Thread: Our three weeks with the San Francisco Ballet, Apr 2008

By Margaret Jenkins

April 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

From the moment I walked in the front door off Franklin Street through the final rehearsal and showing, I felt excitement, warmth and support from everyone at the San Francisco Ballet (SFB): dancers, staff, other choreographers, teachers, students, receptionists.

As the elevator took me and my Company to the third floor to begin, a curious exhilaration and anxiety arose reminding me of the guarded anticipation I used to feel when Merce Cunningham would return from a long tour and I would enter his then 3rd Street studio to take class, after his long absence, feeling as if I have never danced before.

But my apprehension, that nagging fear that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to choreograph, was quickly abetted, greeted by the extraordinary appetite among the SFB dancers to work differently, and the mutual respect between my Company and theirs was palpable from the very first day.

“The SFB (and ballet, in general) can sometimes feel like an ivory tower. It was very eye-opening to learn how little about us in the modern scene the SFB-ers knew or had even seen. Nevertheless, there was a mutual awe and respect from day one. We certainly had to learn how to work together, how to speak each other’s language, so to speak. But every step along the way, it was always dancers admiring and respecting dancers. Even when not crossing disciplines or climbing the ivory tower, that kind of compatibility is rare.” — Mary Carbonara, rehearsal assistant to Margaret Jenkins

I had been asked by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson to make a new work for the SFB’s 75th Anniversary Season. Commissioning a score for the orchestra was also a possibility. I was elated and honored to be asked. The potential challenges and privileges of creating a new work for SFB flooded my thoughts.

When I made my recent evening-length work, “A Slipping Glimpse,” I started in 2003 with workshops in India followed by a lengthy rehearsal period with my Company both in India and the United States. The work premiered in 2006, so you can imagine my astonishment to learn that I would have just three weeks to realize this new work with the SFB.

Although I knew that working with the SFB dancers would be a unique and singular experience—they are remarkable dancers—I also realized that I would want to invite my team of collaborators: the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (MJDC) dancers, Michael Palmer (poet), Alexander V. Nichols (visual designer), Paul Dresher (composer) and Beaver Bauer (costume designer) to fully engage in the preparation for the rehearsal period and in the process as well.

Soon after I heard from SFB, Michael—whom I’ve worked with for over 33 years—sent me an e-mail suggesting a place to begin. He was fascinated with the myth of Ariadne feeling that it might provide a frame from which to explore character as well as an implied journey. We all thought it might be fascinating to find a story not to tell, so to speak, knowing that the ballet audience is often accustomed to some kind of plot. How might we frame the work with that intention, but also stay true to our non-linear inclinations? The myth of Ariadne centers around her task to find her way through a labyrinth using a thread given to her by Theseus. Along the way she must also slay the Minotaur. All the collaborators felt that Ariadne’s story seemed like a rich territory to mine. Our discussions about the myth, about the Ballet, about this new landscape provided the impetus and the conceptual frame from which I would move forward.

Although I was not drawn to the specific and detailed narrative of the myth, the passage through the labyrinth was compelling. Michael then wrote “Say (4)” based on the story, which one will hear in the performance. As always, Michael provides a poetic context from which movement is generated. In this instance, “Say (4)” was rich with metaphor, which provoked both conversation and a movement vocabulary that we would share with the SFB dancers.

Say (4)

Say that Ariadne spins the Nine Songs,
spins and sings them, the first
for the body, the second for the prey,
the rest for the seconds, the minutes,
the hours of the day, the month’s weeks,
the years’ flight, the thread of lives,
the call along the pitch-dark corridors.

Say it is the body in time she spins,
the body on a singing bridge
and it is the dark she spins,
the lovers in the dark
enlaced by time and confused by the dark
and the secret at its heart.
And if it rains here in Knossos

as in other places and times,
and if the comet’s tail,
on clear nights, hangs
above the water in the eastern sky,
and if indeed the lovers say nothing
as they speak and as she spins,
say nothing twice and twice again

one moment to the next, one note
in Knossos as evening comes,
as hesitant night descends
with no meaning and no art to it,
then perhaps the one song
will suddenly make some sense
and if not we can pretend.
— Michael Palmer

While working with my dancers for a couple of months in advance of working at the Ballet, we took the poem as our source to create movement, to help organize our ideas about the work. It motivated research into notions about labyrinths, the myth itself, and how spiders spin their webs. As we worked in the studio prior to our time at SFB we wondered about portraying Ariadne as both male and female. What if the part were shared and we were to constantly see them in relationship to others but not one another?

The rehearsals, as usual, provided further inspiration toward this exploration as Damain and Pauli, the two dancers in the SFB who embody the character of Ariadne, enveloped the movement with complete vigor and sensuality. My hope is that when one sees the work, there will be multiple interpretations of how we explored this duality.

“I remember one day in particular, when the ballet dancers were making movement and partnering of their own. Their playfulness and excitement were very familiar to me, yet seeing it from the outside was validating that the collaborative creative process sometimes works like magic. For me, seeing them dive in and enjoy the creative process of inventing their own dance really gave Margy’s work and our own process a new credence.”
— Deborah Miller, MJDC dancer

Alex, as has been the case for many years—22 to be specific—is primary to my process and the design he proposed for the set, as a way to represent the myth, was also critical to how we proceeded in rehearsals. Knowing we were to have a scrim three-fourths upstage with a labyrinth embedded on its tilted surface, and a doorway in the scrim to enter the stage, affected all our explorations. Projections would eventually fill the scrim. Through Alex’s proposed set for the work we immediately had a way to address both the internal and external worlds of the characters.

Our first few days with SFB were spent performing sections of the movement we had generated, talking about the poem, the set, and auditioning for cast A and cast B (there are 12 dancers in each cast), as well as talking about the concept of the work and creating the atmosphere that allows for trust and experimentation. The almost-immediate camaraderie between the two companies allowed the process to gallop ahead unencumbered. We taught movement and we discarded or changed a lot. But, perhaps the two most astonishing things for them were how we worked from the beginning without music—a first for all the SFB dancers—and our request that they develop some of the material, which included integrating their steps into the overall structure of the work, was unique.

Although it was difficult at first, the SFB dancers embraced the adventures, finding the rhythm of and for the movement in their own bodies and improvising with aplomb. They took the movement we taught to a new place and slowly imbued it with their own character. They engaged with the physicality of the gestures, and worked at the nuances, the hidden meanings. Their commitment, their creative contributions, their willingness to risk, and in some instances let go of preconceived ways of moving made for a remarkable three weeks.

Paramount to our being able to work efficiently and creatively was Betsy Erickson, one of the Ballet Mistresses of the SFB. I had requested Betsy since we had previously worked together at the Oakland Ballet and known each other for years. Betsy was at our side for every rehearsal, learning the movement, making suggestions and logging each person’s relationship to one another. She is the glue that makes the distance between when we made “Thread” (July 2007) and its premiere (April 24, 2008) a possibility.

MJDC and SFB came together in a very unique and particular way, reinforcing my belief that chemistry and character fundamentally define and affect both the process and the outcome of any project. We had an idea about how to begin our time together, how to establish the grid for what might come—a kind of labyrinth. As in all successful creative processes, we ended up at a different place from where we began and we all felt, I think, that something special had transpired. We now await the music, the set, the lighting, the audience, all of which will offer and affect new meanings, new ways to bring one’s attention into play.

“Thread” will premiere on April 24, 2008 in San Francisco Ballet’s 2008 New Works Festival. This commission by Jenkins is one of 10 world premieres by 10 renowned choreographers, performed on three separate programs running in alternating repertory. Performances take place at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. (Grove), SF, 415-865-2000. More info online at sfballet.org


Margaret Jenkins is a choreographer, teacher, and mentor as well as a designer of unique projects like CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange). Jenkins’ current choreographic project Other Suns will celebrate her Company’s 35th anniversary and premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on September 24, 2009, followed immediately by a 5-week tour in the US. Other Suns is a collaboration between the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company of Guangzhou, China.

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