark on this planet in the allotted few decades we call a lifetime. For others their passion lies only in the present, to better and beautify the everyday world around us. For something so profound that carries so much meaning in one’s life, finding that passion often occurs in the most ordinary commonplace circumstances. And for a young boy scrambling on the desert rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park, discovering this passion would come years later in a fortuitous trip to the sea.
Only seven years ago on a Los Angeles beach, Zen Arts co-founder Doug Miller had witnessed his passion set ablaze in front of his very own eyes. Having followed a friend down to the beach to watch a group of fire dancers perform, Doug became instantly infatuated with the dangerous performance art, and utterly consumed in mastering it. At that time he could have never dreamed that his countless hours of practice for his new found hobby would years later result in grand scheme performances for artists like Madonna, Skrillex, and Paul Van Dyk, clients like Sony, HBO, and Warner Bros., or in locations like Beirut, Egypt, or Las Vegas. But as they say…life is unpredictable.
Inspired by the originality and skill of Cirque du Soleil shows like Allegria and Quidam, as well as the free-spirited creatives he’d encountered at festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and Burning Man, Doug envisioned starting an entertainment troupe combining the best of both worlds. A company that could harness the awe and amazement of circus performance with high fashion, music, art, and dance.
Through a friend’s recommendation Doug hired fellow fire dancer and future Zen Arts co-founder Susie Culini for a gig he had just booked. In her Doug saw himself, a dedicated performer who shared the same vision for this unprecedented new kind of entertainment company. After starting out with a few close performer friends booking small gigs, pretty soon Doug was scouting the best talent worldwide, evolving the fledgling Zen Arts into the international entertainment phenomenon that it is today.
Involved in all aspects of the company, including but not limited to design, music, costumes, choreography, lighting, and art direction, Doug uses his creative freedom to strive for a one-of-a-kind experience in each Zen Arts show. Truthfully his favorite thing about his job is the fact that “every show presents a unique opportunity to create and envision an experience like no one else has seen.” Although it may be tasking at times juggling 50 or so performers, Doug wouldn’t have it any other way. And with so much on his plate, most people are shocked to hear that Doug is also a practicing psychologist, working with inner city children of Los Angeles for the past 10 years!
Driven, passionate, and imaginative, Doug Miller is a true entertainer in every sense of the word, continually working to wow audiences with innovative, shocking, and exciting performances. Thanks to such a visionary leader as Doug, Zen Arts has grown bigger and better year after year…and this is still the beginning! For the future Doug foresees Zen Arts as a highly popularized global brand, opening offices in major cities around the world like New York, London, or Paris. Reaching an even wider audience, the Zen Arts of tomorrow will produce events on an unprecedented grander scale, working more with some of the hottest musical artists of our time as well as the largest multi-billion dollar businesses.
And just think…it all started with an innocent day at the beach.
In honor of recently wrapped New York fashion week, we thought we’d take a post to share some of the magic that goes behind creating Zen fashion. Being that Zen Arts is a fully-functioning complete circus production company means we do everything ourselves, including rigging, staging, lighting, music, makeup, and of course costumes! From inspiration to theming to design to construction, our sexy, fantastic, and exotic costume creations are all thanks to Zen Arts co-founder and head costume designer Susie Culini. A self-taught designer with a passion for fashion, Susie is responsible for the fabulous characters of many Zen Arts productions, pushing the boundaries on conventional costuming and transporting people to an alternate reality. But just how exactly does Susie make her design ideas come to life?
To start with, every show is centered around a theme, idea, or overall concept. For Zen Arts, usually this theme is tailored around the client’s business or what they would like to portray at their event. Once a theme is chosen (e.g. plants) it’s time to do some research. Whether it be online, through books, or through fellow performers, researching a theme brings out different characteristics and traits that can be applied to the costume design (e.g. green, wet, leafy, branches, flowers, etc.). This brainstorming is where many of the initial design concepts are born…but we’re just getting started.
Once the general concept ideas are thought out, now comes the sketching. Although the creative process is different for every designer, once a concept is solidified, usually most turn either to sketching or directly to draping fabric over a dress form. Using a sketchbook, tracing (or layout) paper, and colored pencils, a costume designer can bring the ideas of their mind into the physical world for a technical designer or pattern maker to see as well. Since not all designers are great artists, drawing a silhouette freehand might result in an abysmal design reference. Tracing paper allows a designer to outline a silhouette of a model from a magazine and recreate the same form on multiple sheets for different looks. Or if they prefer they could also sketch the form on regular paper and create their designs on tracing sheets, allowing for an easy glance at multiple costume ideas on the same silhouette.
When it comes to the silhouette, generally designers want forms drawn relatively straight, so they can focus on seeing the shape of the garment drawn upon it. However when drawing a silhouette, designers also think about how the person they are designing for would stand posture-wise. Is this character elegant? Sexy? Confident? Reserved? Since they will be the ones ultimately wearing the costume, it’s a good idea to visualize what the costume will look like during their performance poses.
The more detailed and specific the sketches are, the easier the job for the pattern maker, who already has a difficult enough job as it is. Remember that although paper is 2D, real life is 3D. Often when designers are coming up with a design, they will sketch the front, back, and side views, making it easier for the pattern maker to visualize and measure the shapes they need to come up with.
Once the sketches are finalized it’s time for the pattern maker to get to work. Whereas designers typically come up with costume conceptions, everything from lines, proportions, colors, and textures, the pattern maker’s job is to create the physical shapes and sizes of the garment’s elements, usually by draping muslin over a form, using paper and measuring tools, or a CAD computer program. It’s also the pattern maker’s job to shop for the necessary materials, mix and choose different fabrics and textures, and sew the prototype together.
Unlike regular stage productions such as plays, musicals, or concerts, a lot more must be considered when it comes to creating a Zen Arts costume design. First and foremost, costumes need to remain functional for each performer’s specialized skill. Constructing a design involves taking into consideration the talents that each specific performer is responsible for doing, how they are going to move around, and whether or not a specific costume element is going to impede their ability to perform. Costumes that are too flowy or loose can inhibit the performance of a Zen Arts acrobat, dancer, or contortionist and result in serious consequences on the live stage (e.g. trips, falls, and injuries).
To get around this most of our costumes are either custom-tailored to form-fit each specific performer, or made with stretch fabrics like lycra, spandex, or other elastics. Fabrics like these will still cover up our acrobats without getting in the way of what they need to do. Additionally we must ensure costumes remain light so the performers do not feel weighed down. Thankfully most of these stretchy fabrics are also very lightweight.
Another factor to consider is overheating. Anyone who’s been under stage lights knows that they can get really hot really fast, and thick costumes can exacerbate that heat. Although it may appear effortless, you also have to mix in the fact that most of our performers are strenuously exerting their bodies during their intricate displays of strength, even further propagating overheating. Breathable fabrics are key in helping to control body temperature.
Contrary to plays or musicals, in which the performers are talking or singing, many of our performers have little to no dialogue. This means that their costumes are a large part of speaking for their characters to the audience and selling the overall theme or story (as in our holiday show). On a similar note, the designer also has to think about the performance setting and how the colors and patterns of the costumes may intermingle or clash with the background. Obviously if the backdrop is mainly dark, you’d want bright, vivid costumes with colors that pop. If your backdrop is colorful and glitzy, costumes with more subdued tones would be the way to go. In the end, the costumes need to transform the performers into part of a scene while at the same time helping them stand out and be noticeable.
As stated, at Zen Arts each costume is custom made for each performer and their specific skill. This also means that certain performers may require extra reinforcements in their costume constructions. Dancers for example, need more support in the hips and bust so as to not expose themselves while shaking it on stage. I mean Zen Arts is definitely about being sexy…but we don’t want a wardrobe malfunction! On the other hand our aerial apparatus performers require overall support and coverage, seeing as they are often inverted. Achieving the proper effect in these two aspects may sometimes mean dressing performers even from undergarments up.
It’s also important to mention that depending on the location of the performance, costumes may also have to be constructed to travel well. Whether by car or plane, costumes need to be packed with minimal wrinkling and tearing, so they’re ready to go when arriving on set. In any case, it’s always good to have a small sewing kit for any last minute fittings, repairs, or corrections.
Finally, remember a costume is never complete without makeup. Be it on the face or total body, makeup is an integral part of character construction, contributing to the total look and theme that’s trying to be exhibited. Accessories are also a crucial final detail, with items such as hats, glasses, shoes, or jewelry often making costumes complete. Depending on the character and scenario, certain props may also need to be added in order to really give a look that finishing touch.
When all is said and done, costumes are always tested beforehand to ensure they are functional as well as achieving the right visual appeal. Following the golden rules of functionality and aesthetics, Susie Culini and her team of helpers is able to create the right costume & makeup combinations to morph the talented troupe of Zen Arts performers into true characters, adding to the magic of any Zen Arts performance, and aiding in submerging the audience into another world.
Hurtling towards the ground in a thirty foot freefall with nothing but a thin sheet of fabric between your legs is an everyday occurrence for the Zen Arts aerial dance crew. Born in the 1970s, aerial dance is the performance art of dance-like movements upon an aerial apparatus attached to the ceiling, with moves choreographed in all three dimensions of space, moving up and down, left and right, and back and forth. Although the talented Zen aerialists make it seem effortless, this risky art form takes a lot of courage, trust, and strength.
Aerial dance came about thanks to acclaimed dancer and choreographer Terry Sendgraff. In 1975 Terry introduced a new form of improvisational dance she coined “Motivity,” self-described as an emphasis on “the individual’s discovery of her or his unique aesthetic using a system of sensory awareness while on the ground and in the air.” Professionally trained in all forms of dance including modern and ballet, as well as gymnastics, Terry’s motivity genre mainly took place on a single-point low flying trapeze, upon which she performed various hangs, poses, and motions.
By 1978 Terry had founded “Fly By Nite,” the first ever women’s trapeze dancing troupe, performing regular shows at the Motivity Center in Berkeley, CA. By 1980 Terry established her Motivity Company. And since then Terry has been performing, collaborating, and teaching, helping to spread the aerial dance genre into the widespread phenomenon it is today, used in virtually every Cirque du Soleil production. She has won countless awards and honors including an Isadora Duncan Solo Performance Award in 1989.
Aerial dance is a total body workout, utilizing great strength, balance, agility, and flexibility across the entire body. Since grips are done with both the upper and lower body, an aerial dance performer must be well-conditioned all over, with emphasis on an exceptionally strong core. In most aerial dance performances aerialists do not utilize safety lines, so they must rely on their own strength and skill to ensure they do not fall.
Even though aerial dance is often performed solo, the apparatus upon which an artist is performing often becomes a substitute dance partner, for the aerialist must choreograph movements in consideration to the motion and balance of the apparatus itself. Add in another performer on the same apparatus and the difficulty of the task has just multiplied threefold, since now the performers must maintain balance with each other and complete their movements perfectly and synchronously.
There are hundreds of possibilities when it comes to aerial apparatuses, with new ones being concocted every year, but among the most popular are the trapeze, lyra, tissu, hammock, rope, and cube. All apparatuses can be used solo, with one partner, or multiple partners, with duos and groups performing various lifts and balancing acts for added effect.
Aerial trapeze, the original circus aerial apparatus and the one Sendgraff initially used to create aerial dance, is probably the most popular aerial dance apparatus used. It consists of a bar hanging from the ceiling by two ropes, fixed either at one point (allowing for full rotation of the swing) or two points (allowing for motion in only one direction). Trapezes can be static, swinging, or multiple, allowing for flying between trapeze bars. Tricks performed involve various hangs using the feet, legs, arms, or any combination thereof, with duo tricks involving some sort of support of the second aerialist.
Aerial lyra (also known as aerial hoop, ring, or cerceaux) is a steel ring that resembles a hula hoop, also fixed at either one or two points. Just as trapeze this apparatus can be static, swinging, or spinning. Furthermore, many of the tricks performed on trapeze can also be performed with the aerial lyra.
Aerial tissu (also known as aerial silk, fabric, chiffon, ribbon, or straps) is the use of fabrics hanging from the ceiling as a performance apparatus. The fabrics are usually a poly blend that allows for medium stretching, with a width depending on personal preference as well as size of hands. Aerial fabrics usually hang to the floor or even longer, giving the extra slack needed to perform various tricks. Most aerial fabric acts need vertical space of about 20 to 30 feet in order to perform tricks safely. Performers may use one, two, or more fabrics in any given aerial tissu routine.
Aerial tissu tricks are usually divided into three main categories: climbs, wraps, and drops. For the most part these are self-explanatory, with a climb being when a performer ascends up the fabric, a wrap when a performer wraps their body (or portions of their body) within the fabric, and a drop being when a performer descends down the fabric. During all of these tricks performers create various aesthetically pleasing poses. The more complicated the wrap, the easier the pose, since there is more friction holding the body up, taking a portion of the work off the performer. Drops are obviously the most dangerous and difficult of the three and are usually performed following a wrap. A common drop is the windmill, in which the performer unravels the fabric wrapped around their body, descending towards the ground with legs spread apart and spinning. Some drops are even performed in a state of complete freefall!
Seeing as aerial tissu artists are only as safe as their own strength, some performers use rosin, a sticky resin from conifers that increases friction, in order to improve their grip. Furthermore, duo aerial silk can be particularly tricky since partners must support and balance one another’s weight, a feat requiring implicit trust and confidence.
Aerial hammock is similar to aerial tissu except that the fabric loops back up to the ceiling to create a hammock-like apparatus to perform in. Aerial hammock tricks are the same as tissu tricks with the addition of cradling elements, in which the performer can lie within the fabric of the hammock without the support of a hand grip, foot hold, or additional aerialist.
Aerial rope (also known as corde lisse, meaning “smooth rope” in French) is a large rope apparatus that involves many of the same tricks as aerial tissu including climbs, wraps, and drops. Aerial rope is usually made from a soft cotton in thickness of 25-30 mm. Just like in aerial tissu, performers must utilize various foot locks to ascend and descend the rope, as well as to perform various intricate poses and tricks.
Lastly aerial cube incorporates a large, hollow, and side-less three-dimensional cube upon and through which performers exhibit various holds and poses. Like most other aerial apparatuses, performers on cube must pay particular attention to each others movements, for any untimely or wrong gesture could throw the entire apparatus into a state of disequilibrium.
Other types of apparatuses include aerial bungee, performing somersaults and various tricks attached to a giant bungee cord, aerial perch, performing grabs and poses against a fixed pole, and aerial net, performing tricks similar to those in aerial tissu utilizing a netted material.
Since aerial dance is usually performed without a safety net or harness, aerial professionals must go through rigorous practice and training before attempting a live performance. Accidents do occur, like in November of 2009 when an aerialist had to be hospitalized after falling during a holiday show at the Beverly Center mall in Los Angeles. The seasoned 26-year-old performer fell nearly 40 feet when she slipped while hanging upside from a lyra, a trick she had performed countless times before.
One of the main safety precautions aerialists take is performing in tight or form-fitting clothing to allow a full range of motion without the interference of materials. Baggy and flowy clothing can provide superfluous material that can intermingle with the apparatus as well as grip attempts by the performer. In addition to safety reasons, many wear minimal clothing to show off full muscular definitions and body lines as part of the aesthetics of the act, showcasing the beauty of the human body and its capabilities.
Starting in 1999 in Boulder, CO, the Aerial Dance Festival is an annual gathering of aerial performers to share, learn, and discuss various tricks and new techniques. Put on by Frequent Flyers Productions Inc., the festival consists of two weeks of demonstrations, seminars, workshops, and classes, providing a forum for aerial dance artists from around the nation to join together.
Today many modern trapeze schools offer courses in aerial dance. To try your hand at aerial dance simply research a trapeze school near you and ask which apparatuses they train in. Or if you’d like to leave the difficult stuff to us, call 855-ZEN-ARTS or email at email@example.com to witness a breathtaking Zen Arts aerial dance routine first-hand.
For more of our favorite photos of Zen Arts aerial dance check out the thumbnails below or visit the Zen Arts Facebook page.
Allan Amato is a fashion photographer who has been shooting a series with Zen Arts. Take a look at these gorgeous photos! Costuming and airbrush by Zen Arts.
Plain, simple, dirty, irresistible, beauty.
Geniuses have a tendency to make some beautiful stuff happen in the world. This beauty is what we humans call the arts. Art, music, poetry and dance are the only nonsensical and frivolous aspects of life that keep us all from going crazy. What else is more interesting than being in the presence of, sharing with and getting to collaborate in some way with something beautiful?
Susie Culini had this thought as her primary inspiration for co-creating Zen Arts. She wanted to be around geniuses, Winkies, she calls them all the time. She wants to live in a world of Winkies, a grouping of people that create what they want when they want… and those creations have one prime directive… to explore the boundaries of beauty.
And as Zen Arts primary costume designer, Susie’s genius has her hard at work. It is a pleasure to watch somebody, who has not been professionally trained in her chosen craft to whip out brilliant works of art faster than a locomotive can squash baby kittens.
Susie has an uncanny knack for tapping into to the collective unconscious of the fashion world and giving it a shot of adrenaline. As co-founder, co-manager and co-director of Zen Arts I don’t understand how she gets her magical pieces done, and holds down a day job.
The next time you see a Zen Arts show, take a moment to look at the magic and artistry sewn into all of the costumes worn by the talent. Her aesthetic, is only matched by the functionality of her clothing. Each piece is custom made to suit the needs of the performer and their individual gift. That means that almost every artist in almost every show has a new handmade Culini masterpiece to flaunt. Wow. Keep an eye out for her own clothing line… its kinds hush-hush right now….
Susie, alert your genius, and tell her to keep it coming because your first orders are about to start coming in.
So to you Susie and all the other pets of geniuses that are opening up the floodgates to the divine thank you… thank you for your tireless works, thank you for your sacrifices and thank you for creating in the face of what seems like an impossibly backwards world. Your genius and your labors, like Zen Arts are the only thing keeping the world alive.