Margy—one of Margaret Jenkins’ many monikers—always considered her dancers collaborators, and I had the good fortune to work with her from 1979 to 1990. Through the years, she gave us the freedom to invent and grow. As each company of dancers melded, she would ask for more input, lengthening the leash of control bit by bit as the group gelled and matured. I believe we all felt, in some recess, that our responsibilities increased as her aesthetic evolved over time.
When I began taking class with her in the mid-1970s Margy’s classes were dauntingly rigorous and intimidating for a new dancer, like myself. The challenges were both physical and mental. We were trained to look, to see, to embody instantaneously. Limbs went one way as the torso went the other. Her combinations trained flexible minds and strong, responsive bodies because of this training we learned to plum the possibilities rather than just perfect what was presented.
In the early days of her company, Margy would call on us to manipulate her phrases a variety of ways. From these she would, in her own indescribable manner, construct combinations of space, bodies and timings to create the arcs of her dances. She trained all of us in movement exploration, expanding our strengths as collaborators.
It is a dancer’s great fortune to be asked to not only perform steps, but also create within an overarching framework. In this context, we were all given the opportunity to apprentice as choreographers, freeing us of the need to create an overarching context or balance. Instead, Margy gave us movement to investigate and problems to solve. Our ideas might then be placed into the larger work, continually being shaped and contextualized as she saw fit for her larger idea. Over time, more and more input from the dancers was used in creating the overall framework, culminating when Ellie Klopp, a dancer in the company, was officially made associate choreographer for a time.
It wasn’t only in-house collaboration that occurred; Margy collaborated with artists from other genres from very early on in her history. For the dancers, it was particularly exciting, because she brought the other artists into the studio and sometimes, like with composers Rinde Eckert and Paul Dresher, into the work itself.
The stirring of ideas and varied points of view kept the flow of inspiration lively and provided a wonderful opportunity to be stimulated by esteemed artists and thinkers of other artistic genres. For me, being steeped in the daily conversation through which form evolved, piece after piece, has informed my way of thinking, acting, moving in the world. I found the practice of true collaboration—with events, people, animals, the environment, or the unseen—to be a mode of working that is both freeing and demanding of a rigorous attention to presence. It takes discipline and flexibility to truly tune one’s mind and senses, remaining both critical of and open to the unpredictable mix of chance and fate. I attribute finding these truths, in part, to the many years of working with Margy; they have guided me ever since.
In the lineage of Merce Cunningham, Margy’s work has a formality and an austerity, a distinguished tone that utilizes specific movements without forcing meaning or content. Yet she strayed from this with her use of theatricality. She has room for all types of movement: gestural, almost conversational arms, huge leg gestures, wildly gyrating spines. And as she let more and more vocabulary be driven by her dancers, the momentum and release, athleticism and force, were welcomed as well. She has a gift for inviting creativity and then contextualizing it.
The clouds of words that Michael Palmer wove through First Figure on the stream of composer J.A. Deane’s billowy sound score deeply informed the apocalyptic, chilly mood of that piece. Never once do I remember that a movement was made to coincide with a particular phrase in the sound score; this could be both freeing and frustrating. Instead, we, as dancers, rehearsed the work over and over and as a result the world of the work revealed itself wordlessly, though collectively. This way of working offered me a deeply satisfying sense of being part of something, of the world, but also outside of it. I feel I got a rich experience of the alchemy of the performing arts.
One of the riskiest and most challenging works that she birthed while I was with her was Shelf Life, a collaboration between herself, the Paul Dresher Ensemble, Rinde Eckert, Alex Nichols and the company. In it, she used the same method of eliciting, and piecing together clusters of movement. The dancers had each chosen a literary character from which to generate the material for their part. A story narrative was constructed from the beginning to link these many different characters into some sort of graspable relationship. Margy’s forte is not the graspable relationship. Using a “collaborative stew” method, she and Rinde Eckert came up with the brilliant conceit of the various books sharing characters as a result of their cross-pollination through book covers. The collage-like format offered a fulfilling expression to the quirky, unlikely assortment of characters that emerged.
Margy is willing to let the undercurrent guide the work’s flow. Sometimes the effect is extremely abstract and sometimes there are concrete references, such as the drive-in theatre of Pedal Steal, or the bleak East European grey of Woman, Window, Square.
She throws a wide net, launches into deep waters and trolls around until the edges of her ideas sharpen up and the group takes form in some kind of self-contextualizing way. A launching point might simply be one word, like “home,” or a complicated construct like in that of Shelf Life. She might start with a sound score, as she did with Georgia Stone, a collaborative piece with Yoko Ono. But more often than not we would work with ideas, words and concepts for long periods of time before getting anything that resembled a sound score.
She shirks redundancy and is more likely to give too much than too little information. I remember David Gordon, founding member of The Grand Union of the Judson Church era, once said he could make ten dances out of one of Margy’s. She also prefers to work towards open-ended readings of her pieces.
The collaborating artists were involved in the process from the very beginning of the work, present in the space if their proximity allowed or by some other form of communication if it did not. Margy let the unformed slowly find its way to consciousness; she, her dancers, and all the designers, each had a part in ushering the emerging work through the fog and into the light.
It would be impossible to tease out the many levels and riches of my experience with Margy’s company currently informs my life. But it has, and it does, every day in how much I trust my instincts, what I draw on for inspiration, not to mention the deep friendships I count on to this day. I have encountered few life experiences that are so safely edgy, require so much dedication and tenacity, and are shared so closely among a group of accidental voyagers.