Maybe this story began in the early Eighties in Spain, when Sally Jacques attended Christmas Eve mass at the Església de Santa Maria in Cadaqués and saw, in its ornate sculptural altarpiece, angels dancing around on columns and perched atop arches, and human figures gesturing benevolently down at the people in the pews.
Or maybe it began in the late Eighties and Nineties, when Jacques, having settled in Austin, organized large-scale activist performances, among them 64 Beds, a community sleep-in calling attention to homelessness, and the annual Body Count, in which people lay on the sidewalks to memorialize AIDS-related deaths, as well as smaller-scale, site-specific performances.
Maybe the story began in 1998, at a concrete dumping ground in Southeast Austin, when Jacques and six other dancers, in collaboration with a multitude of other artists, including choreographers, musicians, and sound and lighting designers, performed the first of a trilogy of dances – Probe One: Impossible Destiny, Trans/Form, and Blue Pearl – on custom-built construction scaffolding.
Maybe it began in 2006, when Jacques and her newly formed site-specific aerial dance company, Blue Lapis Light, transformed the shell of an unfinished building left gaping over Fifth and San Antonio streets into a gargantuan, animate altar for remembrance and hope in Requiem.
Or maybe it began in the spring of 2013, when Blue Lapis Light was on the verge of losing its donated rehearsal space and Jacques and her real estate agent, who had already shown her over 100 properties, turned onto the long tree-lined driveway off Old Manchaca Road. (When Jacques nodded and said, "This is it," her agent sighed and said, "You're such an artist! You haven't even seen it yet.")
If you were to ask Jacques, she'd say the story has no beginning or ending, because we are all connected – past, present, future; city, planet, universe. Nevertheless, she says the first performance on Blue Lapis Light's very own property feels like a homecoming. "It's a return."
It's a return, perhaps, in the sense of typewriter mechanics: With one spring-loaded shift, the margin is at your back, and a new line stretches out before you. For a decade, Jacques moved Blue Lapis Light between rented and donated studios, none of which were quite right for scaffold-climbing practice or aerial silks classes. Now, in a white warehouse building on the company's property, silks are suspended from the high ceilings of two multi-use studios, where the company rehearses and offers public classes. Elsewhere on the three-acre property, there are domestic comforts common to far South Austin: a small ranch house in which the company has set up office, a couple of sheds, several free-roaming chickens (taken in when a neighbor had to leave them behind), and, in the garage of the office-house, a washer and dryer, humming. But mostly, the property is possibility. When I visited in late August, an expanse of dry grass had been recently mowed and dotted with piles of brush cleared for audience seating. In front of that area, on a low berm, stood a 25-foot-tall scaffolding structure, bookended by two sets of towering ropes.
"I can't separate from the whole of what's happening," Jacques says, referring to her attentiveness to world events and the suffering of others. With Jacques, context has no parameters, and small topics quickly bloom large. One story of how Blue Lapis Light obtained the property is that she sat with meditation, the universe stepped in with her, and miracles ensued. But another way of telling it is that Jacques, with extraordinary conviction, has developed Blue Lapis Light as a sustainable organization with a devoted following, which paved the way for a bank loan, foundation grants, and private donors to come through. Edge of Grace, a performance she is creating for 10 dancers on the scaffold, is her offering to those who donated and helped. It's also a blessing for the property and for the company as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.
Following years of site-specific works on the exteriors of Downtown buildings, Edge of Grace marks Jacques' return to the skeletal scaffold. Just as her dancers in the summer of 1998 rehearsed over mounds of concrete, Blue Lapis Light dancers in August 2015 practiced ascending the scaffold and hung perilously from and over the railings, their bodies echoing classical sculpture in their balance of tension and grace. They rehearsed with recorded music, a mix of mystical and cathartic classical and contemporary pieces, which was overlaid with the live sounds of traffic and cicadas. During the morning rehearsals, the dancers wore sunglasses and leggings, but during the evening performances, their faces will be fresh and determined, softly illuminated against the darkening sky. Their costumes will flutter, making us doubly grateful for the breeze. It is this combination of the elements, and the starkness of the body in motion to music against them, that makes Jacques' work resonate over and over again.
It is a challenge, Jacques says, to shift from vaster contexts back to the scaffold's more modest one. The pace, after the charged chaos of so much site-specific work, may take some getting used to. But unlike her buildingside dances, in which she responded to existing architecture, the limitations of the scaffold are self-imposed. In Edge of Grace, which Jacques was still editing during the rehearsal, the scaffold is a bargain between limitation and freedom: The characters find beauty and release in superhuman height and momentary escapes from gravity, as long as they only test, not break, the structure's rules. "Sometimes I just want to get rid of it," Jacques admits, but her audience knows that gravity alone has never been enough.
Edge of Grace runs through Sept. 27, Thu.-Sun., 8:30pm, at Blue Lapis Light, 10331 Old Manchaca Rd. The Sept. 20 performance will be preceded by a gala dinner. For more information, visit www.thelongcenter.org.
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