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Aren James Hooper once snatched a hat off the top of Samuel L. Jackon’s head. Instead of getting angry, the movie star just laughed and pointed. His hat was safe in Hooper’s hands — some 20 feet off the ground.
Hooper spends a lot of his time up in the air. He’s a performer and one of the North American tour directors for the Melbourne-based Strange Fruit. (The name has no connection to the Billie Holiday song, more on that below). The aerial dance troupe will be back in Philadelphia this September, performing at Feastival for the fourth year in a row. They’re one of the most popular acts at the annual FringeArts fundraiser bash thrown by restaurateur Audrey Taichman, and they’re almost definitely the most photographed.
Photos of Strange Fruit performances are plenty fun to look at, but even the best can’t reproduce what it’s like to see them in the flesh.
Crane your neck up and look at a window on the second floor of a building. Imagine a person floating at that height, swaying nonchalantly at the top a pole slim enough to wrap your fingers around. Now imagine them performing a routine, complete with colorful costume, facial expressions, rhythm and grace. When Strange Fruit performs, it seems like the dancers have been exempted from the mandates of gravity. The sight is almost hypnotic.
According to Hooper, you’ve either got what it takes to be a sway-pole dancer, or you don’t.
“At auditions, if you can climb your way to the top of the pole and strap yourself in, you’re halfway to a job,” he said. You can’t get too casual about it, though. Strange Fruit’s creative director, Phillip Gleeson, doesn’t hire people who don’t seem at all afraid their first time up. Being atop that pole is patently dangerous.
As Hooper describes it: “You’ve gotta dance with 90 percent freedom and 10 percent fear for your life.”
There’s never been a serious accident or broken bones from a Strange Fruit mishap, although Hooper remembers one cold morning when a performer lost his hand grip climbing down after a show and had a minor scare. Grounded by a steel ballast that weighs nearly 1,000 lbs., the poles have never snapped. They’re constructed of fiberglass — similar to what’s used in pole vaulting — and are custom-made to order, sized for each dancer.
Attached to the top end is a leather “saddle” shaped like an infinity sign, which wraps around the performers’ thighs and keeps them from falling off. The harness allows dancers to take the swaying to extremes, sometimes arching so severely in their swoops that the pole bends nearly in half, allowing them to touch the ground. In addition to hat-snatching, pouring champagne in people’s glasses is another common party trick.
It’s amusing, but it’s also high art. Works are carefully orchestrated, although many allow for bits of improvisation. The performers are encouraged to experiment — if they come up with new choreography, it might be added to the repertory in a future piece.
Many Australia-based Strange Fruit members had acrobatics training before they joined the group — Melbourne is home to the National Institute for Circus Arts — but most of the North American dancers were regular stage performers before they signed up.
That’s Hooper’s story. A native of Rosewell, N.M. (“I’m from where the aliens are!”) who moved to New York City to further his career, he ended up blacklisted by much of the NYC dance community. “I’m very open with my mouth,” he said, by way of explanation. He thought he might never find good work again, until a friend spotted a Strange Fruit audition listing.
“They’re not from around here, so they probably don’t know who you are,” she said. His tryout went so well that he was asked to stick around and help audition others, and he has never looked back.
“Who as a child didn’t want to get up on a pole and fly?” he said.
Taking in a Strange Fruit show can feel almost dreamlike, and the company itself was born from a dream. Founder Rod Poole was an eccentric Melbourne-based artist, who one night had a vision of wheat field filled with stalks heavy with fruit — apples and plums and cherries, all swaying in the breeze.
“He woke up and said, ‘I’ve got to make this happen, but with people, not fruit!,’” recounted Hooper. “Yeah, he was pretty crazy.”
So naming the company had everything to do with literally describing that image, and nothing to do with the iconic Billie Holiday ballad with the same title. In that song, the “Strange Fruit” in question are lynched slaves. In Australia, the phrase doesn’t have any context. In the U.S., it’s got a lot.
“The name is hard for a lot of U.S. citizens to swallow,” said Hooper. In some states, particularly in the South, the company will change its billing to “Australia Sway Pole,” so the racially charged name doesn’t distract from the festival or event.
Though he has since died, Poole’s legacy lives on: the company just celebrated its 21st anniversary. Over the years, it has changed ownership several times, but kept its mission intact: To create beautiful art accessible to a wide audience. Pursuant to that mission, Strange Fruit very rarely performs indoors. There’s the logistical challenge, but it’s also a deliberate decision, so that anyone passing by can enjoy the performance — not just those who pony up for a $40 or $150 theater seat.
One of Hooper’s most memorable performances was Latvia, where the poles were set up alongside the Daugava River in what’s called Riga’s Old Town. Not only was the landscape gorgeous from 20 feet in the air, but it was filled with people. Around 20,000 gathered around the show site, and another 40,000 lined the river’s opposite bank. As evening fell, all the peformers could see were hundreds of glowing cell phone screens, pulled out by the crowd to capture photos and videos.
“When you look down and there’s a sea of 60,000 phones watching you,” said Hooper, “it’s the most glorious feeling in the entire world.”