JuMP: Creating Support and Dialogue for Bay Area Dance Makers

Over a year ago, FACT/SF Artistic Director Charles Slender-White initiated JuMP, short for “Just Make a Piece.” A program that offers selected choreographers the space, time and resources to create and present a piece during FACT/SF’s fall season, JuMP represents a creative response to the increasingly challenged environment surrounding the art making practices.

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015 Photo by Kegan Marling

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015
Photo by Kegan Marling

This year, the program is co-presented by ODC, as a way to support Slender-White’s initiative and recognize JuMp as a valuable platform that furthers dance in the Bay Area, contributes to the sense of a shared economy and creates opportunities for artistic exploration and development with pay for the choreographers and dancers.

23 candidates applied to JuMP 2015. A panel of artists selected 4 applicants to participate in a 2-hour lab with the FACT/SF dancers, who then voted to select the collaborative duo Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg as resident choreographers. True to JuMP collaborative nature, this year’s program was mentored by Sheldon Smith and Maurya Kerr.

Slender-White, Simpson, Stulberg and I discussed the program that opens on Thursday at ODC Theater.

Marie Tollon: You started JuMP a year ago, with choreographer Liz Tenuto as the first resident choreographer. I’m curious about the residues of that first program. Did it inform your work or the way you approached the second edition of JuMP in any way?

Charles Slender-White: One of the nice things that came out of JuMP was that my relationship with Liz Tenuto deepened. I knew Liz before JuMP but we had never collaborated before. After JuMP, we kept meeting somewhat regularly to discuss what projects we were doing. I found our conversation to be so useful, interesting and supportive, with a sense of camaraderie that I think a lot of choreographers don’t necessarily have because they mostly work alone. We thought that people might like to join, so we started “Choreographers Have Coffee” [an open invitation to choreographers to gather once a week]. We ran it from June to September and it’s on hiatus now for a bit as we are deciding on how to restructure the gathering.

Also, it was very nice for the FACT/SF audience to see work from someone else. A lot of people who see our work don’t see a lot of dance. But I see my work in a dialogue with other works happening in the Bay, in the country and in the world so JuMP was a way to propose another way they can think of work in relationship to each other. They also get to see the company members doing someone else’s work.

I think the dancers really appreciate JuMP because they get the risk and the challenge of someone else’s [choreographic input] within the supportive and structured environment, as well as the working standards, that we have cultivated inside the company. Having already gone through JuMP once, they understand more readily how to support the choreographers who are coming in and what they need to do so that Jenny and Lauren can have a fruitful, productive working environment.

When we started the program, we thought it might be useful to the Bay Area dance community. All the feedback that I’ve received within the two years since we initiated the program reaffirmed the urgency of it.

MT: Jenny and Lauren, could you talk about JuMP in relationship to your own collaborative process and to the larger Bay area dance platform?

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg
Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Lauren Simpson: Our collaborative process began one year ago and has only involved the two of us (and a musician) making, performing, and developing our movement language and style. JUMP fit perfectly into the development of our collaboration because it came along at a time when we were ready to translate our work from ourselves to other dancers. It’s still our direction and vision, but not our bodies. Our work is so specific and quirky and detailed, we honestly thought it wouldn’t quite pan out. On the contrary, this very skilled company has been able to take what we do and deepen it further. They are one of the few midsized contemporary companies with a consistent group of dancers- they have their own internal methods for learning, communicating, and collaborating. It’s remarkable to watch and rare to find. JUMP has inspired us to think about creating a small company of our own -at least a pick-up style one- in the near future.

Jenny Stulberg: To tag on to what Lauren said, participating in JuMP was definitely a big experiment for the two of us. Not only to see if we could continue to successfully work together and create something on a group of dancers that was interesting to watch, but that also spoke to the specific choreographic and conceptual approach we’ve developed between the two of us. We are both pleasantly surprised that our work and approach have been so well received and embodied by this talented group of dancers. I think they also provided us with the challenge and space to expand our process and vision for this piece. We are both incredibly grateful to Charlie and the entire FACT/SF family for granting us this opportunity and believe that through JuMP, they are providing a truly valuable and rich experience for choreographers in the Bay Area.

MT: You have been co-choreographing and performing the Still Life Dances series since the end of 2014. Did you approach working with FACT/SF dancers the same way you approached working on the Still Life Dances series or differently?

LS: The approach was the exact same from a choreographer’s perspective. We start by identifying a still life painting. Then we study it for its compositional rules, determine what we think its aesthetic values and priorities are, maybe do some background research on the work and/or artist. From there we have the tricky but fun job of using instinct, impulse, and kinesthetic response to translate those ideas from a static painting into our time based medium, movement. Whenever we are stuck in the choreographic process, returning to the painting is sometimes helpful. The main difference between our process as a duo and with this group is that we don’t voice all of our logic and decision making processes with the dancers. But we definitely source a lot of our logic and decision making from watching them and asking them questions. They are a smart bunch and the instincts they have as dancers inside the work are crucial.

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg
Photo by Robbie Sweeney

JS: I think being on the outside of our work for the first time has been really interesting for both of us. You experience some disconnect from the movement and process, but it also provides a lens and sense of fulfillment to see the greater picture from the outside. I think it’s always a blessing and a curse being in your own work as you get to physically experience it and are essentially the one to bring it to life, but you miss a lot conceptually by not being able to step outside of yourself and really see what you’re creating. Lauren and I have established a great collaborative and equal partnership and I think this was exciting for us to be on the outside together. Not only were we able to work more efficiently -two brains, four eyes!- but being slightly removed from the work allowed us the chance to experience the piece from the audience perspective and see angles and opportunities for the dancers that we would have otherwise missed.

MT: Can you talk about the piece you are creating for JuMP?

LS: Still Life No. 3, much like No. 1 and 2, is formally driven: much of the movement is determined by our efforts to closely obey the compositional rules we set up for ourselves -Well, let me say that I tend to be rigorous about obeying the rules and Jenny likes to break them, which is one reason our collaboration works well. The work faces upstage and exists upstage right for a long time, their movements are small and precise, they must listen very hard to each other as there is no music and there are strange timings throughout. In our attempt to only focus on line, space, time, speed, and scale, and ignore all elements like relationship, emotion, narrative, feeling, their humanity is obscured. However, I believe it is impossible to completely abstract the body because these five dancers are people. And their humanity peeks through at times which have become my favorite moments of the dance.

JS: Absolutely. Witnessing those moments of pure synchronicity and precision between the dancers is incredibly gratifying -and these five have worked diligently to achieve it. But as Lauren said, seeing the human behind the dancer makes the experience that much richer.

MT: Charles, the piece you are creating for JuMP is partly informed by your recent trip to Eastern Europe. Can you talk more about it?

CSW: I knew that in 2016 we would make a piece about the Romani Diaspora. I’m Roma. My great grandparents were more involved in the Roma community, but my grandfather moved away and assimilated with white America. It is a piece of our history and heritage that we don’t talk about very much.

In June 2014, I was watching the Working Families Summit. Michelle Obama was talking about her experience as a lawyer. Mentioning having to work part-time once she had a family, she said “she got gypped” in that deal. And I thought: ‘Here we are in 2014, this very powerful woman, who is also an ethnic minority herself and surely understands oppression in many forms, very casually uses this ethnic slur.’ Gypped comes from gypsies [which is a misnomer] as people thought they were from Egypt, but they are not. They come from India. When I started my grant writing process, I was dismayed because I realized that I couldn’t describe the project without using ethnic slurs [like gypsy] because so few people know what Roma means or who Roma people are. The group is so dispossessed of identity that they can’t even use their own term to describe themselves.

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015 Photo by Kegan Marling

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015
Photo by Kegan Marling

At the same time, as the public attention was focusing more and more on issues such as police brutality or displacement in San Francisco, I started to feel that my art was not doing anything, that it needed to do something. The ballet we made last year for JuMP was nice but it was very academic and self-referential. So I felt an obligation to participate in the dialogue and contribute in some ways. I talked to Julie Phelps at CounterPulse. She is part of a group of presenters in Eastern Europe. They had some funds in their travel grant and I was offered the opportunity to go and do research for two weeks. I went to Serbia to study Roma language and culture. I also went to Bulgaria, and met with NGOs, local organizers, municipal governments, and people from the US embassies in Belgrade and Sofia.

For someone like me who is mixed, it dovetails to other issues, like passing and code switching, but also race and oppression. How do you make a dance about it that is not reductive, offensive, or pedantic? The piece is becoming about my experience trying to process such complex information more than the situation with the Roma itself. CounterPulse will be co-presenting a 2-week run in May, and I thought that I could use the commission that I’m doing at the University of San Francisco and JuMP to start to work toward the show at CounterPulse.

MT: With so many complex ideas to explore, where did you start?

CSW: I started by teaching the dancers some words in Romani language. Language is one of the first things people take away from you if they don’t want you to have power. So maybe there is something powerful even as a group, knowing a few phrases or being able to count. During the first few rehearsals, I shared my research about what I learned, and questions I still had: Is integration a goal? And if it’s a goal, whose goal is it? Is it different than assimilation? I have some opinions but no definite answers. We started making phrases without real purpose. We had just finished the dance lab, and Nicole Peisl, who used to dance for Ballet Frankfurt and the Forsythe Company, taught a lot of Forsythe Improvisation Technologies. We used those as tools to start moving.


Truth Is Political: Dance Makers Discuss Art and Activism at ODC | By Marie Tollon

During the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival, writer Salman Rushdie uttered the following words: “Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.” Rushdie was confronted to the ripples created by an artwork that sparked, if not a revolution, at least conversations and controversies that encouraged reevaluating current political and socio-economical conditions. Shortly after its publishing in 1989, his book The Satanic Verses was condemned by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who declared a fatwa upon him, forcing the British Indian novelist into years of hiding. Propelled to the forefront of media attention, Rushdie became an emblem for freedom of speech and didn’t cease to reassert that art’s raison d’être is to promote social, economic, political or environmental change.

Sheena Johnson Photo by Keira Hew-Jwyn Chang

Sheena Johnson
Photo by Keira Hew-Jwyn Chang

For many Bay Area artists, art and activism are intertwined. So it is for ODC “Pilot 66” artist Sheena Johnson who presents DreamBoundFree this coming weekend as part of San Francisco Trolley Dances, the annual festival of site-specific dance. In a conversation over the phone a week ago, Johnson referred to herself as “an artist activist,” who is particularly interested in the notions of freedom and change. For San Francisco Trolley Dances, Johnson is creating a piece in response to the space where the work is unfolding, in front of a mural that celebrates African American female freedom fighters. The piece explores the question of freedom with the Black Lives Matter movement as a backdrop and was built on the “hands up, don’t shoot” imagery as a choreographic point of departure.

One of the featured women on the mural is singer and activist Nina Simone, and Johnson mentioned Simone’s impact on her reflections: “When asked about what she thought about the Civil Rights Movement, Nina Simone answered: ‘What Civil Rights Movement?’ and went on talking about the murder of civil rights activists. This has really stayed with me, especially when looking at Black Lives Matter and the continual fight for freedom in America. There is still so much work to be done.”

The title of Johnson’s piece is inspired both from the mural and Martin Luther King’s work, in particular his iconic “I have a dream” speech. “I was interested in the following question,” Johnson explained. “What are the ties that bind us? How do we communicate across differences? Martin Luther King said: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, we are bound together in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’ Our destiny as Americans and human beings requires us all to be involved in that conversation. What futures are possible for us in this land? What does freedom feel, taste, sound like?” For Johnson, art serves the purpose of addressing fundamental questions to bring change.

Some of Johnson’s concerns echo the issues debated during a panel discussion on art as activism that was organized by ODC as part of the NewCo Festival across the Bay Area and moderated by filmmaker and producer Michelle Hansen last week. Do artists whose work carries on a political message necessarily view themselves as activists? Why dance as a platform for activism? What are artists’ expectations in terms of how audiences receive their work? These are some of the questions that were posed to the panel, which comprised Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas and Bay Area dance makers Brenda Way and Nicole Klaymoon.

Nicole Klaymoon's Embodiment Project Photo by James Knox

Nicole Klaymoon’s
Embodiment Project
Photo by James Knox

The presentation referred to works in which the three artists addressed issues such as racial profiling, censorship, and forced displacement. Thematically close to Jonhson’s upcoming piece, Nicole Klaymoon’s Chalk Outlines (2015) interweaves dance, poetry, live song, and documentary theater in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Way evoked the making of The Invention of Wings (2015), the proscenium staging of Speaking Volume, a site-specific work ODC/Dance performed in 2014 for the opening of an installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island. Simas introduced We Wait In The Darkness (2014) a dance that tells part of Seneca history through the personal narrative of her grandmother.

The three panelists shared some determining facts in their personal history. Simas remembered being “one of two people of color” in college. Soon after, she started a company for women who were Native or of color, before creating her current Rosy Simas Danse. Way explained how she had been influenced by the women’s movement of the 1960s in New York City, and how the images of fragile female figures that permeated the ballet world she trained in conflicted with her reality.

Rosy Simas in "We Wait In The Darkness"

Rosy Simas in
“We Wait In The Darkness”

Simas explained that activism is not her preoccupation when she makes work. “I make dance because this is what I do. I feel strongly that being a brown body on a stage historically reserved for white performers is an act of activism. The subject matter is something I’m interested in and mostly personal. The activism becomes secondary… It’s important for me not to be commodified as a Native person. But who I am, how I grew up, who I am in my family, my tribe, my clan, make my work in the realm of activism.”

Klaymoon also debated how much of the term activism can be applied to what she does. “I don’t know if activism is something quantifiable and something that I’m doing.” But questioned about why she uses dance as a platform, she replied that she is “interested in mapping grief in the body and [unearthing] the stories that have been repressed. I’m fascinated with how dance, coupled with text, can convey subtext or activate text.”

What are these artists’ expectations regarding their audience? Simas mentioned that as an artist, “you are always thinking about who is seeing things. For me, it’s best to see myself talking to other Native people. [For] the audience who is not Native, … what they get out of it, is their own responsibility.” Differently, Way mentioned that she never has an audience in mind when she makes a piece. “Art is about values. I am proposing values, asking questions, and I hope that people will be responsive to that,” she shared.

Josie G. Sadan in Brenda Way's "The Invention of Wings" Photo by Andrew Weeks Photography

Josie G. Sadan in Brenda Way’s
“The Invention of Wings”
Photo by Andrew Weeks Photography

For Klaymoon, the conversations about race or sexual trauma that are embedded in her work are “not comfortable” but hip hop’s accessibility and playfulness help carry on messages with lightness. “The humor lifts the room, it makes it ok … and allows to access deeper stuff. Sometimes dance can trigger things, but if it’s not time, don’t rush the river. If it is serving the self, if you see some healing, there is something that is chemically relieved when truth is spoken. Truth is political.”

With its ability to communicate beyond words, and convey narratives and emotions kinesthetically, dance exists as a potent platform to question and support conversations that can set change into motion. Klaymoon summarized the session by proclaiming, “the biggest artistic risk we can take is to tell the truth.”

Dance on The Go: San Francisco Trolley Dances | By Marie Tollon

Born from the post modern and experimental dance movements from the 1960s and 1970s, site-specific choreography has taken dance outside of the theater, transforming rooftops, streets, galleries, abandoned factories, apartments and all possible places into temporary performance spaces.

San Francisco Trolley Dances 2015 Marlie Couto of The Foundry Photo by Andy Mogg

San Francisco Trolley Dances 2015
Marlie Couto of The Foundry
Photo by Andy Mogg

As site-specific dances transform the space they evolve in, they also alter the relationship between audience and artwork. They often present viewers with a busier visual and sonic field than proscenium stages and black box theaters do. When a performance takes place outside, there are pedestrians to take into account besides the artwork, and their trajectory – a sort of non-voluntary choreography- is somehow made more noticeable next to the performers’ movement score. There are the unexpected car horns and sirens of ambulances; there are snippets of a conversation held loudly on cell phones by passers-by potentially oblivious to the art unfolding nearby. All these environmental elements tend to add layers and transform the performance experience.

Site-specific dances also activate the texture, volume, size and details of a space in ways that make them stand out and become more noticeable. You may not have notice the faded yellow mural on that building until an aerial dance company uses it as its stage.

The capacity of site-specific dance to increase our awareness of a specific environment is an aspect that Bay Area choreographer Kim Epifano is sensitive too. She is also deeply committed to the potential for this kind of work to bring people together. In 2004, Epifano created the San Francisco Trolley Dances (SFTD), which bring dance to different neighborhoods that are connected by trolley buses. In anticipation of the upcoming SFTD, Epifano and I talked over the phone last week.

Marie Tollon: What prompted the beginning of SFTD in 2004?

Kim Epifano: Trolley Dances originated in San Diego with Jean Isaacs, who was inspired by going on the train system in Germany to see art. She thought that San Diego had a great train system and started Trolley Dances there five years before we started in San Francisco. I thought: “We are the city of the street cars and trolleys, we have the F line, the Museum on Wheels!” I talked to Jean and told her I would like to start San Francisco Trolley Dances and make it into our own idea. She agreed to trademark the name and I pay her a fee to use it. SFTD is different than the San Diego Trolley Dances because theirs is ticketed whereas ours is free. Jean also tends to stay more within the modern dance tradition and I like to mix modern dance, post modern dance with other genres.

First, I had to get a hold of MUNI. They first thought: “What is this lady talking about?” Now they really respect and love the program and they have been a great partner. There are a lot of people involved – community centers, permit people…- everybody is trying to make it happen! The people I work with are fantastic.

MT: How do you choose the sites?

KE: We’ve been all over the city now, since it got too big to stay on the F line. This is our third time on the T line. I wanted to go back to a line where we hadn’t been in a while. When I go back to a line, I’ll do a different section. This time, we are going the furthest out on the T.

You don’t just plop yourself into a place and expect people are going to want you there. You are coming into their world. So I walk the neighborhood, meet people, think about whom I have worked with before. That takes a long time.

For 2015 I first secured the Bayview/Linda Brooks-Burton Library. I was there to do something else and wanted to see the new library they rebuilt. There is this beautiful atrium inside the building, and a walkway with two trees with Adinkra symbols from West Africa. I was inspired to do a piece there as sometimes places call me to “make a dance here.”

People at the Bay View Boat Club were open to share their beautiful space with us on the Bay. Once I knew I could use their site, I decided to start there. I worked with Mission Bay Park and with the police station at the First Responders Plaza. I also talked to the woman at Bayview Opera House. The Opera House is under construction, so we went to Mendell Plaza and that’s where Byb Chanel Bibene and his company Kiandada Dance are going to perform. We are working with them to try to activate the garden. Then the audience will travel to where there is a mural which ODC “Pilot 66” artist Sheena Johnson will perform her piece.

MT: There is a lot of community and network building that goes into planning SFTD. How early do you start planning for the next one?

KE: I’m already starting for 2016. I’ve already decided which line I will be doing.

MT: How do you select the artists?

KE: I don’t think Amy Seiwert has done site-specific work, so I was very excited to shake her process a bit. It’s great to have her in the program because I think she makes wonderful work. I gave her a few options but she really liked the Bay View Boat Club. I thought she could articulate the space in a way that would be very classy and elegant.

Alex Ketley had a piece that is site specific. We thought: “Let’s see what it looks like if we put it at the Mission Bay Commons Park.” I’ve always admired his work.

Zoe [Bender] had applied to Pilot. I had seen her work in the past, and admired it. There is a political and activist through line in her work. I thought it would be interesting for her to do something at the First Responders Plaza.

In the library I decided to do a collaboration with Valerie Gnassounou-Bynoe, who is the chair of department at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. I went to teach and set a piece on her students. Being at the library made me want to share. I feel that is what libraries do: they share a wealth of information. We are communicating by text, email and video about our process and then will have a couple rehearsals planned on site.

Then we have Cielo Vertical Arts at the YMCA Bay View branch. They will present an aerial piece outside on the YMCA big yellow wall. This wall is high and the moment I saw it I thought: “Can we pull this off and get the OK to do aerial work on it?” Not an easy task!

Rachel Furst and Antoine Hunter Photo by Andy Mogg

Rachel Furst and Antoine Hunter
Photo by Andy Mogg

MT: This year, two of ODC “Pilot 66” artists are performing their work in SFTD. Can you talk more about your role in mentoring them?

KE: Kimi [Okada] and Christy [Bolingbroke] approached me about including Pilot artists in SFTD and I took that on. I go to some of their rehearsals; I talk about their choreography, about sight lines, audience flow, sounds, what works and what doesn’t work in the areas they are working in. I have a lot of experience with site-specific [work]. I am not just mentoring about the exact choreography that they are making, but it’s about venturing in the production of a festival, outreach, community organization and collaboration, so there is a lot of ways in which I am mentoring them.

MT: You have been living in the Bay Area for over 30 years. Has SFTD increased your perception of all the changes happening to the city?

KE: When I am walking downtown or Mission Bay right now, I can see all the changes first hand visually because of all the construction. There are now even more homeless people so I get to hear what’s going on for them. When I go into communities, everybody is sort of feeling the same thing with changes happening fast and people moving further out of the city.  This is why places like the Bay View Boat Club that have survived amidst the change is so special. I also discover what is new or re-done and how it makes a positive impact on a neighborhood. So I think I see all sides of it. San Francisco Trolley Dances provides “art for citizens,” connecting neighborhoods and people through art making, free of charge.

For more information about the 12th Annual San Francisco Trolley Dances, visit the Trolley Dances site.

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