Margaret Jenkins’ Past Meets Present in “Times Bones:” A 40th Anniversary

By Rachel Howard


YOU CAN’T MISS HER in the audience at dance shows around town, with that lion’s mane of red hair, that regal posture, that focused stare, intimidating until she offers a tight but gracious smile. If you don’t recognize her already, somebody tells you: “Oh, there’s Margaret Jenkins”—always in a respectful tone.

But even those of us who give thanks for her leadership and admire her geometrically dazzling, intellectually challenging dances may not know all the faces of Margaret Jenkins’ commanding career. After all, she’s been choreographing in San Francisco—the home of five generations of Jenkins’s forebears—for four decades. Fortunately, the 40th anniversary season of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (MJDC) in April gives us a chance to survey her history while also carrying us forward into the latest period of international dialogues. In what she described, over tea in her Noe Valley neighborhood, as “the most ambitious evening I’ve done in a long time,” Jenkins will present two works: an exploration of MJDC’s past titled Times Bones (premiered in Maryland last fall), and a world premiere collaboration with the Kolben Dance Company of Jerusalem.

two dancers in blue
Photo by Margo Moritz

As Jenkins said of Times Bones, in which she compares gathering shards of her older works to assembling the bones placed in a sarcophagus in the myth of Osiris, “It’s not that I’m interested in burying myself. I am asking what ‘bones’ of the 75 works that I have made endure, continue to resonate and, if called forward, begin to suggest the spine of a new work? What stories remain untold?”

The scale and grandeur of the evening will be familiar to fans. Starting in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, the performance will feature a spectacular architectural structure, surrounded by wood and fluorescent lights, a kind of expanded runway, designed by steadfast Jenkins collaborator Alexander V. Nichols. The MJDC dancers perform within this structure along with Ms. Jenkins and eventually lead the audience to the continuation of Times Bones in the YBCA Theater. That space will be transformed by 10 pillars and a film collage by Nichols of Ms. Jenkins choreographic past. The live sound score from the Paul Dresher Ensemble will be augmented by poetry from another Jenkins mainstay, Michael Palmer.

A sort of elegant, urgent physics experiment: This is the Margy Jenkins work we have known for the past decade. Yet for Jenkins’ own dancers, this 40th anniversary celebration is a chance to discover the many past faces of “Margy,” who began her dance life in New York at the Merce Cunningham studio and as a member of Twyla Tharp’s first company, making her first San Francisco works in 1973 in a funky studio that seems worlds apart from the current MJDC Dance Lab at 8th and Folsom. “I didn’t realize how many styles and approaches she’d taken throughout the years,” said Ryan T. Smith, now the senior MJDC member. “Her older work was more narrative and dramatic. Some pieces were borderline dance theater, with spoken texts and props, some were austere works inspired by Tharp and Merce. There was even a solo by Margy, danced naked in front of funhouse mirrors.”

That footage surfaced as Jenkins had her dancers revisit the “bones” of past work that still interested her, doing something Smith said “never happens”—learning the dances exactly as they were first performed. Then—much more typical for Jenkins—she handed matters over to the dancers, asking them to reinterpret freely, both from videos and notes. “She gave us movement sketches from old journals,” Smith said. “We had to decipher ‘downstage, walk,’ followed by some ballet instructions, then ‘look left, fall, scurry.’ And we had to answer for ourselves— ‘what’s a scurry?’”

The name and year of each original dance and the dancers is read by Jenkins as she traverses this “runway” with her dancers during the Prologue in the Forum and as Times Bones proceeds into the theater, the archival footage is projected on the pillars. But Jenkins’s art has never been about preservation, and has always been about unfolding process. And she is creating new heat in her Kolben Dance Company collaboration, which MJDC began last year during a month-long residency in Israel, and finishes this month with the Kolben dancers here in SF—similar to recent collaborations Jenkins undertook with the Tansuree Shankar Dance Company of India and the Guangdong Dance Company of China.

“I really wanted to look at a personal part of my heritage,” Jenkins says. “I was raised a secular Jew. I didn’t have a profound immersion in Jewish traditions. So my husband and I went to Israel in 2011 to put our feet on the ground, to connect with a part of my past and to see if more fully understanding the culture through its artists felt compelling and the next international project to pursue.“

Jerusalem intoxicated her, and necessity prevailed. She returned there to find a collaborator because “the city of Jerusalem—holy to the world’s three largest monotheistic traditions—felt like a critical site for the formulation of this new work, representing both actual and metaphorical questions about life and faith, barriers and boundaries.”

Unlike the traditional dancers from India with which MJDC made 2006’s A Slipping Glimpse, the members of the Kolben Dance Company are grounded in contemporary styles. Director Amir Kolben is a former star of Batsheva Dance Company, and his dancers are trained in Graham technique and in Gaga, the technique invented by Batsheva’s leader Ohad Naharin. So the exchange in movement language was more nuanced in this meeting—but the difference in cultural realities was powerful. “For me, what’s different about the dancers in Kolben—one of the fascinating qualities about them is they dance as if they could be called to war tomorrow; their dancing has that kind of urgency. They value every moment. They never mark.”

And they live a life of daily conflict. Speaking via Skype from Jerusalem just weeks before his company would come to the US, Amir Kolben recounted the controversy that swirled around his troupe when they wanted to leave their studio curtains open to the street—and more conservative cultures in the city asked the police to force them shut. “Rather than being open to disagreeing, the attitude here is, I disagree with it, then I fight it,” Kolben said. “But it’s inspiring. Jerusalem is more extreme than other places, so in this respect it is artistic heaven.”

He finds Jenkins’ work much “cooler” than his, and hopes the friction between their ways of working will be obvious in the finished dance. “The theme is differences and borders, so having two choreographers meeting is almost a must,” he said. “I say, how can we make a piece together and not compromise anything, but make the conflict visible?”

duet in red with wall in the background
photo by Margo Moritz

To Kolben’s dancers, the Jenkins process was uncomfortable. “Amir also uses his dancers collaboratively a lot, but in a different way, usually asking us psychological questions,” said Kolben member Irit Amichai, also speaking via Skype. “With Amir, it starts from personal experience. With Margaret, it starts from a visual place. At first with Margaret, it can seem too open—what would she like, what wouldn’t she like?” Senior MJDC member Smith can relate. “Margy’s process is not for everyone,” he said. “When I started working with her, she would set up the rules [for a movement experiment] and she’d say ‘It’s only a matter of time until we figure out who will break them.’ But when I began I would not break them. Eventually I realized the beauty is in breaking the rules.”

“We’re all full choreographers in the room with Margy,” he added. “Anyone can come in and say, ‘I think this would be interesting for us to try.’ She trusts our perspectives and intuitions as much as her own. It’s a long process, with a lot of hashing out, because there are many voices in the room.”

But it’s also a process that nurtures choreographic careers: Manuelito Biag, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Joe Goode and dozens of other Bay Area dance makers trace their early development to dancing with MJDC. And now Jenkins is indirectly pushing dancemakers across California to take risks with her Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange program, which pairs experienced and emerging dancemakers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and is entering its 10th year.

“She is so much about dialogue and shared voices in the studio,” said Smith, a choreographer in his own right as co- director of the troupe RAWdance. “She’s been in the field so deeply for so long and has access to such interesting artists, and she brings them to us, to the whole Bay Area. You could call her the mother of Bay Area choreographic voices.”

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s 40th anniversary season runs April 3-6 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of In Dance.

Rachel Howard has written about dance in the Bay Area for about 16 years. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and many other publications. She also writes memoir and fiction.