Two New Works Mark Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s 40th

by Jean Schiffman

The double-bill includes a premiere and a collaboration with Kolben Dance Company of Jerusalem.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of her acclaimed dance company, San Francisco choreographer Margaret Jenkins looked deep within her repertory and, in a more abstract way, to her own ancestry, unearthing two sets of metaphorical bones. Out of that artistic dig emerged two dance pieces, appearing early this month on a double bill.

The first, “Times Bones,” a West Coast premiere, was inspired by the myth of the murdered Egyptian god-king Osiris, whose scattered bones were reassembled, ensuring his soul’s eternal rest (in at least one version of the legend). It was created with and for her seven dancers, and with three longtime collaborators: set designer Alexander V. Nichols, poet Michael Palmer (whose two commissioned poems are heard in voiceover; one is a narrative reflecting on their career together) and musician Paul Dresher and his ensemble, who play live, with Dresher on the quadrachord, a stringed instrument he invented.

For the second piece, “The Gate of Winds,” a world premiere, Jenkins was drawn to the ancient city of Jerusalem and to her heritage as an American Jew. It is a first-time collaboration with the Kolben Dance Company of Jerusalem.

For “Times Bones,” Jenkins culled through 68 of the 75 works she has produced during an illustrious career that began in the late 1960s in New York and continued when she moved back to her hometown, San Francisco, in 1973, and founded the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Her career has involved collaborating with dance companies in China and India, creating work for a company in Japan and much more, including international touring. And it has encompassed 135 dancers and 50-plus collaborators. At the large kitchen table in her sunny Victorian in the Mission District, Jenkins—tall, elegant and artsy, her trademark long reddish curls cascading down her back—describes the process. Watching 60 old videos, from blurry to digitized—and, for her earliest, unrecorded works, relying on her own memory—she looked for shards and vignettes from her repertory that, she says, “made me wonder what hadn’t been told about that material. . . . I just allowed things to jump out at me that I thought really resonated in some way that felt emblematic.

“I was not interested in remounting old repertory,” she continues, “but, gathering the bones of these older works, I was fascinated by what we’d make of these [remnants].” She wanted to see if there were elements, reimagined and reinterpreted by the current company, that could generate new stories. As it turned out, except for one 30-second sequence that remains unchanged from the past, most of the other pieces arrived at a very different place, and some are completely new.

Dresher’s score, too, includes some fragments of material that he created for past Jenkins commissions, especially a beloved, 12-minute section from 1993’s “The Gate (Far Away Near),” recomposed for cello instead of the original violin. Most of the score is new, though. Dresher, an internationally known local composer who formed his ensemble in 1984, is noted for a wide and experimental variety of music, including scores for theater, dance and film.

In a short prologue to “Times Bones,” performed in the Forum at Yerba Buena Center before the show moves into the theater itself, the company offers a glimpse of some of the repertory. In addition, Jenkins’ dancers urged her to mark the occasion by participating in the prologue; so, after a formal reading of the names of all her past performers and collaborators, she then performs a two-minute solo from a repertory piece called “Breathe Normally” that takes place entirely on a bench. It has been over 15 years since she last performed, and the bench solo, she says, feels age-appropriate: At 71, she is not trying to seem younger than she is. “When it was time to stop dancing, there’s no question it was like a death and you bury it,” she concedes. “There is a time for all things. But there isn’t anything that replaces it. So the small snippet from the past feels very satisfying.” It was touching, she says, to have her company of dancers suggest it and encourage her.

That kind of exchange with her collaborating artists is typical of the way Jenkins works, says Dresher—giving and taking advice, listening deeply. Dresher and Jenkins have worked together often enough over the years; thus, says Dresher, “Any critique we offer is in terms of that deep and long-term respect and it gives us permission to be candid with each other.” Having composed for other choreographers as well, he observes that very few interact quite as intensely with the dancers as Jenkins does. Agrees Jenkins, “I engage [the dancers] in every way.”

When collaborating with another dance company, as with the Kolben Dance Company, work styles are inevitably different, as both choreographers acknowledge. But that’s a part of the process that both view as an exciting challenge.

“The Gate of Winds” refers to two kinds of “wind”—the literal winds that Jenkins felt as she passed through the gates of the old city on her first-ever visit to Israel in 2011, and the way the narrow streets wind around and around. “It was interesting to me, the way in which all these beautiful and thriving and mythical and contentious ideas that are embodied in this culture move in and around these various gates,” she muses. “I was struck by how many different ways of thinking about one’s own life are embedded in that place.” Inspired, she returned to Jerusalem later to look for a possible collaborator—someone whose “bones are of that place.” Amir Kolben’s modern dance company, founded in 1996, is known for athletic physicality and for multidisciplinary work that can include video and text. “The way he makes work and the physical language he uses is very different from me,” Jenkins observes. “Amir’s dancers really dance as if they’re going to be called to war tomorrow. They dance with a kind of fierceness I’ve never really seen. And it’s a fierceness all the time, not some of the time. We don’t know anything of that here.”

Jenkins brought her company to Jerusalem for a five-week session of generating material and to assess the dancers’ commitment to this collaboration. In early March, Kolben and his eight-dancer company arrived in San Francisco. Kolben and Jenkins had agreed that “The Gate of Winds” would explore the concept of walls and barriers—to reveal “the different ways we perceive reality and deal with boundaries,” explains Jenkins, adding, “I think working with a company [from Israel] means you can’t help dealing with some of the metaphorical questions about life and faith and barriers and boundaries.” Kolben, as it happens, recently premiered a new work, “Charlie Mandelbaum,” the title a reference to Checkpoint Charlie and the Mandelbaum Gate (the latter a former checkpoint in Jerusalem).

In Jenkins’ SoMa studio, at the first joint rehearsal to begin creating the new piece, the Kolben company presented to their colleagues a 30-minute segment of “Charlie Mandelbaum,” which was, indeed, electrifying—unrelentingly, heart-poundingly ferocious and intense. In turn, Jenkins’ dancers offered a half-hour section of “Times Bones,” to which the Israeli dancers responded viscerally: moving their bodies, smiling, at one point shouting out excitedly as a Jenkins dancer was tossed into the air.

“Margy and I see eye to eye on many things—and she has her way and I have mine,” says Kolben, who is petit and wiry, with salt and pepper hair and blue-framed glasses and speaks fluent, accented English. “Both of us are very physical, neither of us ever gives up movement altogether.” He says that watching Jenkins’ dancers perform, at times he thought, “Hmm, this is something I would never choreograph.” But, he adds, “It is interesting to see different combinations of things put together, for added value.”

In fact, bits of “Charlie” could end up in “The Gate”—at the second rehearsal, Jenkins asked her dancers to learn a sequence from that piece, in which the dancers stomp downstage toward the audience and shout, in unison, an aggressive “Ha!” Says Jenkins, “We might want to make new material that can live with ‘Charlie.’ ‘Charlie’ and ‘The Gate’ come from the same source.”

Now, celebrating her company’s 40th anniversary, Jenkins is ever the glass-half-full type, but also a bit melancholy. “Whether I work another 10 or 20 years, or 2 or 3 years, I have no idea, except that I have an appetite to continue,” she says. “But I’m very aware of how little time I have.” She feels a kind of poignant privilege, she says, to be in the room for six to eight hours a day with these young dancers, in rehearsals and classes. “I hope they’ll look back and are glad they gave that period of time to this,” she says.

Apr. 3-6

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, 415/978-ARTS,