When actors fly, and swim, above our heads

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S2BN Entertainment and OZONO Productions bring the hit S2BN Entertainment and OZONO Productions bring the hit off Broadway show "Fuerza Bruta" back to New York City with "Wayra" at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Photo Credit: Jacob Cohl

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.

I'm pretty sure a young woman twerked on me at the theater the other night. (If you can't picture this, Google the word with Miley Cyrus.)

Anyone who knows me even a little knows that audience participation, especially the kind that includes touching, makes me cranky. More accurately, it makes me want to shrink into invisibility and run with a silent scream into the night.

And yet, somehow, I hardly noticed that a stranger in tiny clothing was attempting to turn me into an unpaid sideshow to her act.

I was almost able to overlook the unprovoked intimacy because, really, I was still thinking about the women who had just been swimming over my head in what appeared to be water in just a big sheet of clear plastic. I also was thinking about the flying and the running high up on the walls of the big black-box space in Union Square that used to be a bank.

This all happened in "Wayra," the third wordless extravaganza from the Argentines known as Fuerza Bruta. When the group, then called De La Guarda, first surprised New Yorkers at the same Daryl Roth Theatre in 1998 with a show called "Villa Villa," so-called immersive theater had not yet become common enough for us to have a name for it.

Blue Man Group and "Stomp" already had crossed the language barrier with audiences who like sensation more than dialogue and foreign tourists who don't want talk at all. But De La Guarda was the first, to my knowledge, that gathered all the customers into a standing mass and, for 90 minutes or so, crowd-surfed over them to the live pounding of techno-rock. This was way ahead of the curve.

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"Is that good or bad, being ahead of the curve?" asked Diqui James, half joking about being lumped into the immersive trend in a recent phone interview from Buenos Aires. "The audience has always been part of our show."

James, the group's co-creator and now its sole director, really didn't want to talk to me about the secrets of swimming and the flying and the running high up on the walls.

"What we don't like to do is show off," he said when I pressed him about the techniques. "What we do is like primitive theater, going back to the roots before literature. It is also like a carnival, a celebration. And we are very inspired by cinema, by the movement of the camera. We create new worlds with big set pieces, big machinery, new physical laws you have to play with. That is where the action and the poetry comes."

OK, I buy all that. But ever since theater bumped into an $85 million injury-plagued spectacle called "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," I can't just admire the poetry of flying actors without wondering how they do that, how dangerous is it and whether they need extra insurance.

Not surprisingly, I guess, James didn't want to discuss "Spider-Man." "I don't want to talk about other people's work," he said. "I don't know what happened there."

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He said they need no special insurance and have "no accidents. If something happens onstage, we always have people down there."

Obviously, flying a handful of people over a small audience in a limited space is not comparable to flying over thousands of people in a Broadway house. But "Wayra," an Indian word for the wind, certainly looks dangerous.

Kirk Extrell, the head carpenter for the show, tells me it would be "very difficult to do what we do in a Broadway house. We need a big, open space." They also need five carpenters, five riggers and three operators. Not incidentally, unlike Broadway, these are not union stagehands. Extrell also doesn't want to talk about "Spider-Man."

But still, how do you have women appear to dive and swim in that puddle in the plastic? Much of it is illusion, he tells me, though I still don't understand. "When the girls swim through it, the illusion is that we have more water. We have just enough to create a pool that could be seen by the audience."

I ask what's the hardest part of the show. Extrell, a New Yorker who also worked on the group's second show, "Fuerza Bruta" ("Brute Force") in 2007, says the most difficult thing is "the day-to-day maintenance. There are a lot of mechanics involved. We have to check diligently to make sure that nothing gets stale."

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The group travels with its own stagehands and trains others in New York. Similarly, James says that casts include performers from Argentina and from here. "It isn't so difficult," he says when asked about what appears to be intense training. "We need to find performers with a dance background. We like to work with people who have big emotional brains who can be subtle and then go very wide. They need to be very fit, but this is not like a circus."

When he began in the '80s, he says they had to build their own riggings, or aerial harnesses, for the flying -- and for swooping down to the ground and picking up audience members who have been primed before the show. "We used to have to create a lot of things that, now, we can just buy." He says today's safety standards are strict. "In the last 20 years, there has been a growth of standards and regulations."

Of course, he would much rather talk about how he uses the riggings, the huge wind machine, the hovering treadmill "artistically."

Speaking of the art, wouldn't these techniques, especially the swimming, be effective for Wagner's Rhinemaidens, the mermaids meant to protect the gold in the "Ring"? Surely this would cost less than the millions the Metropolitan Opera spent on its lumbering Wagner cycle. "Some people from the opera world have called me a couple of times," he said. "But, really, I don't know. I don't watch opera. It's not my thing -- at least not now.

"I always say we are going somewhere," he continued, "But we don't know where we are going." As long as it doesn't include twerking me or pulling me into the air on a rope, I'm fascinated with the journey.

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