January/February 2020 In Dance

IN PRACTICE: Margaret Jenkins’ Discusses Encounters Over 60


IN OCTOBER AND NOVEMBER 2019, I saw the work of three remark- able New York-based artists: Adia Whitaker, Miguel Gutierrez, and Tere O’Connor. Although O’Connor is arguably the most well-known of the group, or at least the most well-established, at least in contemporary western concert dance circles nationally and internationally, the houses on the nights I attended did not reflect this. Whitaker’s ODC Theater shows were sold out, and Gutierrez fans covered every inch of space at the Latinx Research Center in Berkeley, but O’Connor’s show was, though well-attended, not the jam-packed event I’d expected. (I don’t usually make people feel bad for missing performances—I miss them all the time—but if you missed Long Run, well, you missed something special. Heck, if you missed any of these events, well, I’m sad for you.) I think the main reason for the disparity in audience turnout is that both Whitaker and Gutierrez spent several formative dancing years in the Bay Area—they have people here. When Gutierrez saw the turnout for his talk “Does Abstraction Belong to White People?” he said, “This is like, This is Your Life, Miguel! ” Friends and family of both the blood and dance kind showed up to support the talk and engage with its ideas. Whitaker, who said she was encouraged to “get her people” to the the- ater, appeared to have no trouble doing so. But O’Connor, who hadn’t shown work in San Francisco for at least a decade, didn’t have the same pull. Whose responsibility is it to pack the house? The artist? The PR team? The press? The artist’s mom? It’s probably some combination of sources and forces but one thing seems clear: the Bay Area favors its lo- cal and prodigal artists.

SB: How do you see your role in Encounters Over 60 ? MJ: Being way over 60, I can see that we are now in a very different art environment from when I started CHIME, and we are certainly in a very different arts culture from when I first returned to the Bay Area in 1970. There were a few of us making work then. Literally a few. So it wasn’t just a euphemism. There were 2 or 3 of us making work. [Laughs] There are now 100s of us making work. And that’s the great news. SB: You’re talking about concert dance, right? Because I’m sure other dance must have been happening in the Bay Area in the 1970s but perhaps not in that historical legacy. MJ: Yes and no, but to name just a few: there was Shela Xoregos, Pacific Ballet, Carlos Carvajal (Dance Spectrum), San Francisco Ballet, and Anna Halprin in Marin who had what one might call more formal structures or groups. There were individual artists at work like Theresa Dickerson, Ann Wood- head, Helen Dannenberg. People reading this will rightfully know of others. And there was nowhere to show the work being made. There wasn’t a Cowell Theater, there wasn’t an 848, which turned into lots of other things. There wasn’t yet a Theater Artaud or now Z Space. There certainly wasn’t an ODC; they weren’t here until 1976. There wasn’t even my Bryant Street studio (1974) that turned into a performance space. There wasn’t a YBCA. There wasn’t, there wasn’t, there wasn’t. There were some wonderful people here who were underground, trying to be seen, to find ways to share their work, but from 1970 to now there are literally 100s of people making and showing work in different ways, in different places, venues, alternative and traditional. There are of course not enough places but there are quadruple the number of places to share what you’re doing than there were. You don’t leave San Francisco anymore because you can’t get good training, you can’t see enough, there aren’t enough variety of activities or points of view about dance- making. You leave for other reasons, more often now because you can’t afford to live here. Before you came today, I was making a list of artists I know well who have left, and

there are at least ten who’ve left in the last few months.

SB: In the last few months?! MJ: Yes. My roundabout point is that the wonderful news over these decades is the wealth and breadth and quality of dance- making that’s going on—it’s stupendous. But the thing that’s complicated is that although there are many foundations trying to figure out or “refresh” how to support the wealth of activity—including diversity in styles and ethnicity—the question of how to support this volume remains a huge question. The people of my generation are now in a posi- tion of having to ask whether or not it’s time for us to step out of the way to make room for a new generation of thinking, new ideas that are at work trying to find a voice. Per- sonally, I don’t think that’s the solution. SB: I don’t know exactly what that would look like— MJ: But I do think it’s an important ques- tion. If you are an artist, age is not a defin- ing characteristic. Making work is “of neces- sity.” I still have a burning desire to continue to grow and be present and to share what I know. There is no alternative but to continue. MJ: Yes. I wanted to find a way to create a program that highlights the necessity of con- tinuing regardless of age. How can you make room for artists who are 60 and who are still performing, who are still at work, who have a lot to share and an eagerness to gather as well? There tends in be an emphasis on the new in our field and I think it’s important to honor and celebrate our elders. MJ: Some of the prerequisites were that the artists are still performing, that they are women, that they were performers, and that when they are here, each for a week, they be interested in doing something with mem- bers of this community. We’ve worked with the artists to help identify local communities they are attracted to working closely with— one will be focusing on making work with dancers over 60, and the other with the rich SB: Is that what you’re foregrounding with Encounters Over 60? That drive? SB: How did you choose the artists for the project?

SB: Because the four meetings were required? MJ: Yes. But consistently, every year, each artist said it was the highlight of the year because they had the opportunity to really be in dialogue with one another in a way they never get a chance to in their daily working lives. It’s always hard to find the time to stop and really talk to one another. Just surviving takes time. These conversa- tions during CHIME led me to think about how I could get more of those hap- pening, particularly between generations, where so much can be gained from one another’s experiences. This curiosity evolved into Encounters .

Margaret Jenkins, San Francisco native and prodigal daughter herself, has invited two dance artists who are largely unfamiliar to and with the Bay Area dance scene for two week-long residencies at the Margaret Jen- kins Dance Lab in February and March. Vicky Shick (Budapest/New York) and Mer- ián Soto (Puerto Rico/Philadelphia) will offer performances, classes, and workshops as part of Encounters Over 60 , a project that aims to “amplify the visibility of elder dance artists.” Given Jenkins’ commitment to inter- generational, multiethnic, cross-disciplinary, and international dance dialogue, there will also be ample space provided for reflection and discussion. Jenkins and I met in her Polk Street office to talk about the challenges of bringing “out- siders” to the Bay, the rewards of CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange), now in its 15th year, the future of older dancers, and the extraordinary (Jenkins likes that word, you’ll see) vitality of the Bay Area dance community. Margaret Jenkins: The seed for Encounters Over 60 really begins with CHIME. CHIME has kept me in conversation with artists and their work in ways I might not have had the opportunity, if not for this program. One of the things about CHIME that has continu- ally surprised me is the degree of camarade- rie that the people involved in it have dis- covered, the degree to which it diminished their sense of isolation. In each iteration of CHIME, the artists involved would get together four times a year to talk about what they were discovering in their mentorship relationships. I thought that the artists would find these burdensome, but their reports said otherwise. They were deeply appreciative. Sima Belmar: Let’s get right to it. Tell me about the project.

Merian Soto / photo by Bill Hebert

continued on pg 12 »


in dance JAN/FEB 2020

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