April 15, 2008
Entwined in Thread
It’s not that unusual, not anymore, for a ballet company to commission a dance from a modern choreographer. But in the case of Margaret Jenkins, the renowned dancemaker whose eponymous modern company has dwelt cheek-by-jowl with the San Francisco Ballet for the last 38 years, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s invitation to work with his troupe is something of a landmark moment.
Thread, to a new, slightly-shy-of-30-minute score for the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra by noted composer and fellow San Franciscan Paul Dresher, Jenkins’ frequent collaborator, premieres April 24. This is only the second work Jenkins has made for a ballet company. The other was Sightings, for the Oakland Ballet in 1992.
Thread comes at a landmark time, as the San Francisco Ballet celebrates its 75th anniversary with a New Works Festival — 10 new ballets, each unspooling over the course of three different programs during the last two weeks of the season, April 22 – May 6. And in the richly collaborative nature of its creation, Jenkins’ Thread added a new texture to the dancers’ creative process: the Ballet's dancers worked together with Jenkins’ own modern dancers to develop the work.
In a recent conference call, Dresher and Jenkins talked of their long association. They met in the 1970s, when Dresher visited Jenkins’ studio, and first worked together in 1985 on Home, Part Two. Jenkins had seen Dresher’s Slow Fire, a collaboration with choreographer Rinde Eckert, and various theater pieces. She was caught by “the way Paul propelled dance forward, but didn’t dominate it.”
For his part, Dresher saw Jenkins’ First Fig (1984) at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. “I was really taken with the work’s physical movement,” he says. “It was compelling, but not about literal narrative in any way. It was evocative of potential narrative. I loved that fluid, interpretive role I had to play as a viewer,” Dresher remembers, adding that he felt the “shards” of narrative embedded in First Fig added up to a rich, fascinating experience.
In 1993, their collaboration The Gates (Far Away Near) played the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, offering an evanescent panoply of movement, music (by the Paul Dresher Ensemble), color (the set was by Bay Area designer Alexander V. Nichols, who also designed the set for Thread), and yes, the barest suggestions of narrative. Fifteen years on, it persists in memory, as pleasurable and elusive as the day I saw it.
Out of the Labyrinth
For The Gates, as for Thread, the launch point was a poem by San Franciscan Michael Palmer, with the “thread” being Ariadne’s thread. According to Greek mythology, Ariadne gave her lover Theseus a ball of thread so he could find his way back out of the labyrinth, outwitting the Minotaur.
The poem was shared initially, for four weeks of rehearsal time, with Jenkins’ company, and helped them develop “a language and trajectory we might take … a starting point for the dancers to create movement,” Jenkins explains. The idea of spinning, of a web and a labyrinth, as in the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur, “relates to the stage,” she says. “But if you didn’t know that back story, would you need to confirm it? I doubt it.”
But the labyrinth makes it onto Nichols’ set, a tilted diagonal scrim 36 feet high, with a portal. The dancers are visible behind it, and the labyrinth “could be seen as many things,” Jenkins says, including “the external world, or the underworld.” She also worked closely with costume designer Beaver Bauer to make sure that the costumes would “read” in the huge Opera House, as opposed to the smaller theaters in which her troupe is usually seen.
Normally, Jenkins says, she has six to eight weeks to make a work, think about it, refine it. She had three weeks with the ballet company. “Evolution takes a long time,” says Dresher, and this is not the way the Ballet produces new works. “It’s a production-schedule economy of a large institution of musicians and dancers.” So taking that into consideration, he says happily, “I was amazed at how much this dance looked uncompromisingly like a Margaret Jenkins piece. Not like it’s filtered by a ballet perspective. It looks different than when it’s done by Margy’s dancers, but this is a Margy perspective.”
When Jenkins and her dancers worked together, she knew that “we didn’t want to make a work and set it on the Ballet. We knew the dancers of the San Francisco Ballet would inform the material in a different way. We didn’t want to not leave room for that,” she says. “That’s the pleasure.”
The first San Francisco Ballet rehearsal was last July. Jenkins’ dancers gave the Ballet dancers many options of what they could do with the material in what was really a collaboration, she says, “a wonderfully joyous and intense exchange.”
“She brought in her dancers and asked us to spend a half-hour on our own and put it into our dance vocabulary,” corps de ballet dancer Courtney Elizabeth said the other day by phone. “At first, it was intimidating. Then we realized that there was no right or wrong.” It was “cool,” she says, to see segments of what they’d created put into Jenkins’ piece. “It’s all based on her vision and concepts. We got to read the poem, and she explained some of the movements,” including one where the dancers rapidly move their fingers, as if they’re spinning a web.
Photo by Erik Tomasson
The 12 dancers wear loose-fitting white slippers. “It’s wonderful, actually, not being on point,” Elizabeth says. “There’s a totally different sense of being grounded, and your movement is somewhat altered. Not being on point allows you to think more about the torso and the upper body, and about weight exchange,” when the dancers partner each other.
Jenkins’ dancers are “fabulous people to know,” Elizabeth adds. “They’ve been really supportive of us, and some of them have come to our shows” during the season, she says. “It’s like peering into a different world.”
Music Follows Form
What’s been different for Dresher is that, because of scheduling considerations, he composed the music after the dance was choreographed, working from about a dozen musical sketches. “I brought in those sketches, and the dancers were amazingly responsive to the music and its relationship to their movement,” Dresher says. Using a videotape of a final run through of the ballet, he wrote an orchestral piece “that I felt gave interpretation to the structure of the dance.” Now the dancers are working to match themselves up with 50 or 60 points of synchronicity in the music.
For Dresher, exploring the colors the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra can give his score “is quite a treat,” says San Francisco Ballet Music Director Martin West, to whom has fallen the “logistical nightmare” of preparing the 10 musical accompaniments that the 65-plus musicians play for the festival's 10 new works.
“Paul has done a very beautiful and nuanced score,” says Jenkins. “Because of the fullness of having an orchestra, it’s full of wonderful surprises, and it does that thing I love about his work, which is to support what’s there, and propel it into another territory.”
Crediting San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Tomasson for his “openness," and the dancers for their generosity, is characteristic of the way Margaret Jenkins works, and lives. “I’m always uncomfortable saying, ‘And then I did …,’ because the I is always an elaborate web of people,” she says.
“For me, I make work so I can be in these conversations with people. The most important thing was to work with these dancers, and to feel, after the three weeks, that the community had been extended.”
Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.