Just as the sun reached its apex on the longest day of the year, clouds overtook the San Antonio sky. But Catherine Cisneros was undaunted and continued her ritual dance through the grid of Passing Light, a 150-foot long public art installation by Christopher Janney in the breezeway of the San Antonio International Airport long-term parking structure.
Each year since the piece was installed in 2001, the Urban-15 performance troupe has staged a dance to celebrate the summer solstice, also the moment when the full intent of Janney’s piece is realized.
At 2 p.m. on the day of the solstice each year, always between June 20-22, the reds, blues, oranges and greens of Passing Light’s glass ceiling grid align perfectly with a painted grid on the concrete floor of the parking structure’s breezeway.
An audience of 50 was on hand to witness the performance, which for 17 years has marked the summer solstice, and the moment of the magical, “cosmic alignment,” in Janney’s words, that his piece centers on.
Though several Spanish-colonial missions feature similar architectural “solar illuminations,” particularly the Mission Concepción double-illumination on the mid-August Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Janney’s inspiration was the Egyptian pyramids, he said.
“The pyramids were used by the priests to try to supposedly prove to the community that they communed with God,” Janney said. When the sun was at its solstice peak, he explained, the north face of the pyramid would be fully lit by direct sunlight.
“The gods are still with us, all of them, they aren’t myths,” Cisneros said after her 23-minute performance, reflecting on its significance in relation to Janney’s work. “We are humans for so long, then the planet’s still here, the sun is still here, and a piece like this makes you feel how small we really are."
Janney thinks of the space as “almost like a cathedral,” he said, in part for its high ceiling, and for its acoustic qualities. The “soundcore” he designed, housed in 56 bollards on three levels of the breezeway, incorporates marimbas and Spanish guitar, in honor of its Texas site.
The artist’s original soundtrack is currently undergoing restoration, with updates necessary to its 17-year-old technology, said Matthew Evans, arts, culture, and music specialist for San Antonio International Airport.
For the solstice performance, a new soundtrack, titled Solar Mermaids, was composed by Urban-15 Music and Media Director George Cisneros, with live percussion accompaniment by Jonathan Anderson, Urban-15 music and media assistant. George is the husband of dancer Catherine Cisneros, who co-founded Urban-15 together in 1975.
In time, everything fades, including Janney’s well-worn painted words delineating the clock time and GPS location of the annual summer solstice as well as and the time and date of completion of the artwork. The year of completion has lost the “1” of its ’01, a happenstance that oddly aligns with the deeper sense of timelessness an event like the solstice inspires.
Another happenstance occurrence lent unexpected symbolism to Cisneros’s dance. A cat, possibly a lynx, appeared momentarily and walked out into the westerly portion of the grid that Cisneros previously danced through. The wildcat stopped, looked at the dancer and gathered audience, appeared to listen to the chimes and bells marking the midpoint of the performance, then calmly left the way it came.
As Cisneros climbed the stairs to the second level to finish her dance, squares of color illuminated the staircase.
“Now the sun comes out,” Cisneros exclaimed, as applause marked the end of the performance. She marveled at how much the colors of the grid had moved in her 23 minutes of dancing, an illustration not only of the sun’s arc across the sky, but of the Earth's 1,000-mile-per-hour spin.
“It’s pretty interesting to see how fast the Earth moves, there’s just a fraction of time where it perfectly lines up, once a year,” Anderson said. “That’s why we’re here, every year.”