They Might Be Angels
For Blue Lapis Light, dance artists Laura Cannon and Nicole Whiteside become heavenly creatures
You see these women suspended high above you, floating, swaying, spinning in space, extending their limbs in elegant, sweeping arcs, moving as though they were native to the air, and it puts you in mind of, well, angels. And why not? When you see such figures in the air, appearing to fly, what else can you think? Acrobats under the big top, perhaps, but their movements have the aggressive athleticism of humans defying gravity, creatures of the earth battling their way into the sky. These women, on the other hand, display a natural grace in the air, a fluidity of motion with no strain. They are dancing across the heavens.
Nicole Whiteside and Laura Cannon are not, in fact, winged messengers from on high, but for the past few years, they've gotten so good at aerial dance work that they can pass for angels. As leading dance artists for Blue Lapis Light, the company founded by site-specific choreographer Sally Jacques, Whiteside and Cannon have raced sideways across the faces of buildings, launched themselves off ledges and glided artfully through the evening sky, and hovered and twirled four stories, 10 stories, 12 stories above the ground, to the amazement of audiences gathered below. In the works Whispers of Heaven, performed inside a cavernous warehouse at the Domain; Requiem, performed on the concrete shell of the Intel building; Angels in Our Midst, performed on the side of the 12-story Radisson Hotel; Constellation, performed between the J.J. Pickle Federal Building and Homer Thornberry Judicial Building; and Illumination, opening this week in the Seaholm Power Plant, these women have become pioneers in a kind of aerial work that few others in Austin have ever attempted and only a handful of people in the country are doing. It's performance that is as physically demanding as it is daring, and yet they have managed not only to take it beyond stunt status to the level of true dance, they've made it look easy.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving.
Neither Cannon nor Whiteside had any formal training in aerial work before they climbed into harnesses for Jacques. They just had that childhood desire to fly – if not with wings of their own, then with the aid of circus trapezes – and a fearlessness to experiment that coincided with Jacques' interest in taking dancers higher and higher. In the late Nineties, she embarked on a trilogy of dances that involved scaffolding, on which dancers climbed and from which they dangled. After that, she began trying to take dancers closer to flight, having them suspended high, wrapped in long strips of cloth or in harnesses for rock climbing. Both dancers had the same response when they saw Jacques' explorations: I want to do that.
"When I saw it done," says Cannon, "I knew, 'I can do that. And I can do it harder. And I can do it faster.' I wanted to push, push, push." Whiteside echoes her sentiment: "After I saw The Well Inside, and they were doing that aerial work, I wanted to tell Sally that she should hire me, because I was not afraid of heights, and I was ready and willing to boldly go where no dancer has gone before."
When they got their chances, the results were exhilarating. "The first time I was in a harness, it was fabulous," recalls Cannon. "It was like, 'Finally!' Because I had been monkeying around on scaffolding for a couple of years and getting the scrapes and the cuts, and the metal is so hard, to finally get to let go and be free was awesome. For certain dancers, it's a dream come true to be able to dance in the air."
Whiteside is one of those dancers. Cannon remembers flying with her the first time and seeing a look of liberation on the dancer's face. Whiteside concurs: "I remember being so happy that I didn't have to be on my feet. My feet have been abused over the years from dancing, so being free to have a different support than my legs was liberating."
Which is not to say that you don't pay a price for that freedom. "The first time you're in a harness, you get nauseous beyond belief for a period of time," Cannon notes. "It happens to everybody." "You get nauseous," agrees Whiteside, "and it's hard on your joints, and there's chafing and oozing, and it's not very pretty at the beginning. But after you break in to it, then it's really where you feel like you can fly and be free, and it's great."
But being independent of the earth and challenging gravity requires a new mindset and skill set. "When you're dancing on the ground, you want to find your center and move from your center," says Cannon. "When you're off the ground, you have to be even more focused on where your center is. Even if you're sideways or upside-down, that center has to stay constant, so you get much more awareness of your body and what's around you, both from the perspective of being able to dance with technique and also being safe. You have to be that much safer when you're up there. Your mortality, you're really aware of that."
"It requires a real openness to where you are, because it's very easy to get disoriented," Whiteside adds. "There are practical things [to be aware of], like hitting your head on a wall, making your rotation, things like that."
The danger is something that's never far from the minds of these dancers, and rightly so. They're working high in the air over concrete surfaces with nothing to break their fall, and small shifts can lead to serious problems. "There's a much greater variable of things that change than onstage," says Cannon. "You can fall out of a pirouette, sure, but [in the air] it's like suddenly you can't control that you're facing a different way, because the wind moved you or a bird landed on the rope and redirected it. You have to learn how to be aware of that and to mold yourself around that."
"It's important to have that level of awareness about the danger," says Whiteside. To which Cannon adds, "You have to think about it all the time. But we really take it upon ourselves to understand how the rigging works and how everything goes together. Our riggers are great at keeping us really informed, like where is everything coming from, where is it going, what is it doing, and how does it all end up to keep me safe. Once I know that, that helps me not to worry. Now anytime I'm doing something and anything changes in some way, that certainly pulls me out of my focus. But being able to check your own system and make sure it's fine, all that empowers you not to think about it all the time."
"I get nervous every now and then," Whiteside admits, "but I think about the physics of what is happening, like tension on the rope and friction and all these systems and how they're working together and how there's a mathematical formula that says how it can support my weight."
"The failure rates of all the stuff that we're working with – the carabiners and ropes and other things that we have attaching ourselves to the ropes – is so minuscule. It's safer than driving down I-35, and we do that every day."
Of course, that's not always reassuring to a loved one watching you dangle from a slender cable several stories above the pavement. "It's a little difficult for some of my family members," Whiteside says. "My mom and my brother, they come to a lot of my shows, but they have a hard time watching it. They're very proud, and when they get to the shows, they're very excited to be there, but they're taken aback a little when I come off the side of the building. I try to tell them how it's really more dangerous for me to be driving, but they don't believe me."
Maybe they'd breathe a little easier knowing that there's more than equipment helping keep these women safe. They also look out for each other. "We're looking at each other all the time," says Cannon. "One advantage of being so far from the audience is that we actually talk to each other, saying 'Are you okay?' We also have small words that mean larger things, like I can maybe look into Nicole's eyes and know that she doesn't know what's coming next, so I can say, 'Jesus,' and that can mean the whole next minute of movement."
"It's gotten so now we don't even have to say words," says Whiteside. "I can just look over and know [she's] asking me, 'Are you okay?'"
That sensitivity to each other is indicative of just how closely Cannon and Whiteside have worked over the past few years. The two and Jacques have developed not only an intimate working relationship among themselves but a way of working that they're now able to pass along to other dancers, here and around the country.
"The illusion of dancing sideways, of taking a dancer that's standing vertically and putting her horizontally, we've learned how to maintain that illusion with ease and grace," says Whiteside. "It's hard. I look back at some of the old video when we first started doing flips and stuff on the walls, and it was messy and clunky and unrefined to what it is now."
"For a while, we just chalked it up to, 'Well, everybody's different, so I guess we'll all be different,'" says Cannon. "Now that we've been able to shape our understanding of this, we can tell people, 'Do this,' and 'Put your body this way.' We've developed a vocabulary that we can teach to other people. In [Illumination], we have more people aerial than we've ever had before, and we've really been able to communicate with them. We're not just flailing around, trying to figure out what to do."
Adds Whiteside, "You look down and see, 'Wow, it's a technique, almost.'"
But training others to fly has reinforced how difficult a challenge it is. "You have to want to work really hard," says Cannon. "It is hard work, and it doesn't feel good for a while. Not that it feels horribly bad, but it's dirty, and it's sweaty, and it makes you want to throw up. You have to keep working past that. And you have to want to, and some people just don't want to. You have to be really patient with yourself and the people you're working with.
"It's hard to know how far we've come until we start training a new group of people and see them going through the same thing. Because some days I still feel like I'm back to square one, that the dancing isn't there yet." That said, she adds, "It feels better every time."
Both dancers are still keenly aware of how remarkable the work they're doing is. "We just want to make really good dances, and we want to make people happy, and we want people to enjoy watching dance," says Cannon. "And the audiences seem so appreciative of what we're doing, and that's great. But Sally really takes a leap every time. It's bigger and costs more, and we're not sure how it's going to work out, but she takes that leap, and that's what allows us to be there."
"It's so satisfying to be in synch and to be intentional and be reaching out to people and to each other," says Whiteside. "For the two of us, it's nice to have each other, because if nothing else, it's really satisfying for me to look over and see Laura dancing and think, 'Wow, what a beautiful dancer.' We do it for us, too."
"We feel lucky every day we're at work," says Cannon. "Even if we're hanging upside down for an hour waiting for them to fix something below, we couldn't be luckier."
Illumination runs Oct. 4-28, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at Seaholm Power Plant, 800 E. Cesar Chavez (entrance at Third and West). For more information, call 474-TIXS or visit www.bluelapislight.org.