The Austin Art Factory, an outdoor performance venue accessed through an alley, is attached to a warehouse used by the New Mexico Film Office, full of lighting equipment and props ranging from ratty old chairs to enormous books and a variety of weathered signs, including a wall-sized one for the New Mexico State Prison that served as the backdrop on Sunday July 2nd for a traveling circus (all humans, no animals) from New Orleans. The audience was seated on rows of blue plastic chairs and a few wooden benches under a corrugated metal roof. Behind us was a stack of trunks about eight to ten feet high. To the right was the warehouse, where the performers had their backstage area and the audience could find rest rooms. To the left was a gravel-paved yard whose chain-link fence is decorated with art made from New Mexico license plates (the yellow ones). My favorite is a Volkswagen Beetle. An old tow truck sits in the yard, full of random objects, perhaps as a work of art, perhaps as storage.
The show opened at 6:00 p.m. with a guest performance by local acoustic duo Desert Milk. After that beautiful, mellow music came circus side-show acts such as knife-throwing, dancing barefoot on broken glass, and breaking a cinderblock on a man’s chest while he lay shirtless on a bed of nails. An acrobat squirmed her way in and out of a birdcage. The weirdest act was done by a woman who drove a long sharp nail up her nose with a sequined hammer and had an audience member pull it out with her teeth. A cowboy performer did rope tricks and pistol-twirling and whip-cracking, cutting a rose in half with a whip while he held the flower between his teeth. The emcee talked too much and used “exciting” and “excited” so many times she could have killed the excitement she was trying to rouse, but I had to forgive her because, after all, she did drive that nail up her nose.
The best part of the evening: the aerialists.
T or C’s Jeannie Ortiz floated with dancelike grace and power in fluid, seamless weavings of her body and supporting drapes of fabric. Without a break in her flow, she wrapped a limb or her pelvis in the silks and moved from backbends to splits to side arcs and inversions in perfect concentration. Her art was ethereal and meditative and yet awe-inspiring at the same time. As I watched her suspend herself with the silks attached only at the feet and ankles in a split, I knew what this was asking of her at the muscular and biomechanical level, probably her most impressive feat when it came to strength, though the audience expressed more enthusiasm for the aesthetically stunning moves. And there were many. This was not just athleticism but visual art, dreamlike and magical.
The circus aerialist was equally strong but performed at a higher speed in a spinning hoop. She did the near-impossible, hanging upside-down only from the edge of her heels or from the curve of her buttocks and then transitioning to a new pose without any loss of control or use of her hands. The style of her performance was showy, smiling and making eye contact and striking applaud-me poses. And applaud we did. She earned it. But I think the audience applauded Jeannie even more. Not only because she’s local, but because she never once demanded that we appreciate her. She simply gave her art with quiet grace.
This being T or C, the audience, of course, was almost as colorful as the show. And the sky, as I walked home, was filled with brush-stroke clouds in all directions, remnants of a failed attempt at a thunderstorm, streaking the horizon with gray silks of aerial rain.
Follow this link to a New Mexico Magazine feature on Twenty Things to Love About Truth or Consequences. The slide show at the end of the article includes, among other images, Jeannie Ortiz on aerial silks and some of license plate art.