Lost in Space

Performance Artist Sally Jacques Lives Life on the Edges

by Robert Faires

Where are you? A simple question, usually answered simply: at the office, in a traffic jam, on the couch. Most of the time, such responses serve the purpose - locating us in a general way - but what if you took it further, really sought to define your position in space, your relationship to your surroundings? Think about your body, the angle of each limb, which parts of you are making contact with other surfaces and which ones are surrounded by air. What are the distances between your left arm and the nearest objects above it, below it, to its sides? Your right arm and those objects around it? Your legs? Your trunk? Your head? The truth is, getting at the real where of where we are at any given time is a staggeringly complex affair. Surface area, distance, spatial density, volume - all factors to be taken into account, and taken into account separately for each distinct segment of the body, setting up thousands upon thousands of spatial relationships to consider. And with each minute shift of the body - the curling of a pinkie finger, for example - comes a shift in dozens if not hundreds of those relationships. No wonder, then, that we typically restrict our thinking about space and our place in it to only the loosest terms. Pondering that fully would crowd out all other thoughts; it would consume us.

Heaven knows it consumes Sally Jacques. She is forever giving herself over to the consideration of bodies in space, how human figures fit into specific environments and relate to them, how their placement affects the environments and the environment affects them. Flesh against earth, faces framed by foliage, the arc of an arm through a night sky, briefly sweeping away starlight - these are the concerns of Sally Jacques and have been for years. But they are not merely private concerns; Jacques has harvested them for the benefit of all of Austin. She has made them her art.

Artists hang as if suspended in mid-air in Jacques' site- specific performace Probe One
photograph by John Anderson

Jacques is the city's leading practitioner of that arcane artistic endeavor known as site-specific performance. Simply put, she stages performance works outside traditional venues such as theatres or dance studios. Stated more elaborately - and in a way that gives the whole enterprise its jaw-dropping and often headache-inducing due - Jacques finds spaces around the city (the shores of Town Lake, an abandoned swimming pool off Riverside, the Texas State Capitol) in which she senses the potential for performance, and she constructs multimedia events in them, with each event tailored to the specific setting, incorporating the architecture, naturally occurring qualities of light, color, texture, sound, and physical activity, and, often most significantly, the character of the site, its purpose in the community (or absence of purpose), its condition, its feel. That means that Jacques must not only be sensitive to a site's singular features and the aesthetic possibilities involved in having human performers interact with them, but she must also deal with all the mundane challenges of producing theatre in spaces that were never designed to have theatre produced in them: the absence of lights and speakers and technical equipment and even electrical outlets, the presence of people or other kinds of animal life that pop up in the space just when you don't want them to, the ill-timed and ear-splitting interruptions by aircraft, the cold front or thundershower that refuses to respect your schedule, the bugs. These and other logistical nightmares are the occupational hazards of site-specific performance and such stuff as a site-specific performance artist's migraines are made of. But when they can be overcome, or at the very least endured, the work that results - that piece of theatre in a space that was never designed to have theatre produced in it - can awaken our understanding of space and our place in it. It measures the distance between us and the objects around us, reminds us how close we are to this tree, to that stone, and how far beyond us stretches this universe of which we are but a tiny part.

It is into those infinite reaches of the cosmos that Jacques transports us in her newest site-specific work. Probe One: Impossible Destiny posits a future in which the world as we know it has literally vanished, instantaneously dissolved in a blinding flash. The nature of this abrupt apocalypse remains unknown, but it does have some survivors. After the flash, a few individuals - just how many is never made explicit - find themselves alive and conscious, but in a state less than enviable: They are in the void of space, simply hanging there, suspended... just floating. This odd fate persists, with no aging or death to alter it, and the survivors must come to terms with it. The piece recounts one survivor's journey from puzzlement to despair to acceptance of this never-ending existence in the depths of space.

Jacques' work transcends artistic boundaries.
photograph by John Anderson

For Jacques, the launching pad into the final frontier began in deep South Austin, on a piece of property just east of I-35 on St. Elmo Rd. The spread, consisting of a house, a bit of pasture land, and some wild growth, was for a time headquarters of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, a nonprofit service agency with which Jacques has had a long association. When Jacques visited the property, she was hit by an unusual area created during one of the site's previous lives. It was a huge, amorphous patch of concrete, rough and uneven, with small, rolling mounds scattered about it. The place had been a dumping ground for cement mixers that had finished a job with a little more stuff in the back than they'd needed. Apparently, the simplest thing to do with the excess was to drive down
E. St. Elmo and empty it onto this otherwise unused land. From the looks of it, a number of fairly small loads were dumped in roughly the same spot, but in varying amounts and no attention to the way they would set. The result was a strange urban footprint on a rural landscape - gray and hard and cold, but without purpose, loose and rolling in a way that suggested something organic. To Jacques, it suggested an alien environment, a moonscape. She mentally filed it away as a potential site for a piece.

A couple of years ago, as she began to sift through ideas for her next site-specific project, Jacques recalled the moonscape on St. Elmo. She put it together with an interest she had in doing a project involving scaffolding, and somehow the pairing melded into an image of isolation in outer space. Probe One was on its way into the unknown.

Of course, Jacques, like NASA, knows that one doesn't go off exploring space alone. She understands with whom to share her quest, and for all her site-specific projects, Jacques has assembled collaborative teams as impressive - and at times almost as large - as those brought together for the original moon shots themselves. This time, her list includes prominent local artists from every discipline: Jose Luis Bustamante, co-artistic director of Sharir Dance Company (and another leader in site-specific work, as proven by his popular and highly praised dance Court 6, staged in a UT racquetball court); Andrea Beckham, choreographer; Lourdes Perez, singer; Tina Marsh, vocalist and guiding light of the Creative Opportunity Orchestra; Ellen Fullman, composer; Boyd Vance, performer and artistic director for Prop Arts; Ann Marie Gordon, set and designer; Kari Perkins, costume designer; Jason Amato, lighting designer; William Meadows, another of Jacques' all-star creative crews: designers Amato and Meadows; performers Mike Arnold, Stephanie Beauchamp, Ann Mary Carney, Elaine Dove, Marika Chandler, and Ivry Newsome. (In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, let me say that I made a contribution to this project, pre-recording some text that will play during the performance. However, the commitment to this article and, more importantly, the opinions expressed in it were established long before that contribution was made.)

The involvement of all these accomplished creators - visionaries in their own right - in these non-traditional, outside-the-box performances allows us to see their work unbound by the usual strictures of a theatre. As demanding as it can be for the artists to compensate for the lack of traditional theatrical amenities, the process of working on a site-specific piece can also be creatively liberating, giving the artists the freedom to express themselves in forms they might never have explored in a more traditional environment: illumination from hand-held sources such as flashlights or candles; rhythms sounded out through one organic surface striking another - hand on tree trunk, stone on stone; choreography that incorporates movement occuring naturally in space, like the swaying of a branch or the rising of the moon. Just the juxtaposition of theatrical elements and human artists in a natural or non-traditional space provides a new context for the creative work - in fact, one inextricably connected to it, encompassing it. The best world, taking us, the audience, out into it even as we remain still in the place where we are, watching it.

Probe One: Impossible Destiny is certainly aiming for this site-specific ideal, and, based on the evidence of a recent rehearsal, stands well-poised to achieve it. Jacques and company have established a playing space that relates powerfully to the environment. Two sets of scaffolding have been erected on the unearthly appearing cement dumping area, one on which Jacques performs solo, one on which the other five dancers perform. The latter set stretches some 20 feet across and 25 feet high, with the structure divided into 10 compartments on four levels. Both structures are positioned so that the audience sees them backed by a wall of foliage, but the greenery is just distant enough that the top of it sits fairly low in their field of vision. What provides the most striking backdrop to these structures, what fills your field of vision as you watch the dancers climbing on them, walking across them, hanging off them, is a great vault of heaven, sky stretching into the infinite. While the metal bars over which the performers clamber never completely fade from view in your consciousness, the vast expanse before which the performers move manages to foster an illusion of their being suspended in it. On a clear night, with that expanse crowded with stars millions and millions of light years distant, with Jacques' text reinforcing the sense of immensity, it will seem even more as if they - and we - have been rocketed into the beyond and lost there.

Suspended in that great void, Jacques' characters are forced to confront a cool, isolated present existence with a warm, connected past life, and Probe One constantly plays off that contrast, in the setting, in the music, in the movement. Dancers move between the rough, gray, unyielding surface of the cement onto the scaffolding where they are lifted up into the open freedom of the sky. The dancers on the larger scaffold move separately, without connection to each other, leaning against different parts of the structure and extending various limbs, their gazes turned outward, away from each other. Then, abruptly, one might collapse into another, her fellow dancer catching her tenderly and holding her with visible compassion. Electronic melodies, detached from human emotion, swirl about the performers, giving way to lush, passionate orchestral music by Schubert or the heart-rending final aria of Madam Butterfly. We sway from one side to the other, feeling the pull of each.

Following the rehearsal, when this observation about the piece is shared with Jacques, she offers, "It's a lot about edges. You can lean into them or you can step away." As is her way, Jacques expresses her idea in terms of space. It prompts me to look back at the playing space, which has been abandoned by the humans and is now overrun with cows that have meandered over from their usual grazing area. Where have I been? I think to myself. And where am I?
This is one of those times when the casual answer will not do. Something more - a deeper consideration, a consultation with the heart and spirit - is required when one has been lost in space with Sally Jacques.

Probe One: Impossible Destiny runs at 8:30pm daily through June 7, 4503 East St. Elmo Rd.(Go east on Ben White, right onto Burleson Rd., then continue straight and cross the railroad tracks onto Todd Lane. At St. Elmo take a left and look for the sign.) Admission is $12 general, $10 Dance Umbrella members, students, and seniors. Call 477-1291 for reservations or 454-TIXS for tickets.

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