You’d expect to find cows in a barn. Dancing in a barn isn’t that unusual, either, if the space is big enough and the hay bales can be pushed aside.
But you’d be forced to admit that two female contortionists shimmying up white sheets toward the top of the barn is something different—even in an age when sustainable agriculture has gone chic.
However, that was the spectacle on display a few weeks back at a fundraising gala for Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting the Hudson River and the Hudson River Valley.
The barn in Columbia County, a couple of hours north of the city, lent itself to acrobatics. This wasn’t your average barn with its heady smell of hay and sunlight streaming through the cracks. Rather, it was a new round Shaker barn in Churchtown, N.Y., built by Abby Rockefeller.
At the end of the dinner, which included organic just about everything, performers Françoise Voranger and Jillian St. Germain appeared in white leotards and toe shoes, and began to ascend the white fabric toward a ceiling that felt 100 feet high but was probably about 50.
The surprised guests, in their upstate weekend finest, and who might logically have expected the evening to include a square dance, looked on in amazement from their tables or crowded around the barn’s second-story balcony, where I was standing.
It turned out to be the perfect vantage point as the women paused halfway up the fabric, wrapped it around their waists and performed death-defying feats.
“Both of them are honest prima ballerinas,” Jonathan Nosan, who leads Acroback, the company they performed with, told me when we met back in the city Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Nosan, a contortionist himself, acknowledged his troupe doesn’t typically perform in barns, but that unusual venues aren’t anything new.
“We’re a little different,” he said, and launched into impressive Japanese to describe Acroback’s worldview.
Japan is where, as a Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. candidate studying sacred spaces in the ’90s, Mr. Nosan decided to take a slight detour into Butoh, a form of Japanese dance theater, and from there into circus performing and finally contortion.
“We aim to do things that are outside the realm of normal situations, that aren’t off the shelf,” he said.
To me, as remarkable as the show was the fact that Mr. Nosan rode his Vespa up the Taconic State Parkway to examine the space. “We got the go-ahead when Abby Rockefeller said, ‘You can hang off my beams,’ ” or words to that effect. “We had to get her blessing.”
Mr. Nosan, whose company is based in the city, specializes in corporate events, from 10 to 20 a year, for clients ranging from Mercedes-Benz and Franck Muller to BBC America. At the performance for Franck Muller, his dancers formed themselves into a human mobile that mimicked the movement of a watch.
He also was recruited by Colgate as the human embodiment of a flexible head toothbrush. “I was hired to go around to different beauty editors in this spandex suit—I was kind of like Mr. Toothbrush—touting the head through my flexibility.”
The suit had holster pockets filled with free toothbrushes to hand out.
There was also an assignment for some sort of Johnson & Johnson ointment, which I didn’t delve into too deeply. “Showing the flexibility of different topical solutions,” Mr. Nosan explained.
The contortionist said his parents have always been supportive of his choices. “They got the doctor, the computer engineer and the rabbi,” he said of his siblings.
At 46 years old, he explained that with a little warm-up he’s still able to will his body to do as he instructs it, but these days is more frequently combining contortion with another passion—making ceramic sculpture. He hopes to perform a gallery show in London next spring incorporating both.
He also has created a series of instructional videos titled “Contorture,” which is apparently less edgy than it sounds. “More people have been looking for a safe way to learn,” he explained. “It’s a very different thing than learning or teaching a child.”
The Scenic Hudson gala ended in somewhat more traditional fashion than the contortion interlude—with a barn dance and a cowboy performing rope tricks. He was part of Mr. Nosan’s troupe, too.