High on aerial dance

Photos by Peter McIntosh.
Photos by Peter McIntosh.
A ballet background doesn't often lead to dancing in the air or hanging from strips of fabric, but that's one of Rochelle Brophy's specialties. Charmian Smith reports.

Rochelle Brophy was shattered when she wasn't accepted into the Australian Ballet School but it turned out it wasn't the end of the world for the 15-year-old. So many other doors opened, she says.

Brophy will perform at the opening of the Dunedin Fringe Festival on March 14, dancing high above the Octagon on strips of fabric hanging from a crane. Silks, as the apparatus is called, is one of the aerial arts she now teaches in the city.

Although born in New Zealand, she grew up in Canberra, and after the disappointment of the ballet school she did secretarial work for a year before realising she really wanted to dance. She joined a dance company doing cabaret-style work and toured Asia, then auditioned for a circus.

''My friends dared me to and I got the job. I thought it was a good way to travel and see things,'' Brophy says.

She became the magician's assistant, jumping out of boxes, being ''cut in half'' and turning into a lion, she says with a laugh. It was a lot of fun but she decided she wanted to learn aerial work as well. However, it was a traditional circus and the aerial performers didn't want to give away their secrets. It was before circus schools started, she explains.

Her new husband, Ashley Brophy, who came from several generations of circus performers, rigged an apparatus for her and she taught herself aerial skills.

''Because I taught myself, a lot of the tricks were my own and the style was my own because I had no-one to copy off,'' she says.

After a year and a-half with Silver's Circus, she and her husband travelled, performing all over the world. She specialised in dancing, aerial work and flying trapeze and he was skilled at high wire, among other types of performance.

''We were never out of work. We were really lucky. We came across the right people at the right time - theatres, clubs, casinos - whoever would have us.''

Then her husband injured his knee. He continued to perform until it became too painful then they cut their contracts short and in 2002 returned to Australia so he could recover.

There they established Brophy Aerial Studios and Brophy Productions, a circus school and company. She learned other types of apparatus so she could teach them, but now silks is her specialty, she says.

It was hard work, as she was teaching, performing, making costumes, and had a baby as well - Jakira, now 9. She worked in aerial until she was four months' pregnant, but taught, danced and choreographed right up until the baby came. Two months afterwards, she was performing aerial tricks again. Jakira was often in a pram in the dressing room.

''I had a job and I had to get into it. I was booked before I had her. In our business there is no such thing as sick leave,'' she says.

After 18 years together, the Brophys separated and about three years ago Rochelle came to Dunedin with her daughter. Rochelle was adopted out but 12 years ago met her birth mother and birth father, both of whom were still living in Dunedin, although not together, and she felt she had family here. She has been working in nursing since she arrived.

''I love Dunedin. I feel safe and the dance community is so welcoming.''

She danced with Shona Dunlop MacTavish, with whom she did dance classes in Australia 20 years ago.

''I did that just for myself. I just wanted to stop performing and do something for me. It was time to heal, I guess, and Shona was fab. She just tucked me under her wing and looked after me from day one.''

Now 42, Brophy does community dance and has hung her silks in the phys-ed school at the university where she teaches aerial performance. She plans to open an aerial school for all ages and is taking bookings on justb4now@gmail.com.

''It's good for strength, stamina, confidence and awareness,'' she says.

''I love dance. It just brings me to life, but aerial dance is something different. I guess because I developed my own style and tricks and made it me, I just love teaching it. People say 'I can't do that, I can't do that,' then they give it a go and `wow! I'm doing it'. I love my students, I love teaching, I love everything about it.''


Catch it
Rochelle Brophy and her students will perform at the Dunedin Fringe Festival launch in the Octagon at 8pm on March 13.