In transforming buildings into altars, Sally Jacques offers a place to keep watch
When Sally Jacques was a teenage free spirit hitching around the Catalan region of Spain, she was overwhelmed by the morphic, voluptuous architecture of Antoni Gaudí. "Where – ? How – ? You know, where – where did this come from?" At Christmas, she went with a friend to services at Església de Santa Maria in Cadaqués, the vibrant figures of its towering baroque altarpiece seemed to gesture toward her: "I remember closing my eyes and listening to the music, and opening them and just starting at this living, breathing altar. It was movement. It wasn't stagnant. It spoke."
These memories have resided with Jacques for three decades of making performance and dance work, most of it in Austin. Since the 2005 launch of her site-specific aerial dance company Blue Lapis Light, she's drawn them closer and closer. The company's 2006 re-appropriation of the infamous Intel shell – the structure partly raised and then abandoned for years – as a living, transient altar won wide acclaim with a conceptually simple offering: a site for sitting with wounds and hope, both personal and collective, and for seeking.
Since Requiem, Blue Lapis Light has performed on a dozen other Downtown structures, but this year Jacques wanted to revisit the site of Requiem, which now bears the federal courthouse. It's clear why Jacques is drawn to the building: It has quiet aplomb, lots of interesting ledges and windows, and a stained-glass wall by the artist Clifford Ross inside. But after initial approval, permission to use the building was revoked (for reasons not made clear to her), so Jacques reimagined the work-in-progress, In Light, at the glassy new IBC Bank Plaza building, itself still under construction, just across Fifth Street. The music and characters are echoes of Requiem, and with that dance, the work is based on a loose script that maps the characters on the building and on their spiritual journey with lines like:
Beatific Angel appears 13th floor Center Stage.
One week later than scheduled due to a permitting delay, Jacques, in sport sunglasses, yogawear, and dance sneakers, stands atop the second-story parking lot of the shuttered Fifth Street post office with production manager Michelle Symons, who's wearing cutoffs and hiking boots. They're looking across San Antonio Street to the IBC building, squinting to see the ensemble dancers, who, along with Associate Artistic Director Nicole Whiteside and company dancer Anika Jones, are hidden behind the metal slats of the parking garage. They'll be backlit for the nighttime performances, but in daylight, when they must rehearse, they're difficult to see. Jacques and Symons study photocopied renderings of the building, which Jacques has penciled with stick figures. The placements she's drawn aren't working, though; the arrangement has to be revised. Jacques opens and closes her flip phone, working it out with Whiteside and doing pliés while she waits for the dancers to traverse the four levels of the garage on foot. Whiteside sticks her arm through the metal slats to signal her location. Symons asks Jacques if she'd prefer to have a megaphone. Jacques shakes her head: "It's horrible for the people on the street."
But it's Sunday evening, and for a long time, the only person who walks between the two vacant buildings looks up, smiling, and continues up the post office stairs. She's former Blue Lapis Light dancer Laura Cannon – she was Requiem's Beatific Angel. As costume designer for In Light, she's just arrived from Portland, Ore., with her 1-year-old son, Johnny, who sits in a carrier on her back. Jacques drops her phone to embrace Cannon and to kiss Johnny's cheeks, grasp his bare feet, implore him to bare his two teeth. Johnny, newly mobile, strains to get down from his carrier, wanting to explore the expanse of the parking lot on his own.
The Ensemble portrays the human experience.
The Seeker awakens within them the desire to reach through the shadows.
Blue Lapis Light's apparitions on the outside of the buildings recall the Cadaqués altar, the Gaudí, but they also evoke people on the outskirts: of typical, of privilege. The bank building is getting more fingerprints on the exterior than it might ever see, by people who might never go inside. Dancers, rappellers, harnessed aerialists, artist-athletes with specialized training on Chinese poles: Jacques' work reaches beyond "circus" as it's commonly defined, but these are folks who have, in some way, run off to join one. Their work depends upon the strength and quality of the human grasp.
Jacques identifies as an activist. Before founding Blue Lapis Light, she made dances on scaffolding, and before that, her work was often rooted in social justice, though already large in scale: 64 Beds, a 1988 overnight performance vigil for the homeless, seems to have involved the whole city, and Body Count, her annual performance gathering held on World AIDS Day for many years, had wide participation and visibility. She has worked in refugee camps around the world and published scholarly articles on helping the marginalized. Even when she spent a week in an El Paso jail after being arrested at an immigration checkpoint (she's British and didn't have her visa papers with her), she tried to empower her wayward cellmates by teaching them yoga.
Her capacity for empathy and quest for justice began in early childhood, which she spent in an orphanage: "You cannot be quiet. Because it will go on and on." There, she was one among many, shuffled collectively and denied the dignity of a reason why. But inherited frames of reference and identification – family, lineage, home – are also, in a way, limitations. Without them, Jacques' citizenship developed a far reach. In the program notes, she refers to Blue Lapis Light's performances – which are certainly dances, though the word seems too small – as prayers for the planet.
Jacques' body of work seems to be driving toward a synthesis – upward, and refined toward an energy, a synergy, an ideal of prayer. Aesthetically, she now prefers the balletic and romantic over the minimal and postmodern. She's put in her time with the stark: "Coldness and isolation and separatism are very familiar to us, and thereby they're recognizable to us. But that's not something I want to breathe anymore."
Beatific Angel ascends and descends
Seeker 9th floor
Ensemble appears 13th floor Stage Right
After figuring out the ensemble's placement in the parking grid, the ensemble moves to the balcony of P6 and climbs farther up to a platform on 8-foot-high scaffolding, which is wobbly due to cross-bracing not yet having been installed. Because of the wobbling and the fact that the dancers aren't yet tied in with safety ropes, the scaffolding isn't as close to the edge as it will be in performance. But still. One dancer is working up to it, rehearsing for now in front of the scaffolding, his feet firm to the rough concrete floor.
Suspended above P6 with ropes anchored several stories up, harnessed dancers Susan Harkey and Jason Brown are pushing their bodies off the glass and waiting to receive direction. The ledges on the building make some of the choreography problematic, and Jacques has them try several solutions. In one, Jacques asks Harkey to pause after her descent, reclining on the ledge "just like a sculpture on the building."
The rappelling ropes go in the other direction, from P6 down to the sidewalk. Watched over by riggers on the balcony, the rappellers lower themselves, one by one. There is quiet terror as they climb over the balcony, and then relaxation as they settle into the equipment's tension and descend. First, they walk down the building backward, with their bodies facing the sky, which is the conventional way. Then, they try it face-first, straining to keep their bodies parallel to the street.
As the sun begins to set, the street below gets a bit more traffic, in a quiet Sunday way. One wayward pedicab driver brings his charges near the building, making a slow circle as they all crane their necks to see. Where – ? How – ?
In Light will be performed through September, Thursday-Sunday, 8:30pm, with additional performances Friday & Saturday, 10:30pm, on the IBC Bank building, 500 W. Fifth. Viewing area is in the LAZ parking lot of the former post office, 510 Guadalupe. A fundraiser will be held Thursday, Sept. 25, 10pm, at Cedar Street Courtyard, 208 W. Fourth. For more information, visit www.bluelapislight.org.