The Call: San Francisco Native Margaret Jenkins Always Moves Forward

By Ann Murphy

October 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Dancer on red square reaching upwards is being ignored by a surrounding circle of dancers
Dancer on red square reaching upwards is being ignored by a surrounding circle of dancers
Margaret Jenkins Dance Company / Photo by RJ Muna

Margaret Jenkins, known to the dance world as Margy, has been making dances for most of her 75-years. She trained at the leading edge of performance with Judy Job, Welland Lathrop and Gloria Unti in the Bay Area and with Twyla Tharp, James Dunn, Gus Solomons, Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others in New York. For the 43rd anniversary of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, she has commissioned the company’s seven dancers (Brendan Barthel, Kristen Bell, Corey Brady, Alex Carrington, Margaret Cromwell, Kelly Del Rosario and Chinchin Hsu), in collaboration with visual artists David and Hi-Jin Hodge, poet Michael Palmer, lighting designer David Robertson, costume designer Mary Domenico and composer Thomas Carnacki, to present portraits of intimate and public life through Site Series (Inside Outside)(2015) and the world premiere of Skies Calling Skies Falling.


Ann Murphy: Margy, what’s your overarching intention for this concert run?

Margaret Jenkins: When I started to think about how I could turn the force of this dramatic political moment into a work that moves beyond this instant––that both reckons with it and suggests alternative ways of moving forward––the question for me became: what are the skies bringing or threatening? What are they calling? What’s falling? Where am I at this particular time? I realized that the work we began performing in homes and other intimate sites about 2 years ago––Site Series (Inside Outside)––could be an interesting partner to a new work, Skies Calling Skies Falling.


AM: Talk about Site Series and how it differs from Skies Calling.

MJ: Site Series is a 30-minute set work creating a Beckett-like imaginary living room. It inspired us to have conversations about the kinds of conversations that occur in different living rooms, and especially ones own, or ones family’s. Obviously, since we are from very different generations and backgrounds, we have had very different experiences, not only because of what is going on politically at any given time but also because of the different character of family itself among my company. Someone like Chinchin Hsu, who was raised in Taiwan, grew up experiencing a very quiet, almost held mood in those living room exchanges. Since I was raised during the height of the McCarthy period, my family’s conversations were intense and full of passion, concern, fear, disagreement, and strategy. We always had lively, animated exchanges. So it’s the nature of intimate conversations as revealed through movement that shapes the work.


AM: And Skies Calling?

MJ: Most of the people I know experienced a degree of shock and bewilderment as the result of the US presidential election and what has flowed from it. There is a kind of destabilizing of the state underway. It feels different from Bush; it feels different from other times. It’s a blatant dismantling of truth. So the question becomes: How do you find balance? How do you make sure that you’re looking at the reasons for working together? Are they for the sake of the work itself? Or are they also for something that you might shed light on? A number of people in the company say: “Look, most of my friends are having a hard enough time with what’s going on that they don’t need to see a work about how hard it is.” They want to see some affirmation of the human spirit. They want to have the experience my generation has had where there have been extraordinary highs and these extraordinary lows.

This particular moment in our history has asked the dancers and me to begin very regular conversations about how we want to physicalize our reactions in a cohesive way. Very very important to the people in the company, and to me, is: how do we propose hope? It’s so interesting for me, being almost 75, in this roomful of young people of different races, different sexual orientations, and different points of view. I have dancers who have family members who feel differently from you and me. What are these artists having to deal with? How do you relate to people you deeply love but feel so differently from? We’ve been looking at how to cast light on the present; about what is the purpose of art making and how can the language of dance bring some information into conversation?

Skies has a seven-minute video prologue and it was filmed in India Basin in San Francisco in a huge granary shot 400 feet above by a drone and directed by Hi-Jin and David Hodge. The audience will see this right before live dancing, and one of the fascinating things for me is it juxtaposes intriguing and unlocatable space in relation to the specific space of performance. It expands the meaning of each so when I watch the video, I have a conversation between the kind of movement the dancers do outside and the kind of movement they do live on stage. It complicates the plot, and asks the question: who are these people, where are we, is this an abandoned city? I like that it’s not a gimmick—it’s additive. We launch into this spatial ambiguity and then move into live dancing [with footage as visual landscape] where the dancers will take care of one another as they question how safe they feel caring for one another. What might get proposed is that there is a way to move forward with optimism.

I certainly don’t feel that a dance changes the landscape in which we all live but I do think that by throwing light on things we become enlightened, that there’s a kind of artistic insistence that outlives tyranny. I’ve seen that throughout my life.


AM: Your family of origin embodied both the activist and the artistic life—your father a renowned labor leader and your mother a poet. How does this work reflect that?

MJ: The thing that I really loved about my parents was their capacity to change their minds as was necessary to keep on effecting change. They didn’t hold on to didacticism and dig their feet in. When the Khrushchev Report came out on Stalin they left the Communist Party. Even though I was too young to “get” it, what I did get was how they lived their lives, how they surrounded us with poetry and opera and dance and conversation, that they were always looking for the windows—the gates into another way of seeing; another way of living. They represented a kind of larger arc, and they never got stuck in one place. Antonio Gramsci wrote about “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will” and I love that idea. Those of us who are artists and who are encouraging others to do work are always having to bring those forces into balance.


AM: How do you go about finding something true in the dance that has a fixity to it but is also fluid and admits of possibility?

MJ: Well, I’m interested in working with the body, talking about how movement gets generated and where physical action comes from. When we started talking we had a conversation about different kinds of shock. There’s shock when all the blood goes out of your body or when you hear something you didn’t expect to hear, and you become silent. For Skies we took different people’s reactions to the concept of shock, and what would it mean to be taken aback. Then we started talking about what would it mean to make duets that embraced this idea of being taken aback. What would happen with the body if you were trying to create an environment where you wanted to physicalize the experience of vanished feelings such that the body could no longer stay upright? What would amplify some of those ideas?

It’s also the result of years of understanding this world of physical exploration—how you partner, how you care for someone, how you create chaos. Some of my dancers have been with me now 10 years. We create the equivalent of lots of sentences that make interesting paragraphs and then look at what the physicality is telling us. I think the intellect tells you one thing, but the physicality tells you something else.


AM: What is physicality telling us?

MJ: I feel there are limits to language and there are limits to the body. One of the reasons that I often work with Michael Palmer [poet] is that I like the collision of those two worlds and how much they can inhabit in relation to one another. The body has its own truth. For instance, when I’m looking to take a new dancer into the company I’m interested not only in whether they want to create in a way that interests me to create, but whether they trust their bodies to be taken to some new place physically that it hasn’t been. Are they willing to throw themselves at someone and trust that they’ll be caught? Are they strong enough to catch somebody?

I think the act of both surrendering to what the body can do and then resisting the first impulse is very different than putting words together. And I trust that the language of dancing, of the body, moves emotion to a different place. It’s been found that dance opens people up in ways that other expressive mediums do not, and for good reason.


AM: MJDC is the first dance company to perform in these spaces in the War Memorial Building?

MJ: Yes. We will perform Site Series in the Education Studio [part of Wilsey Center for Opera] at the War Memorial–a huge room that’s about 60 x 60’ with wonderful vaulted ceilings and allows us to be in the round. It will also have a red floor. After intermission everyone will move to the Taube Atrium Theater, which is a more traditional proscenium space with raked seating, for Skies Calling Skies Falling.

Site, which has a prologue always created for the specific location, typically asks the dancers to dance in 15 by 22 foot spaces, and this necessitates a certain kind of dancing–dancing that eats up space and gallops across different environments is not really viable. It is a piece that is portable and affordable, as wells as adaptable and responsive to different environments. Whether it has been in someone’s living room, the Catherine Clark Gallery, or the Presidio’s Officers’ Club it always created a situation in which the audience’s relation to the action was up close and personal, not unlike what happens when audiences hear chamber music in a salon environment.

This conversation between audience and dance action, and this conversation between audience and drone imagery throws us back on what is our call to action. I don’t know the answer. I know that the place that I feel I can make the most impact and I can learn the most about myself is in the studio with the dancers—that’s the place where I can’t wait to be and that gives me sustenance. There is something about this flammable moment just asks me to be in the studio where we as artists can meet the call, whatever that call is.

We all live under one sky, but depending on ones perception and point of view, there are different skies. And it isn’t just the sky calling––different elements are calling. People are calling. The Republic is calling. And the art is calling.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.