Aerial Acrobats Do Their Dancing in the Air
By Wes Scarborough
For the past 11 years, the aerial acrobats of the Blue Lapis Light dance company have gamboled across the sides of Austin’s mightiest high rises, transformed abandoned warehouses into performance sites, and even turned the IH-35 bridge over Lady Bird Lake into a stage.
This spring they are rehearsing for a June performance with a boundary-pushing twist: bungee-roller skating.
As artistic director Sally Jacques explains it, four dancers wearing roller skates will each grab hold of and swing themselves from bungee cords tethered to the 20-foot high Long Center Terrace in a performance entitled “Radiance.” They will also incorporate the Spanish Web, a 20-foot rope suspended vertically from the terrace that dancers hold as they spiral.
“Dancers will be flying and skating,” said Jacques. “It’s mad!”
To interested observers it does seem a little, well, out there. “Blue Lapis has really been focused on taking dancers out of the dance hall and out into the urban environment of Austin,” said Robert Faires, senior arts editor at the Austin Chronicle.
Faires, who has written about Blue Lapis since 2004, said the dance company has inspired other choreographers in Austin to “go big.”
“They broke the mold on how to dance in Austin,” Faires said. “You have many more dance companies dancing in unusual spaces around Austin now.”
The Blue Lapis Light bungee event, which runs June 13 to 18, will be the third time the aerial dance troupe has performed at the Long Center, the first being in 2010. Other high-flying performances have included dancing on the outside of the Hyatt Hotel and the IBC Bank Building.
The dance troupe’s style of avant-garde artistry can seem almost tailor-made for city with its own well-advertised idiosyncrasies. In 2014, the JW Marriot hotel commissioned Blue Lapis Light to perform a show-stopping number during which six securely harnessed dancers descended from the top of its 408-foot-high building, twirling and dancing as they came.
“We wanted to do something a little over the top,” said director of event planning Jeff Stutts. “We thought people dancing on the side of the building was as big as you can get. And it was.”
Off-the-ground dancing can be traced as far back as the 18th century, when French choreographer Charles Didelot began rigging dancers to rope to make them “fly” during ballet performances. The aerial dance movement in the U.S. traces its roots to New York City in the 1960s and choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Trisha Brown. According to dance website dancersgroup.org., they staged dance performances on rooftops, rigging their dancers in harnesses and ropes. Since then, close to a hundred groups have emerged nationwide spreading the popularity of the art form.
Perhaps the best-known aerial dance company is the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil whose style of aerial acrobatics was first applied to the Austin cityscape when Jacques started Blue Lapis Light in Austin in 2005.
On a gloomy Wednesday afternoon Jacques was stretching in her south Austin studio in front of a wall of mirrors, sporting black sweat pants, a grey tank top and thick wool socks. Lavender, baby blue and purple silks threaded through rings in the high ceilings hung around her as she practiced her moves to the sounds of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen whose music will accompany the bungee-roller skating performance at the Long Center.
Jacques, who grew up in England, described how her ancestry has influenced her approach to her art. “My mum is from India,” she said. “I’m more of a person who often reflects and meditates.” “Blue Lapis Light” refers to a form of meditation practiced by the famous social activist, Mahatma Gandhi.
“Gandhi talks about when you see the blue light in meditation, you’re merging with God’s consciousness,” Jacques said. “The prayers [during meditation] are for the planet.” Her mission, she said, was to express such sentiments in her choreography.
After studying modern dance at the Contemporary Dance Center in London, Jacques spent years as a peace activist in New York City before coming to Austin in 1980. Once here, during a walk alongside Lady Bird Lake, she passed by a construction site.
“I saw this construction and scaffolding, and scaffolding is one of these voyeuristic spaces,” she said. “So, I wondered what it would be like to have dancers in it.”
By the mid 1990s, Jacques began to work closely with a professor of dance at Austin Community College, Jose Bustamante. Her first site-specific aerial performance was titled “Points in Stillness,” in which she and Bustamante transformed an abandoned swimming pool into a theatre for dance. Three dancers were attached to the edge by rope, swaying inside the empty pool to a contemporary piano piece.
“I really began to look into what the body looked like in space versus on the ground,” Jacques said.
Although Jacques’ studio does hold classes, the aerial dances are performed by seven specially trained dancers with backgrounds in ballet and modern dance. Jacques will sometimes hire more dancers, depending on the performance.
The dancers prepare by rigging the site with ropes and cables two weeks in advance of rehearsals, which start several months in advance of the performance. The same “rigging team” has been hired by Blue Lapis Light for the past five years on a contractual basis. Riggers, led by a professional rock climber, are paid $50 an hour for setting up and tearing down performances and $25 an hour during performances.
And they’re careful. “We have a very good reputation around town for treating these buildings with respect,” Jacques said.
Associate Director Nicole Whiteside is of the seven dancers who perform for Blue Lapis Light. “Once you experience flying around the side of a building,” she said, “no stage is big enough.”
Whiteside said the process of developing aerial performances requires mountains of paperwork– insurance and permits are often the reason a performance falls through. “For each performance you see,” she said, “there are five that didn’t happen.”
The dance company must secure permits and approvals from city of Austin, the Austin Fire Department and the Austin Transportation Department for street closures, outdoor sound usage, traffic plans and safety inspections – which, combined, can cost thousands of dollars.
Large-scale performances such as the upcoming “Radiance” are typically performed only twice a year, at most. The total costs for each one varies, but performances in the past have run to $90,000. According to Jacques, the upcoming June performance is budgeted at $150,000.
Jacques said the studio receives funding from national, state and city grants, as well as private grants and individual donors. Occasionally, the company mounts online fund-raising campaigns.
Whiteside said every performance is unique. “Every [different place] you see the show, even within the audience is a totally different show,” she said. “In a theater, you wouldn’t have the luxury of just walking up and seeing a different perspective of the show.”