… her insights into how to understand your own opportunities — how to make them and what to make of them — offer rich examples of how imagination and understanding can be woven together with practical reality.
Is it possible that the secret of independence is collaboration? That the key to freedom is interdependance and trust? Yeah, it’s possible, and that’s just one example of the perspective you find in a conversation with Jenna Pollack.
In the world of Concert Dance, the opportunities to be part of a stable, full-time arts organization are more and more rare, while at the same time, there is a constant renewal of independent projects and self-made opportunities. Jenna Pollack is a Boston-based choreographer, performer and educator, and in many ways is a compelling example of independence in dance making. Her background includes work and time with great organizations — Julliard, Springboard Danse Montréal, the Institute of the Arts Barcelona, Harvard Business School’s HBX CORe program, Scottish Dance Theatre, The Metropolitan Opera, Hubbard Street Professional Program and many many more. Yet her path is her own, and her insights into how to understand your own opportunities — how to make them and what to make of them — offer rich examples of how imagination and understanding can be woven together with practical reality.
On Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1 her latest original work, the promenade (in progress) will premiere as part of Urbanity Dance’s Annual Spring Review: Fragment. DancerMusic asked Jenna about dance, about making this dance, and about independence and interdependence in the world of dance. Here’s what she told us:
I want people to trust me after the work is over, to come back not even because they liked it necessarily but because they know I will use their time effectively to take them somewhere.
Johnny Nevin: Can you tell us about your latest work the promenade (in progress), which will premiere as part of Urbanity Dance’s Annual Spring Revue: Fragment on May 31 and June 1? What ideas are you exploring, and how have you woven that exploration into your movement design?
Jenna Pollack: Firstly – many thanks to you and Kristi for reaching out to interview me about this process!
The piece follows an abstracted orbit of people in what could feel like an erratic 80’s prom. It highlights an individual who exhibits codependent tendencies and three others who take different approaches in relating to him, revealing morsels of their own identities in the process. The piece tracks the tension and absurdity of these interactions, and the fissures of the relationships between them. Big picture, I really want to stress its abstracted nature (only so much can be really be said in 15 minutes), and the levity that underpins it as a result. I was given 22 hours over 6 weeks, and so as a team we knew from the get-go that honing in on the textures of, and impulses within, the world was more important than the vocabulary. With me, this naturally lends itself to levity – sometimes it’s funny, often it’s tragic, hopefully never heavy-handed – but in a short process it’s most important for me to be clear.
The first half of the creation period was strictly play: there was some phrasework to begin, mostly as a coaching exercise in what interests me in the body (spoiler alert: images and textures). But we mostly got lost inside of durational scoring; with tasks, rules, and devised material, we chiseled away at the value system of the world, and the root instincts and desires of each character.
I try to meet folks where they’re at – not in a lowest-common-denominator sort of way, but in aims of creating a joint roadmap of delight.
I logged everything in this stage. I watched rehearsal recordings back on a video annotation platform created by MIT Professor and local dancer David Karger. The platform, ‘NB’, helps me track and correlate notes in tandem with the footage (bye bye, unintelligible time stamps). Viewing and reflecting a lot in between rehearsals like this helped to sieve the more potent pieces from the darlings.
We ultimately whittled down our bits to a trajectory of connections between the players that felt like the clearest distillation of our research. Each of the four dancers have their own sort of expositional moment along the journey, aligning not only with their character development but with Urbanity’s Fragment theme for the concert. In this way, my aim is that by carving out the characters’ inner monologues, we come to an understanding of the group that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Despite the abstracted tone here, I stress that my choreography be legible for the everyday eye, that we be accountable for tangible narrative/development, justify movement with spatial evidence, and leave a trail of decisions behind. I think this sort of physical bibliography is a part of what the public, especially those with a limited formalized dance vocabulary, can connect to the most. My main metrics of success are authenticity, commitment, and curiosity, and I think these are some of the gateway drugs for an audience member new to dance. I try to meet folks where they’re at – not in a lowest-common-denominator sort of way, but in aims of creating a joint road map of delight. I want people to trust me after the work is over, to come back not even because they liked it necessarily but because they know I will use their time effectively to take them somewhere.
With absurdity as the default in this world, moments of conflict and clarity are rare . . . and thus all the more palpable.
One way I like to think about doing this, and conveniently also related to Urbanity’s Fragment theme, is by tapping into the 21st century, episodic ways we live our lives. Whether it be in Netflix series, Instagram posts, or even tending to the pieces of the fragmented body on WebMD, there’s something segmented about our rhythm today. And so my aim is to translate this mainstream wave of episodic activity to performance.
Aesthetically, I was inspired by the dated glam and color cliché of the film ‘Le Bal’ directed by Ettore Scola. The collection of sound for my piece, ranging from Lawrence Welk to Vladimir Cosma to Dorothy Ashby, also led me to this sort of gauche prom vibe. With absurdity as the default in this world, moments of conflict and clarity are rare . . . and thus all the more palpable.
Approaching each new gig with compassion and honesty is my MO.
Johnny: You’ve been a lot of places as a choreographer and performer, and you’ve seen how dance is made in a lot of different contexts. But the basic challenges of coming into a company as an independent choreographer and setting a work must be universal, at least to some degree. What are those challenges, to be that artist who shows up for the first rehearsal as a stranger and has to leave the final rehearsal as a trusted collaborator, with a new, complete, original work ready to share on stage?
Jenna: The challenges of making a new, complete, original work as you said are challenging. But I think it’s a relative reality, enabled only by our moment-to-moment concessions in the field. Branding wisdom tells me that I should tell you I just finished this commission and it’s fabulous and I am on to the next – instead, I want to admit that it has holes. So primarily, the main challenge is to be honest about where I’m at, and to manage my expectations for the environment I’m working within. Approaching each new gig with compassion and honesty is my MO.
The title of the work this weekend is the promenade (in progress). It was important for me to acknowledge the fact that it’s not a finished piece – not as a qualifier of its value or accomplishment, but as a polite act of defiance (not towards Urbanity – I am extremely grateful for, and proud of, this commission. Urbanity is one of the only forces in Boston operating at a high level that not only commissions new work from national choreographers, but from local and interdisciplinary perspectives to support a wide vision of the form). The concert dance world at large trumpets an eagerness to present its achievements, its relevance, its keeping up with a culture of production. . . that if it doesn’t abide by this rhythm it will become a fiscal folly and a programming disaster. But so much of this feels contrary to what I feel about dance.
When there is a trusted sense that time spent together is respected, that it passes with value, it is so much easier to drop into safe states of vulnerability in the studio.
Instead of giving away all my mad scientist ideas for an evolving company structure, I want to stress the importance of process. Not easily financed within an arts organization at first glance, but I truly believe there are big payoffs to be had when you truly invest in the work and not just the expectation of it.
Right now, what feels really important as an independent artist walking in the door for the first time is just spending time. Time teaching company class, time drinking coffee together, time looking at Cardi B’s Instagram, time dissecting our dumpster fire government, time rehearsing emotional and environmental conditions but not explicitly the piece. When there is a trusted sense that time spent together is respected, that it passes with value, it is so much easier to drop into safe states of vulnerability in the studio.
I try to make my process as transparent and available to the dancers as possible – they get a working Google Doc of my notes, the NB video annotation platform subscription, the Spotify playlist, and whatever thoughts I ask them to jot down in rehearsal. Not insomuch as a way of bypassing a commission’s limited hours, though that of course factors in, but more as an expression of joint agency. The work succeeds if everyone is interested in what we’re making, and, hopefully, curious enough to track it as it unfolds.
Jenna Pollack‘s the promenade (in progress) will premiere at Urbanity Dance‘s Annual Spring Revue: Fragments on Friday May 31st at 8pm and on Saturday June 1 at 8pm, at Boston’s Tsai Performance Center (685 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215). Tickets are available online from Eventbrite. “This production will be the first in the organization’s history to feature solely new works by acclaimed choreographers Shura Baryshnikov (Brown University, Doppelgänger Dance Collective), Chantal Doucett, Mike Esperanza (Peridance, BARE Dance Company), Andy and Dionne Noble (NobleMotion Dance), Jenna Pollack and Jacob Regan.”