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Margaret Jenkins Keeps Moving

July 13, 2020

Plunge headlong or jump feet first into dialogue with Margaret Jenkins and you find the intrepid San Francisco-based choreographer impressively grounded. Amid the whirling turbo of COVID-19, live dance performances are postponed indefinitely, shelter-in-place forced Jenkins to forgo Margaret Jenkins Dance Company rehearsals, and the severe economic downturn forced her to give up her precious Dance Lab, a movement-making space that has fueled the company’s robust repertory and offered visiting artists a valuable showcase venue. Jenkins’s activities are now scaled down to working with individual dancers, one-on-one, outdoors, and entirely socially-distanced.

Even so, Jenkins remains rooted in family work ethics and cultural foundations established as a fifth-generation San Franciscan. Those practices combined imaginative exploration with hard work and were exposed to new influences while Jenkins trained at Juilliard and UCLA. With her ideas further refined and investigated as a dancer in the companies of Jack Moore, Viola Farber, Gus Solomons, Jr., Twyla Tharp’s original company and others, Jenkins became a respected teacher and member of the faculty of the Merce Cunningham Studio. Jenkins restaged Cunningham’s works on companies worldwide for more than a decade before returning to the Bay Area in 1970. She formed her first company in 1973 and through the years has created over 80 works on the MJDC and other companies; including among them a 75th-anniversary work in 2008 honoring San Francisco Ballet.

If there is a defining cornerstone for Jenkins’s body of work, it is found in collaborative projects in which she has engaged for decades. In the course of creating her multigenerational, cross-cultural, multidisciplinary, or site-specific pieces, she frequently works with a select handful of longtime partner artists in the fields of dance, music, and visual arts. Her kinetic choreography continues to evolve and surprise, which makes it appropriate to flip an interview upside down and enter through the exit — with Jenkins’s last comments about hope, live performance, and her vision for the post-pandemic future.

What gives you hope for the arts community after multiple blows?

The resilience and determination of artists who are art-making and many generations of young people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s is extraordinary. Those generations feed people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, and those people feed one another in a way that is rather poignant and breathtaking. We as the makers of things — that we should get to make things with people who are younger — are incredibly privileged being in this world of extraordinary activism. 

I daily feel privileged to be around the energy of people in my company who are absolutely determined and always hopeful that what they do and how they act and how they interact with each other, and in fact how they view the future and how they act in the company as makers, is what the future is. As they make work, they have to create a global atmosphere of resilience. I never feel there is one day where I’m not surrounded by people who are completely hopeful about our future. Making art is about exactly that: being hopeful.

Young artists and companies such as yours are offering their work or “product” online without charging a fee. Do you see long-term disadvantages to the benefits of making dance free — it’s more accessible, keeps artists working, and so on — that might harm the bottom line when live performances resume?

One of the things I want to believe is that the live performance will never be replaced by anything online. It will be upon all of us at that point we are given permission to invite people to live performances again that people will want to come to have that immediate relationship to a performing art and be willing to pay a dollar or 10 or 20 to come see it. To support people doing it. Even if they’ve had the experience of seeing it online, I don’t think anything is going to replace that. I don’t think that someone might see something online and wouldn’t say, “Boy that was incredible, I wonder what it’s like live?” I guess I’m not too worried about it.

What would most benefit dance and art-making as we move into the next year?

What would most benefit art-making and really, the human race, would be to get rid of Trump. To completely re-imagine the people in power. To have, so to speak, a White-Black House that felt that art was an important part of the culture and that culture was an important part of our lives.

[Later, Jenkins clarified the “White-Black House” reference.] We have a White House now. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that White House would envelop and include people of all colors and would deeply believe that people of all colors were important to support?

We would have art fully in our schools and in every aspect of our lives so it was as important as everything else that is supported. Every person in every walk of every part of their lives would know that in order to be fully realized as a human being — to be able to breathe normally — they had to experience art in some way. I wish for artists to be paid in a way that allows them to live a life. For art-makers to be respected as important people in the culture so they can keep doing their work. I want the venues to open in such a way that we are all invited in to share our work equally with as many people who want to see it. And at a price that everybody could afford. That would be an extraordinary couple of years to look forward to.

The Global Moves project that will premiere in an evening-length work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum & Gardens in Fall 2021 recently received a Hewlett 50 Arts Commission. The project involves your company and dancers from Guangdong Modern Dance Company (Guangzhou, China), Kolben Dance Company (Jerusalem, Israel) and Tanusree Dance Company (Kolkata, India). What can you tell us about Global Moves and the award?

We haven’t really started to work so the proposed project is as it was in the beginning and we will see what comes of it when we all start to work. The proposal is to work with these companies with whom I have a long history. I have made work on each one of the companies since 2006, but the nature of my work with those companies was making work individually, starting in 2006, and then 2009 and then 2014.

This proposal is to bring members of those companies — not their full companies — two dancers from each company to get together with my company in the building of a new piece. The initial impetus is certainly to look at and to address issues that look at xenophobia and nationalism. And the concepts that surround those ideas living in this time that we all live in. The nature of the way I make work is to start in one place as you come together. In the making of the piece, it starts to reflect who you are and what you are and where you are at that time; which will include all the ways in which we are all feeling isolated, being in this time of COVID-19.

The grant; I am of course extraordinarily excited and feel very grateful to have received one of these supports from the Hewlett Foundation. [The Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions is a five-year, $8 million initiative launched in 2017 that supports the creation and premiere of 50 new works from artists working in five performing arts disciplines.]

If this project reflects who you are at this time, as you just said: Who is Margaret Jenkins now?  Who have you become in this pandemic environment?

I don’t think you become any fixed thing. I’m an artist at work. We’re having to be distant and, in some degree, in isolation from one another. One of the things you have to come to terms with is, how do you get out of isolation? How do you stay in contact with your dancers? With your collaborators, how do you say in conversation? I am finding ways either on Zoom, or meeting with my dancers one-on-one at a distance to be in conversation and to generate new material so that we can remain creatively active. At this particular time, it really asks the question about what is it about being together that is so unique? One of the things that is so unique about dance-making or for any artists in conversation with a body is not being able to be in conversation with a body. It is one of the great losses that I think all artists are having [now]. My charge is to figure out how many different ways I can be in a conversation with my dancers and their bodies. I am being the initiator, facilitator, and the artist at work with my other artists.

Global Moves involves source material drawn from prompts based on cultural proverbs and historical texts. What prompts are you working with?

One of the things that I hope will come forward from the work would be from the artists. They will — not just I will — come forward with prompts. One that I will share with you, a prompt called tikkun olam, refers to an act of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. It is found in the Mishnah, which is found in the body of classical rabbinical teachings. I’ll be very interested in finding out what might be cultural text from our Chinese and Indian collaborators. We will be giving each other prompts that will come from cultural text or that will come from our actual experiences in our own cultures. In relationship to this particular moment In time, what are each of these cultures experiencing around COVID? In responding to the worldwide pandemic of not just COVID, but in Black Lives Matter. There has been such a worldwide response to everything going on. We will be in conversation about wanting to have this work reflect where we are at this time. Not as a political gesture, because I’m not interested in work that is specifically political, but all art is an act of resistance. All art is a way of responding to where we are at the time that we are making the work. The people that will be involved in making this work will be the teachers, in a way.

Among other longtime collaborators, you’ve worked with composer Paul Dresher many times. What makes the collaboration rewarding?

One of the things that is unique about Paul is that he has an understanding of movement. He has a unique sense of how to propel music forward. He’s also very responsive to movement in that he can see it and feel it in his own body and can make it happen in his music. He’s in a world of inventing instruments in a way that I’m in a world of inventing movement. He has a way of creating immersive sound that asks an audience to be enveloped in the textures that he makes. He’s very flexible. The instrumentation he uses; he can go from two people to five people and then more people, and the different kinds of sounds he can make can reflect not just the environment but the emotional state that one lives in. I love that he can be so endlessly responsive but also propulsively present.

Are there challenges you and he have had to overcome or principles of collaboration you consciously work to maintain over the years?

All collaborations are about being flexible and being responsive to each other. It’s a constant willingness to stay present and a willingness to be in balance. The challenge is always if it’s for Paul to respond to what I’m thinking or for me to understand that there are some ideas I might find very interesting that I am developing, that I would love to go further, or for him to take further in a particular direction.…It’s for me to understand that maybe it’s not possible to take that particular idea further. I have to understand why. That’s a limit of my musical understanding, so I have to be educated about how it could go one direction but perhaps not the one I’m thinking of. He might need to understand the limits of what I’m forming physically and how although a direction would allow his music to grow, that wouldn’t be interesting to me. So it’s constantly trying to understand each other’s form. It’s a back-and-forth and constant conversation. It’s also a challenge because the ultimate goal is to figure out how to financially make it possible to have performances be live. How do we find enough time and space to rehearse live? That’s the biggest challenge we always face:  to be in the same space for enough time to really be responsive.

How has the pandemic impacted Chime 2020 and Encounters Over 60?

[Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME) is a program involving long-term mentoring relationships between emerging and established choreographers. Encounters Over 60 showcases elder women dance artists through week-long residencies.]

The pandemic has put everything on pause. Nothing is happening. Rehearsals are not happening except I’m working one-on-one with dancers in very safe socially distant situations, outside. The company will not be rehearsing until some health official says it’s OK to touch and sweat, and I suspect that won’t happen until there’s a vaccine. I think we’re all on an extended pause. Is that six months, a year, two years? Who knows, right?

In terms of CHIME and Encounters, we just finished our first year of Encounters over 60, literally about five days before the shelter-in-place order came down. We had our last performance with Merián Soto at our Lab four days before Mayor Breed made her announcement. CHIME artists were being monitored by me and we were three-quarters of the way through our CHIME relationship when the orders happened. We have put a pause on that with the understanding that as soon as we can be back in contact, we will finish out that quarter that hasn’t been realized. At the same time that we [will launch] the next year of CHIME.

Our programs in art-making are on paper and they won’t get lifted off paper until somebody says it is absolutely safe to do that. We have a website and we are trying to stay current so people can check there. Whenever we know anything definitively about when guidelines will be up, we will make sure it is there and people who are interested [in participating] will let us know.

One thing that it’s important for people to know is that the Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab that I had for 15 years, we did need to let go. The space where all these activities took place, we weren’t able to keep because of COVID. We weren’t able to pay the rent. We [had been] able to keep that space by renting it out to other people and by some wonderful foundations who have been incredibly helpful to us in keeping it alive. Now, the best use of our limited resources really is for our programs. To constantly pay rent for something we couldn’t use — it’s one of the sadnesses of COVID, not being able to keep the space alive for us and other companies.

What new technologies for creating, preserving, and sharing have most enhanced your vision or made possible new ideas?

Technology: I’m not very interested in it. What gets me up and gets me out and keeps me working as an artist is being up close and personal with the dance artists. What makes me the most interested in doing what I do is being with my dancers and being with the people with whom I collaborate. Being in person with all of those people, making things, that really, very simply is what gets me out of the house.

I have extraordinary appreciation for the ways in which technology has made all kinds of things possible. Including the ways it has made it possible for all kinds of people to stay in touch and really, probably keep sane during this period. To be in contact, to check up on each other, to share ideas, and in many instances including for me to share movement ideas and propel the creative process forward when you reach that point where you can’t go any further. There are unbelievably creative and extraordinary people at work in ways that use video to make dance come alive through that medium. Personally, I’m not very interested in making that myself, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t being done by extraordinary artists.

You’ve made many site-specific dances. Talk about space and how it factors into your work.

I’ve made work for inside space, outside space, inside people’s homes, outside people’s homes, in huge warehouses or theaters. I’m interested in the concept of space. I loved my lab because it was private and it was quiet and it was for me. There was no possibility of anyone looking in on us, which I adored. That allowed me to make the work I have made over the last 40 years. From work for huge warehouses to work that was made very specifically to exist in an 18 x 20-foot space so it could move from one person’s living room to another person’s living room to be shared in those contexts. Or work to be shared from one museum gallery to another museum gallery around the world. Each space has its own personality, its own frame of reference. I love how dance is supposed to work in a space and how my work can inform the space. Meaning is derived from wherever you are.

Dance in other countries: Is it more intergenerational, more or less cross-cultural? How integrated is it in daily life?

I don’t know in an expansive way about that. From people I talk to, there’s every kind of dance going on everywhere around the world. I don’t think we have a market in this country on a particular kind of exploration that is not going on in a lot of different places. Certainly every kind of dance-making is going on in Germany. There’s a different kind of dance-making going on in China, given all the political restrictions. It depends on what country, politics, religion, what government, who’s looking on, and who’s making the decisions.

From generations younger than me who travel a lot more than I do, it feels as if there’s an extraordinary amount of experimentation going on all over the world. I wish we were able to see it. I wish the borders weren’t closed.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.