Making Magic Out of Thin Air


What’s more, Ms. Gelsone said, “I have to find out how many people are going to be in the audience, because I have to know how hot the house is going to be.”

Why? Because the heat from a large crowd is like a magnet for floating material, particularly the balloons, which risk “totally getting sucked off the stage.” “So now,” she said, “in all those hot houses, Seth and I actually pull the act back three feet.”

Precision, Precision, Precision

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Mr. Bloom fills balloons with the precise amount of helium so they will not float away moments before the start of the show.

Credit
William DeShazer for The New York Times

One section of “Air Play” has Mr. Bloom and Ms. Gelsone “juggle” balloons that hover at eye level atop strings as if they were human dance partners — a seemingly simple trick that has taken painstaking trial and error to pull off. Not only do the weight of the strings and the texture of the balloons have to be standard; Mr. Bloom also has a preshow ritual of filling the balloons with precisely uniform amounts of helium.

To accomplish this feat, the show’s longtime technical director, Todd Little, said that Mr. Bloom uses a limited-edition device called “the Inflatinator,” whose air flow can be calibrated “down to the hundredths of a second.”

Stop the Pop

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What keeps the oversized balloons from popping? The duo isn’t telling.

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William DeShazer for The New York Times

The physics of air flow isn’t the only practical science the “Air Play” duo have picked up on the job. They’ve also learned to “de-staticize” their playing area, because static electricity can lead balloons to pop, which isn’t just a prop-killer; one loud pop in close proximity meant that Mr. Bloom lost hearing in his left ear for a little bit.

Even the two large latex balloons the duo climb into at one point benefit from special treatment, though this is something of a trade secret, Ms. Gelsone said: “You don’t even want to know what we do to the big balloons to keep them consistent.”

Have Good Help

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From left, the stagehands Kurt Fortmeyer, Robbie Pickle and Randy Davidson clean up after the final scene of “Air Play.”

Credit
William DeShazer for The New York Times

In the years since Acrobuffos began building it, “Air Play” has racked up close to 150 performances, from China to Chile to the Netherlands, and they’ve had the same technical director, Mr. Little, and stage manager, Flora Vassar.

Ms. Vassar has learned to adapt the show’s lighting and sound cues to a dizzying variety of international venues, and Mr. Little has occasionally been called on as a sort of silent stage partner: In one show, when an electric fan died, he rushed backstage with a leaf blower to correct the flow of the balloons.

Get Philosophical

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Working with packing peanuts has added another dimension to the show.

Credit
William DeShazer for The New York Times

The show’s development, which included a 2014 workshop at the New Victory as part of the company’s LabWorks program, has led Acrobuffos away from their manic street-performing style toward a more narrative piece that Ms. Gelsone described as “a philosophical expedition into what air is.”

And it isn’t just about bodies in space but about time. “It’s hard to slow people down enough in the street to enjoy a moment of poetry,” Mr. Bloom said.

The show has tried to capture some of the feeling of viewing Mr. Wurtzel’s air sculptures in a museum. “Initially we were worried, ‘Is this piece too long?’” Mr. Bloom said. “The answer has been no. We can see it when the audience slows down and gets into our rhythm. We can’t do that outdoors.”

Of course, that’s not the only thing that keeps “Air Play” indoors, he added: “We can’t do this outdoors because it would blow all over the place.”

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