April 18, 2017

Moisture Festival Spotlight: Aerial Coordinator

Notes from a conversation with the Moisture Festival’s Cathy Sutherland

By Steve Wacker

I’ve been attending Moisture Festival shows for a few years now, and I never really thought much about the combination of art forms: varietè, aerial performance, and burlesque. That is, I hadn’t thought about them until I had the opportunity to speak with the Festival’s diva deviante of dance and gymnastics, its coordinator of all things aerial – Ms. Cathy Sutherland, without whom the Festival wouldn’t be as multifaceted as it is.

Photo Courtesy of Cathy Sutherland
We all appreciate the shared-laughter aspect of Moisture Festival shows, but there’s definitely something to be said for how the giggles, gags, and jokes are complemented by aerial artistry. I know that I’ve been gob-smacked more than once when, while trying to catch my breath after laughing so hard that I thought I’d pass out, I saw an aerial performance that left me awestruck and speechless. This is the dimension that Sutherland brings, with her passion for physical movement and her appreciative eye for talent. She was the person who recognized the possibilities of burlesque, and the potential synergy and audience appeal of combining burlesque with aerial artistry and varietè.

Sutherland has quite a resumé, with a strong emphasis on life experience. In her mid-20s she dropped her gymnastic scholarship at the University of Washington and turned down a dance scholarship to go to Europe and make her living as a performer/musician (saxophone and vocal harmonies) on the streets of Paris and elsewhere. She and MF cofounder Ron Bailey established the Royal Famille de Caniveaux, and their relationship evolved from the professional to the personal, which ultimately became a marriage partnership and family. Their daughter Caela is a gifted singer and entertainer in her own right – her first CD release is slated for the spring of this year.

Aerialistas 2010 (Credit: Mark Gardiner)
After they returned to the States, Sutherland says that originally the concept of MF was pretty much Bailey’s thing. “RB – I call him RB – was kind of wanting to do this. At first, it was something that he started, and I was really involved with my gymnastics team. He and I had done a lot of stuff together, been to Europe and done all that, playing in the streets, you know.”

Sutherland feels very fortunate for the opportunities she has had in gymnastics and dance, and the chance to work with some great dancers and choreographers, such as Pat Graney. But Sutherland is one of those people who can’t stand going to gyms for exercise, and when an invitation to join an aerialist troupe came along she jumped on it.

“I had been invited by Lara Paxton of the Aerialistas to become an understudy in this new all-girl aerial gang. That sounded like fun, and I was looking for something to do. Before I knew it I was performing with them and having a blast. Then Moisture Festival started letting me do our aerial acts there. This was a six-person troupe, which was really nice to see. We would go to Lara’s house and make these great fairy costumes, with big fairy wings.” Sutherland speaks highly of Paxton’s creativity, and is grateful for the opportunity to work with her.

Aviatrix 2011 (Credit: John Cornicello) 
“Then burlesque started happening, and there was a need to do burlesque. We even created a burlesque aerial number, which we did at Moisture Festival. We did our first burlesque there, at Hale’s Palladium, but we realized we needed to find our own venue, that the comedy/varietè needed to be on its own – so people who wanted family-oriented entertainment didn’t get it mixed up with burlesque. We tried different venues and performed at some really nice ones, such as ACT Theatre, and over time we started incorporating burlesque into aerial.”

Bell Hops 2015
(Credit: David Rose)
Eventually they ended up finding the Broadway Performance Hall venue (MF’s primary burlesque venue today). “We really wanted to differentiate our burlesque from other burlesque in town – we wanted it to have a Moisture Festival feel, with skill acts and aerial acts and humor, like the original music hall idea. We wanted to see those other acts. And there’s so much humor in burlesque – like our aviatrix act, in which we were all formation flyers dressed up like Amelia Earhart, for example. We had a lot of fun incorporating burlesque into aerial.”

Sutherland is not very philosophical about Moisture Festival’s ability to foster a sense of community. “That’s not me. I think that RB is more the person who brings the community together – he’s the visionary about such things. I just like things physical. I like doing physical, fun, scary things. I like to laugh, and being up high – I’m so lucky. And we’re also lucky to be part of such a great community, with organizations such as SANCA (the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts) and Emerald City Trapeze, and Teatro Zinzanni bringing great aerial acts in from places like France and Canada.”

Aviatrix 2014 (Credit: David Rose)
From left: Carri Anderson, Esther Edelman, Martha Enson, Cathy Sutherland
Sutherland believes that MF audiences appreciate the fact that the Festival is genuine, that it’s not a hustle. “There’s a feeling that the audience is proud of us. Like when we were doing the aviatrix act, there were women in the audience who appreciated that we were older women – in our forties and fifties – doing a very cool act, and they were totally behind us. That’s something that’s engendered in that room, and to me a lot of that spirit is something that RB creates.”

Sutherland’s positive spirit shines throughout her work, and it shone throughout our conversation. She shared some fascinating details of the Festival’s history, and I know that this spring I’m going to have a deeper appreciation for the aerialist and burlesque performers. See you there!

Seattle's Moisture Festival of Comedy/Varietè, founded in 2004, is the largest and longest running comedy/varietè festival in the world. Learn more at www.moisturefestival.org/.

Thanks to Kirby Lindsay for background information. 

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