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Since moving to New York a month after graduating from Hampshire College, the Maine native has choreographed short pieces for herself and longtime dance partner Addys Gonzalez (known collectively as the BottomHeavies) that have been met with growing acclaim. For Dance Theater Workshop's 2008 Fresh Tracks, a proving ground for the city's emerging choreographers, she premiered a piece to the tune of Lil Wayne's "A Milli." This year, in her darkly funny pas-de-deux piece, "When Them" at Danspace, she improvised live harmonica. She's got big plans for her DTW resideny in March.
The L: What role does music play in your work? From what I've gathered you tend to employ musical compositions only very sparingly, and when you do they're very unconventional, almost abstract scores; what, for you, are the strengths of that type of score, and are there other types of accompaniment (even other media, like video or sculpture) that you'd like to incorporate into your work?
Jen: Music has worked its way in and out of my work and ideas and every time I begin a new process I still re-negotiate my feelings on its relationship to dance and performance. I grew up choreographing to songs, beginning to end. Without fully understanding, I relied on this already composed piece of work that someone else made for not only my compositional structure, but also some vague relationship or context for my movement. I went to Hampshire College and was forced to make silent studies in composition class. It was super boring to me at first but after some time of just my body in space, I started finding expanded structures and means for assembling, even making up movement. It wasn't as easy but it began my process of making dances, which to me is different than my previous process of assembling movement together.
Making dances opened up this new world with pretty much no rules. Time became something non-metered, indescribable, unattainable. What I took from classes with Tere O'Connor was an understanding of the histories of how we hear music and see dance. They are not parallel yet we apply them as such. I don't think that that old proverb about music and dance being born together applies to contemporary dance making. They are separate forms and metered music applied to dance is often dominating and limits the creative exploration of dance. In my experience it can also limit an expansive exploration for the performer onstage if there is sound that gets to the point right away.
The idea of music was and is still so present based on my negotiation of time, but it is not laden to a culturally clear system of metered reading. I used Lil Wayne's "A Milli" in my work that premiered at Dance Theater Workshop for the Fresh Tracks series. To be quite honest I used it as a bit if a trick. I was auditioning and I knew that the panel of adjudicators had seen a lot of dance that day and if anything this song would help them see my work in that moment. The process of making that work was about creating endless distraction from seeing anything valid or finding any understanding in the work. There was nothing there, but by creating distractions it seemed like there should be something important behind them. The drama, history of hearing hip-hop and rap and the very dominating sensation of that loud song were already existing props that I used. I can really only artfully claim carving out the space for the music to work in, finding context for my work in it. The usage of music in this way is a bit problematic, but there is also something so satisfying about artists who use it in the right way. Recently I have been creating sounds that really come from or are born from the work itself. In When Them as part of Danspace Project's 2010 Platform I used a harmonica to generate similar aural sensations that the performers were carving out. Being created at the same time created a very cohesive performance experience.
There is still a place in my work for experiencing 4/4 or something very popular and even, but understanding it rather than just applying it has made all the difference to understanding how to craft art, performance and the body. Music holds an element of drama that I will be the first to admit, is hard to get at with movement. When I put on Antony and the Johnsons I am immediately where I want to be and I know who I am! When making a dance finding myself in it or feeling something every time or even right away is not guaranteed. Contemporary dance and performance is a very subtle art form for me. It is not always immediately pleasurable, sometimes it leaves you with nothing, but for the times it supplies you with everything it feels like the only valid form to craft.
The L: You seem to use your body in a very empowering way in your work; how has not having the stereotypical dancer's body enriched your career and choreography?
Jen: I have the body that I have. I have been upset by it, rebellious with it, anxious about it, but it comes down to the realness that it is what it is. I am round, larger than most other women in this field but really feel strongly about the history of the dancing body. Modern dance has a history of unconventional female bodies. Loie Fuller was draping big sheets of material over her strong body and lighting spaces as performance in the early part of the twentieth century. Isadora Duncan was a softer body, Martha Graham was by no means fat but was creating a style for the thick-legged, strong-centered moving body. I don't make fat positive dance but I think by being seen and being artful I create a statement about the body and dance. Through honing my work I have found that I work best with others who can evoke an experience with their own body that needs constant negotiation. I am rarely comfortable but it is a process of moving toward locating comfort where I think the word empowerment is valid in my work.
The L: Your work seems to incorporate gestures and movements that vary immensely both in style and scope; to what extent are you deliberate about creating contrasts and juxtapositions within your work, or do those varied elements emerge organically from your process?
Jen: What emerges organically are big fluid dance phrases because I love to dance and look good and feel good and experience my technique that I have worked on my whole life. Making dances is very deliberate and different than loving to dance. I make endless choices. I apply inorganic moments to see what happens. I am constantly creating rules or questions that might offer new shades to a gesture or an unending investigation to keep us working. I go into the studio and push myself to explore new ways of moving and by working with other people visuals outside of my scope emerge as well. I would say my process is partly about determining what is organic and what is applied, how do they leave space for each other and what then becomes organic in the next moment.
The L: Could you describe your process for creating a dance piece? Do you start with a gesture or a movement, and build up from there; do you choose a theme, motif or idea and construct the piece around it; how would you describe your way of working?
Jen: I think a lot before I get in the studio with performers. I write, I watch a lot of other work. There is normally some new thing that I've learned that really applies to dance and I let it settle and saturate my thoughts. Addys (the male performer in all of my works) recently told me about a visit he had to a woman's studio where she makes dies, soaking pennies pre 1970 to get green, so on and so forth. Super interesting! Dying is a constant process of stopping the process at the right saturation. We have been in the studio a few times, made up some dance stuffs, haven't yet really rendered this idea but it is floating around the air.
I don't work with motif and I don't think I have ever constructed a piece around something. Ideas come and they go, they are relevant for a day then not. Whenever I talk about Tere O'Connor it feels like I am a stalker but he said if dance is about anything it is about time passing. That is enough for me. That is where I begin and end. That is where I start again. Just to be pretty frank though, we go into the studio, I show some ideas, we workshop them. We talk about them. We see what they do over time and then I begin to see what the work calls for coupled with what I want it to call for.
The L: What are you working on next, and how do you see your career changing over the next five years?
Jen: I have a studio series residency at Dance Theater Workshop with showings on March 25 and 26, 2011 in the studios. I am working with some new performers, which is exciting and scary. I am going to use the residency to work with more bodies because I rely heavily on the organic relationship Addys and I evoke for performance. I want to see that potentially on other performers. I also have a superficial goal of creating an evening-length work. My longest dance has only been 30 minutes and I think it will be a huge challenge to sustain a work over 45, 50, 60 minutes! I am always in awe of seeing older artists who are at that level, such dedication. I don't know about my career. In the next five years I will probably make 5, 6, or 7 more dances! A larger commission might be nice. I would like to teach more and begin relationships with venues and presenters abroad. Hopefully just finding a bit of sustainability here? I'm not too worried about dance, I feel like there are good people looking after me and my peers are exciting and I am invested in this. If I can find a food service job that doesn't make me crazy I will be set for life! So, the next five years are about letting the roots sink deeper, spreading, and feeling like it will take more than a strong wind to knock me over.
The L: If you could collaborate with any other New York City artist (living or dead), who would it be, why, and what would you create together?
Jen: I make my dances with Addys Gonzalez. I wouldn't have it any other way. Over the past five years we have really fleshed out what collaboration means. Who brings what, what it feels like when it is uneven, getting too close, being too far apart. He is the only person I really trust to let the work drive him crazy. No one else.