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Body of Work: Disability as a Springboard, Not a Shark

January 8, 2013

Joan JeanrenaudFor 20 years Joan Jeanrenaud was the cellist in the Kronos Quartet. She was 42 when she left in 1998. According to a Wikipedia entry for the quartet, she “was eager for something new.” But now, 15 years later, Jeanrenaud says the reasons were more complicated.

“I left, in part, because of artistic differences,” she said recently. “I think we were trying to do too much in a short time. David [Harrington, the Kronos founder] was like a kid in a candy store. He would take any piece he could get, and we would work, work, work, and play them all but often just one time; sometimes, you felt like you had wasted all your energy on something that wasn’t worth it. Of course, having a large and varied repertoire is an important part of the group’s identity, but I just wonder whether, had we chosen fewer pieces and on the basis of what we could play best. …”

She let the thought run, unattended. We were sitting in her house in the Bernal Heights District of San Francisco, in what was once a living room, now a studio, and here she was, a lithe, long-fingered, ever optimistic woman, ever happy just to play Bach cello suites, with her gray hair tied back, and surrounded by monitors, mixers, mics, speakers, her acoustic cello, her electric cello, an amp, a looper, a guitar processor, her dog Jack passed out on a cushion, and the sound of Sibelius, the music composition software, opening up on a screen and the program’s musical signature filling the room.

“But then maybe that’s not true,” she went on, “because you always learn things, even in that situation. The pace was just so grueling. But again, you look back and you wonder, was that the M.S. talking?”

The New Reality

Jeanrenaud discovered she suffered from multiple sclerosis in 1998. The disease attacked her mobility and laid siege to her right leg.

“You know, it’s complicated. Was the stress of being in the quartet, playing six to eight hours a day and then all the traveling, 120 concerts a year, all that physicality — did that make me, finally, vulnerable to this illness, or did the illness make me overly sensitive to the schedule? Did one cause the other? I really don’t know.”

Always this question with serious illness: Which came first, the illness or some event around the time the illness appeared? And then the quandary: Am I a victim, a perpetrator, or a co-conspirator? All or none or some … Is it metaphor or not? And finally, of course, looking back can you honestly say, it was a blessing in disguise. …?

Was the stress of being in the quartet … making me vulnerable to this illness, or did the illness make me overly sensitive to the schedule?

In Jeanrenaud’s case, her illness has been a blessing of sorts, though perhaps measured. For one, her struggle with M.S. has led to a new career as a composer, the new-new world of electronics, and, just now, collaboration in a daring new multimedia performance piece combining poetry, dance, and her music. The performance, which has taken more than two years to develop, is called Your Body Is Not a Shark and will play at the ODC Theater in San Francisco on Jan. 11–13 and then on Jan. 17–20 at Motion at the Mill in Santa Cruz.

The piece grew out of a new quartet, if you will, involving Jeanrenaud; dance choreographer Cid Pearlman, who is artistic director of the Nesting Dolls dance company in the 1990s and is now at the UC Santa Cruz Theater Arts Department; poet Denise Leto, whose poems provide the text for the piece; and Maya Barsacq, founder and conductor of the Cadenza Orchestra in Santa Cruz.

The theme of Shark, says Barsacq, 42, and musical director of the piece, “is how we take those moments that bring us to our knees and find the means to move forward. Our focus is on showing what it’s like to feel vulnerable and then to accept that vulnerability but not to accept the limitations, to say this is where I’m at, but this is where I can be. What this is, really. is an invitation to dialogue.”

The title, Your Body Is Not a Shark, came from a collaborative chapbook written by the poet Amber DiPietra and Leto, titled Waveform. “In the beginning of the process of working on Shark,” says Leto, “Joan, Cid, and I sent each other samples of our work. Among the poems I sent one contained the line, ‘When your body is not a shark. …’ The line stood out, and we adopted it as a title.”

A Struggle to Communicate


Cid Pearlman with an original score composed and performed by Joan Jeanrenaud, text by poet Denise Leto, and musical direction by Maya BarsacqWhile Shark, reflects a fourfold vision, it is driven largely by the personal experience of Jeanrenaud and Leto, who suffers from a condition called “laryngeal dystonia” or “spasmodic dysphonia.” It is a neurological disorder; spasms leave vocal cords stiff and unable to vibrate; the result is a strangled sound from the speaker. Interestingly, spasms often tend not to occur when laughing or singing.

“It changed all aspects of my life, including my artistic practice,” says Leto. “If I am at a poetry reading and my voice is ‘dysfluent,’ it can be quite painful. I once stood up in front of an audience and could not produce sound. I didn’t read in public for a while after that. This was just after the onset and diagnosis. It forced me to come up with a new reenactment of the poem and led to an intense interest in collaboration.

“If I am at a crowded coffee shop,” she continues, “and I can’t be heard, there is no telling what I might be served. This morning, during a routine call to the phone company, I was hung up on three times because the people on the other end were impatient with the slower verbal pace. In situations of much greater import, where my condition is misinterpreted, it can lead to loss in opportunity or even income. Once, during a job interview by four people, the interviewers were speaking over each other and were rushed and there was much consternation about my voice as representative of my professional capabilities. I was told that they needed someone who could speak with ease, that my voice would scare people away, and that they would have to remove me as a candidate.”

And what is the transformative effect of doing this project for Leto? It is partly articulating the idea that while malady may appear to be of the body, this doesn’t mean that the body is the enemy, or is in some way a predator, a shark, bent on, in effect, self-destruction.

The possibility with Shark, says Leto, was “to challenge the idea of the heroic body, while still highlighting the fact that physical difference or disability or fragility or aging can be painful, both physically and emotionally, and that they need to be seen and encountered realistically, and not just as a moment of inspiration for the able-bodied.”

The theme of Shark … “is how we take those moments that bring us to our knees and find the means to move forward.”

“We’re all experiencing something similar, or we know someone around us who is having this experience,” says Cid Pearlman, whose recent choreographies include Drowning Poems (2011) and This Is What We Do in Winter (2010). “My aunt has Parkinson’s; my hairstylist has M.S. I haven’t had a huge physical shock; I’m not dealing with a particular ailment, but as a 49-year-old dancer I have to find new ways of doing things. This is what we hold in common, and so we’re looking inside these limitations to see how they force us to become more creative and to find new possibilities.”

Reconstruction of a Musical Life

Jeanrenaud grew up in Memphis, the daughter of a teacher and the director of a long-held family company that makes signal flares. She took up the cello at the relatively late age of 11 and was propelled by various mentors, including Pierre Fournier, the “aristocrat of cellists,” with whom studied for a year in Geneva, Switzerland.

Your Body Is Not a SharkYet you ask her about her life and eventually her stories migrate back to Kronos and the attraction of the quartet — to become one sound, to think of the beat as collective, “somewhere in the middle,” equidistant from all the players. There was also the attraction in her role of providing the bass. “I really liked that role — to provide the bass and keep the beat. Now, Kronos wasn’t your typical quartet where the first violin plays the melody and the inner voices are filler; we would switch roles, which is why it was so great. We really turned the idea of ‘quartet’ on its head.

“I’ve never considered myself a soloist,” she continued. “I’ve always looked at myself as more of a team player.”

Which is the real attraction for her of Shark. It’s another form of quartet.

Initially, she had no intention of performing the music she’d composed. In general, she’s very reluctant to go on tour anymore. The plane traveling is just too much for her — lugging the equipment around, finding someone to help.

The week I saw her, she was in rehearsal every night for another project. “So each night I have to drive to the theater, take my cello, park, take my cello out, and then set up. That kind of stuff is not so easy. I can do it and I am doing it but …” She paused.

“Everybody says, Oh, I’ll help you, but that’s not the way it works. Of course, people help me all the time, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. So these days when I’m asked to perform, often I just refuse it and at first I wasn’t going to do this, but then. …”

But then there’s always the desire to perform, to join the group, to supply the bass, to find strength in the communal creative process.

Lessons From Illness

Jeanrenaud had to go. She moved her cello aside so that she could stand. She began to get the minimum together: the little mixer, not the big mixer. Just one cello. Just the minimum. And so, have there been any other blessings to come out of all this?, I asked. She shook her head. No, illness hasn’t changed her basic outlook. She has a more intimate understanding of the nature of disabilities. She has more compassion for her 92-year-old mother, particularly when she complains about not being able to move about. Still, she’s the same person.

“Yes, I’ve learned things about myself. Illness reveals you to yourself. And of course you can’t escape it, it’s just there and you have to deal with it, and how you deal with it is a sign of your character. But I’m pretty resilient. I suppose I’m optimistic, which keeps me resilient. There’s always something, a little bright shining light in the darkness. Now I’m teaching a lot more: One of my students is a little 5-year-old girl. She’s so great; she’s like this little sponge and it’s so much fun to show her things that no one even showed me, how you can play all these harmonics just by sliding your hand down, for example. …”

It’s the virtue of experience — knowing you don’t have to learn the cello in the “old way,” one position at a time up the neck. You can slide, you can improvise, which has always been Joan Jeanrenaud’s desire and one of her gifts. In that sense, even with this illness, she has merely traded one mobility for another.

Mark MacNamara, a San Francisco-based journalist, has written for such publications as Nautilus, Salon, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair.  Recent pieces for San Francisco Classical Voice include profiles of San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink, and the great violinist, Midori; along with essays on Teddy Abrams’s effort to build political bridges with music and Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast.

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