Margaret Jenkins Dance Company at 35: Translations Over Time

By Emily Hite

September 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Choreographer Margaret Jenkins premieres her evening-length work Other Suns (A Trilogy) at the Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts September 24-26. The collaboration with China’s Guangdong Modern Dance Company, composer Paul Dresher, designer Alexander V. Nichols, and her eight dancers marks the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (MJDC), San Francisco’s longest-running modern dance company. For decades, Jenkins has been recognized as a leading choreographer, dancer, teacher, mentor, organizer, and supporter of dance. During that time, 110 company dancers have been part of making the work along with numerous collaborators, most notably Michael Palmer. As dancer #110 as well as a journalist, I find pleasure in learning about Jenkins’ journeys in process and creative explorations through the lens of the company’s living history. I have cornered current and past MJDC dancers and associates for interviews, receiving a welcoming response of contributions.

Margaret Jenkins recalls the time she found her place in the dance world. She was 19 when she discovered a way to marry her beliefs and life experiences with her dance training and choreographic point of view. A student at the University of California at Los Angeles, the native San Franciscan had returned to the West Coast after studying with Martha Graham and José Limón at the Juilliard School. Merce Cunningham’s company arrived for a six-week residency at UCLA in 1962. On the physical end, Jenkins says, this new way of dancing that “demanded a different kind of clarity” moved her more than any method she had studied by that time. Cunningham’s way of thinking about the relation between form and content, outside traditional theatrical conventions, provided other ways of seeing. While Jenkins deeply valued the varied experiences of her foundational dance training, including her early years in San Francisco, she was still in search of a technique and approach to dancing that better mirrored her experiences in the world. It happened that Cunningham’s way of working offered a point of view that, Jenkins says, “allowed me to connect to myself in a different way—choreographically, aesthetically, emotionally.” Suddenly, her way of seeing was permitted to flourish. Jenkins adds, “As Trevor Carlson, Executive Director of the Cunningham Dance Foundation said about Merce’s passing, ‘His approach to art and life opened so many paths for others—not to follow, but to discover.’”

With a fresh outlook, Jenkins boarded a Greyhound bus and headed to New York City. In addition to training with Cunningham on a daily basis, she danced and performed with Gus Solomons, Jr., Twyla Tharp, and Viola Farber, among others. She taught for Cunningham and staged works from his repertory, notably Summerspace, for 12 years, traveling throughout the United States and Europe as an emissary. Jenkins also taught from a loft in Little Italy where she lived with her husband, Albert Wax. When the couple moved to San Francisco in 1970, Jenkins’ artistic life underwent a transition. Knowing she wanted to dance and make dances, she began teaching as a way to meet people in the community and also let them know what she had to offer. She taught in San Francisco, the East Bay, Sausalito, and Palo Alto; at Mills College, UC Berkeley, Cal State Hayward, and at universities across the country.

During her fourth year back in San Francisco, Jenkins found a studio on Eighteenth and Bryant streets run by friendly landlords who allowed her to tear down walls. She hung some lights with the help of a $1,000 Zellerbach Family Foundation grant, placed cushions on the floor for the audience, and created a performance space with the model of New York’s Dance Theater Workshop as her guide; she had performed weekly at DTW with Jack Moore, Judy Dunn, Tina Croll, and others. Jenkins’ class attracted dancers from all over, with daily attendance reaching about 75. Dancer and choreographer Mary Carbonara, who arrived in San Francisco in 1988, describes the dance scene she encountered: “Everyone trained at the New Performance Gallery (NPG) that was run by Margy. All professional modern dancers in the city took class together,” and Jenkins taught daily for 25 years. As NPG grew to include more levels, Jenkins trained others to take over some of her classes, much the way Cunningham had entrusted her to represent him publicly. One of these teachers, Diane Frank, also studied and taught at the Cunningham studio and performed at NPG with Douglas Dunn and Dancers. Frank says from her experience working at NPG, “There was a sense that people could take risks, a degree of attentiveness to new work, and a real generosity—not just in spirit, but in action,” recalling Jenkins’ offering so many dancers the place to take class and to make and show work.

It was after establishing a place to dance that Jenkins formed her company, which debuted in 1974, out of a group of her students. “I think I’ve always been someone who thrives on interactions between people,” Jenkins says of the energy of a group that fuels her: “I like the collision of ideas, of bodies, of various minds, of what happens in collaboration.” Jenkins became known for her particular method of offering each artist profound liberties in creation and opportunities for dialogue within her process. Carbonara, who worked with MJDC on one project before joining the company full-time in 2000 and later serving as an artistic associate, says, “The biggest pull for me was that I would be a contributor to what I was dancing. I wanted very much to be in a company, but I hated being told what to do.” For Jenkins, collaboration is not just a buzzword; she’s genuinely moved by other people’s input. Carbonara explains that she found in Jenkins’ method a way to “be responsible and authoritative about [her own] choices, in the context of doing someone else’s work.” Jenkins creates an environment that allows dancers to become thoughtful contributors to the choreographic process—while still being dancers.

Paying particular attention to individual differences as well as to the group dynamic in her studio, Jenkins emphasizes that “dancing is about who’s dancing, who’s in the room, who’s asking the questions.” Because she often incites conversations and engages the group in explorations of off-balance, asymmetrical movement constructions, her work demands that participants take the risks of being physically vulnerable and open to unconventional ideas. Jenkins acknowledges the many artists she’s worked with: “Without them, their particular and unique ways of thinking and dancing and feeling and performing, there would be no MJDC and surely not 35 years of sustaining the asking of the questions.”

In addition to teaching and choreographing, Jenkins has developed programs for dance artists at-large as a founding member of Dance/USA and founder of the Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME) program, among others. Throughout her decades in the profession, Jenkins has simultaneously produced many diverse works and set structures in place for her colleagues to do the same. Carbonara underscores Jenkins’ gift for empowering others to access their own creativity: “Margy lets you know you have it in you. She has a warm authority in her.” Jenkins’ warmth melts the fear that often pairs with risk-taking. Her layered, complex work delivers a rich amount of information in the performance space, challenging her dancers and audience members alike. Carbonara adds, “The greatest legacy of her career is her work, and parallel to that is the fact that she has been the mentor to all these incredible voices that have been part of her company, or peripherally related to her company. I was aware of that going into the company. It was daunting and exhilarating at the same time.”

The poet Michael Palmer, as a major collaborator since even before the company’s formation, finds that in the fourth decade of working with Jenkins, borders between their media have become increasingly porous. Palmer’s text has partnered with Jenkins’ dance in a number of ways, from directly layering with movement to functioning as hidden instructions, known to the dancers but invisible to the audience. Over the years, Palmer and Jenkins have grown more comfortable offering feedback in each other’s territories, with Palmer making suggestions about the arc of the dance and its dramatic flow, and Jenkins keyed in to the function and placement of text.

Palmer, who also translates literature, participates in interpreting and transforming performance context, as well. He says of MJDC’s international collaborations, particularly A Slipping Glimpse (2005) with India’s Tanusree Shankar Dance Company: “It’s a little bit like an act of mutual translation; you’re not trying to orientalize or exoticize your work, but you are trying to communicate and cross boundaries, and see where the common ground is.” Creating in this way risks miscommunication and gaps in understanding, but allows for a kind of poetic conversation with potential for in-depth interpersonal investigation. Palmer believes that the delicacies of cultural translation in A Slipping Glimpse were “inflected by the monstrousness of the Bush years and the hypernationalism, and we were thinking, ‘How could we go the opposite way? How could we be in constant dialogue across borders? How can we affirm the beauty of difference but also the communication between self and other?’”

Jenkins acknowledges that she has posed some big questions in Other Suns, her newest choreographic and collaborative effort, debuting at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this September. The trilogy relates MJDC’s experience working in China, examining cultural nuances. Jenkins is not afraid to say she doesn’t have a neat description to sum up the company’s five weeks overseas, or her more-than-two-year engagement with the project. The rigorous formal investigation, catalyzed by discussions with Palmer and the work of Chinese poet Bei Dao, who was forced into exile following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, took place with the help of in-studio translators. Meaning transformed with each level of translation, often in ways unknown to those communicating, creating ever more questions to stir the collaboration. “What did we experience there, what are the stories that we want to leave behind, what are the stories we’re taking forward with us?” Jenkins asks from her continually evolving, layered and complex worldview. “I don’t know the answer. But I like asking the question. I think that that’s what dancing is: it’s about asking questions. Sometimes the dance is an answer. Sometimes.”

This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of In Dance.

Emily Hite has contributed to the Dancing Times, Stanford magazine, Stanford Lively Arts magazine, Dance Magazine, Voice of, and Mindy Aloff’s book Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford University Press, 2006). In 2008 she interviewed Yvonne Mounsey for the George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive film of Prodigal Son. She joined Hope Mohr Dance in 2007.