At first, the scale seemed strangely off for one of Sally Jacques' Blue Lapis Light productions. No 20-story buildings with dancers racing across its glass face. No towering smokestacks with dancers twirling sky-high around them. No mammoth power plant with dancers spinning through its cavernous insides. No river with dancers bungee-bouncing the full height of the building facing the water. Here was just a modest meadow between a gently sloping hillock and a small grove, the only structures on it a handful of open-sided stands just 5 feet tall. The company had made the bold move of creating a live performance in the midst of a pandemic but looked to have sacrificed the grandeur and epic qualities that have become its signature.
Then, as the dancers emerged from the trees and approached the stands, it became clear that this dance, Beyond the Clouds, was not made for spectacle but for this specific moment in history. It wasn't just that the dancers were wearing masks. Once they were atop the stands – all spaced so the dancers were fully separated – they had scarcely enough room to move, were able to dance only a few steps in any direction. And when they lowered themselves under the stands, they couldn't even stand up completely. The spaces took on the feel of cells: isolating, confining – much as our homes and apartments have come to seem since March. This emotional toll of quarantine was evoked even more strongly when the group dance transitioned into a solo. Sunny Jun Shen was then literally alone before us, and he brought his natural expressiveness and artistry to embodying the frustration and anguish and yearning that have overtaken us in our forced seclusion. In one moment, he lunged toward audience members closest to him, pausing within several feet, arms outstretched and face turned to them, the picture of someone desperate for human contact. In another, he knelt and scooped up handfuls of dry grass, rubbing them over his face, relishing the sensation of something natural on his skin – or perhaps only dreaming of that freedom from detachment, for later he resorted to embracing himself.
Separation has long been an element in dances Jacques has created with Blue Lapis Light. Often, two of her aerialists dancing on the sides of high-rises will spin and twirl in close proximity, reaching out to each other but unable to touch. Only in the resolution of the dance will they finally make contact. No such contact took place in Beyond the Clouds, though. Whether Jacques was acknowledging the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus' longevity or just the realities of making dance in this contagious environment, the dancers here never touched.
That's not to say there was no resolution in the dance, however. But its form was spiritual rather than physical. In one segment, longtime company member Ivry Newsome appeared, alone, his hands held up in the way that signals to police he isn't carrying a weapon. Because Newsome is Black, his gesture conjured an immediate association with the many murders of Black Americans by police and the resurgence this year of Black Lives Matter. His movements that followed – kneeling; his right hand closing into a fist and rising; his left, still open, coming down to rest over his heart – spoke to another plague in our country, one that has also taken too many lives and shows no signs of abating. Newsome turned and left, but toward the end of the performance he returned, alone again but with a different aspect. This time he radiated peacefulness, prayerfulness, and his gestures were, or were like, mudras, the sacred hand gestures seen in images of the Buddha. Newsome appeared to have found a way beyond the travails and tragedies of the earthly. As other dancers came back to the space, they adopted similar gestures and projected similar serenity – even those who returned to the stands, both above and below.
The sight of so much peace of mind among so many prompted me to sigh behind my own mask. And as the dancers returned to the grove, my eyes turned to the night sky and the vast space above. In this work from Blue Lapis Light, no one had soared into it, and yet all had ascended just the same.
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