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In new theatre craze, stage flying adds 'extra element of awe' - and fills seats

A young dancer soars overhead during a rehearsal for "Billy Elliot: The Musical" at the Canon Theatre in Toronto.

The Globe and Mail

Cesar Corrales has a very serene look on his face for a young man who is about to be thrown 20 feet into the air. From an empty stage inside Toronto's Canon Theatre, the 14-year-old is gracefully spun around and around by an older dancer before being whipped upward, soaring in huge arcing loops.

Corrales and the other boys who play the title role in the Toronto production of Billy Elliot The Musical have been rehearsing this scene for weeks. In it, Billy dreams of leaping so high he actually takes flight. It's a move made possible thanks to specially fitted harnesses the boys wear, which are hooked to a cable that can pull them high and swing them wide. It's a young dancer's fantasy - which is just what it's supposed to convey.

"That's why the flying is involved, to create that sensation, and for the audience to understand how exhilarating it is for the boy," says Sean Kelly, the production's resident choreographer.

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It's also involved because flying helps sell tickets. People in the industry like to point out that flying onstage with some mechanical assistance is almost as old as theatre itself. But it's becoming much more common in live performances, from Broadway to awards ceremonies to Super Bowl shows. The goal is that added "wow" factor, to attract audiences who have come to expect special effects and spectacle.

"The audience wants to see more interesting effects and a more television-, more movie-type of effect done on the live stage," says Tracy Nunnally, president of Hall Associates Flying Effects, an Illinois-based company that was formed in 1994. Nunnally became president in 2004. In that time, he has watched the demand for flying effects in theatrical productions explode.

In 2004, the company opened 20 to 25 shows a year; it now opens 200 shows a year.

"It's just gone nuts," he says.

Nunnally is also the president of the North American Association of Flying Effects Directors, an industry organization formed in 1995 that teaches people about flying effects, with an emphasis on how to do it safely.

As Nunnally likes to say, there is nothing new about the basic idea. "The ancient Greeks were flying people in on the stage in 451 B.C.," he says. But with equipment that has become incredibly sophisticated, it is being put to much bolder use. Case in point: the troubled Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,a show that has highlighted the potential risks of stage flying.

"They're leading the cutting edge of the speed and the type of flight that they're trying to do for that show," Nunnally says. "The flying they're trying to do is very aggressive and it leaves a very small margin of error."

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But, he adds, the software and other equipment the show is using, from FTSI Automation, is "top notch."

In December, a performer performing an aerial stunt in Spider-Man was badly injured after falling 30 feet. An Actors Equity Association investigation cited human error.

Perhaps because of the well-publicized problems that the show has faced, those who provide flying effects come under increased scrutiny from producers, Nunnally says.

"I personally think it's because of the potential for danger that has been spotlighted by the issues that have happened to Spider-Man," he says.

Those issues serve to underscore the need for those who work with stage flying equipment to become expert at it, he adds.

The automated equipment used by Spider-Man is "pretty sophisticated," says Scott Fisher, president and chief executive officer of FTSI Automation. "Technology-wise, it's a huge showcase. In one of the flights where Spider-Man is fighting the Green Goblin, there's 11 different winch machines involved."

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All that flying is computer-controlled, and it is becoming more and more intricate. "We likely couldn't have done what we did in this show even three or four years ago just because the technology wasn't available," Fisher says.

Some shows naturally demand characters soaring through the air.

"Try doing Peter Pan without flying," says Elissa Horscroft, technical director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Avon Theatre. Last season, the festival used stage flying effects in three shows: Peter Pan, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.

"It adds a bit of magic, that sort of slightly circus element of the audience seeing something that they can't walk out and do in everyday life," she says. "It's another tool in the toolbox."

It is a tool being wielded more frequently in live performances: The Black Eyed Peas used flying effects to add an extra zing to the half-time performance at this year's Super Bowl, Katy Perry took flight on a swing at her Grammy performance in February in a sequence that will be repeated on her coming tour, and every show from church performances to Cirque du Soleil productions is sending performers aloft these days to sate audience demand for spectacle.

Safety is always the No. 1 priority, says Tim Mackay, a flying director at Flying by Foy, a Las Vegas-based company that provided flying effects for the Super Bowl show, Perry's Grammy performance and the Toronto production of Billy Elliot The Musical. That means instructing both cast and crew in the finer points of flight.

"We work with everyone on a production," he says.

The four boys who play Billy Elliot will spend about three months rehearsing the show's flying sequence before the curtain rises on the production, Kelly says.

That one sequence certainly doesn't define the show, but it does give it that added something, he says. When you are competing with television and the movies, you need all the magic you can get.

"The story is very powerful, and you get the child's journey even if the flying weren't in it, but I think the flying adds an extra element of awe," he says.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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