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.
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: 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.
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.
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.