Margaret Jenkins Dance Opens 43rd Season

by Jean Schiffman

Two dance works explore different physical and emotional terrains but are linked visually and through the artistic sensibilities of Jenkins’ close-knit group of collaborators.

There’s a thread connecting two worlds in Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s 43rd season opener. Set in two different rooms in the War Memorial Opera House’s Wilsey Center, “Site Series (Inside Outside)” and the world premiere “Skies Calling Skies Falling” explore different physical and emotional terrains but are linked visually and through the artistic sensibilities of choreographer Margaret Jenkins’ close-knit group of collaborators.

The reimagined “Site Series,” from 2015, is an intimate work that evolved from discussions among Jenkins and her dancers about the familial, living-room conversations of their childhood; the original impetus was the need to create a flexible, portable piece, suitable for actual living rooms and other small spaces.

“Skies Calling” was conceived when the company assembled, after the last presidential
election, in a state of shock. “We decided that whatever work we were going to launch together somehow needed to reflect where we were,” says Jenkins, “and we then decided we wanted to use shock as a metaphor.”

If “Site Series” is about the past, “Skies Calling” is about the present, and Jenkins visualizes a through line from then to now, represented not just by the seven dancers, who all appear in both pieces, but also by a unifying color (blood red) and by the performance spaces: “Site Series,” up close and personal, is in the smaller Education Studio, an open area with the audience seated in the round; viewers then cross the hall for “Skies,” in the Taub Atrium Theater (configured at 238 seats for this performance), with its shallow, 60-foot-wide stage.

For Jenkins, it’s not hard to tie together the living room conversations of her past with the present day. She grew up in the city’s Cole Valley, in a home bursting with Sturm und Drang (as well as opera and poetry); her leftist parents and their friends worked for peace and racial integration during the divisive McCarthy era, and she remembers “passion, commitment about political ideas,” and even, to a teenager like her, a somewhat frightening energy.

Her several-generations-young dancers provided perspective with their own living-room stories: Chinchin Hsu, for example, is from Taiwan, Kelly Del Rosario from Hawaii. “We talked about the interior of a room and the energy that an actual room gives you and then about the interior of oneself,” Jenkins elaborates. “And as always, when I start a work somewhere, in the process of making it, it takes on its own life and shifts and morphs and becomes something else.” When longtime collaborator poet Michael Palmer watched a rehearsal he imagined the dancers’ bodies gradually turning into clear, brittle glass and wrote “Lady of Glass,” which, in voiceover, forms the narrative of “Site Series” and, says Jenkins, “reflects some of what we felt were our transformations as we were making it.” She sees the piece as a way for audiences to create their own interior monologues. “I don’t really think it has a life until it’s been interpreted by an audience, and then the work is complete,” she says. The music is by Joan Jeanrenaud (cello) and David Lang.

For the more immediate landscape of “Skies Calling,” no such dreamy score is suitable; midway through the rehearsal period, sound designer Thomas Carnacki was planning a contemporary design for this more intense piece, involving found sound, everything from the blast of a cannon to the hiss of rain.

Projected on the wide back wall and floor of the Atrium is a seven-minute prologue video, created by David and Hi-Jin Hodge and captured by a drone hovering hundreds of feet above an expansive granary in India Basin. It conveys an otherworldly sense of a wasteland.

The movement for “Skies Calling” developed through discussion and experimentation. How, the group wondered, does the body experience shock? You faint; you’re stunned; you’re taken aback. “Taken aback” morphed into, among things, a moment in which Kristen Bell crosses the stage with a curled-up Corey Brady on her back. Del Rosario wanted to bring a sense of quiet hopefulness into the choreography, and the others concurred, so, in a recent rehearsal, the dancers, in solos, duets, trios and groups, moved ferociously about—leaping, rolling, collapsing, tussling, long arms pinwheeling—and at other moments frolicking, or frozen, motionless; or, sometimes, with extended arms, fingers splayed in gestures of horror. “Some of the physicality might have a kind of abrasiveness to it, some degree of chaos to it in the way that the results of the election made us feel,” says Jenkins, “but at the same time we don’t want to suggest to an audience that there is no way to move forward. I think that’s what we’re all trying to figure out, right?” She sees the art of making dance as an act of optimism but is aware of the “contrasting forces of pessimism.

“Is there a way,” she wonders, “toward some kind of harmony around all the disharmony that is present—some kind of balance with one another?” She adds, “I’m not interested in making a political work. I’m interested in the way that dance and art can shine a light on something, provide information, provide a sensation… not clarify but maybe just illuminate some particular moment.”

October 12→ 14

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

Wilsey Center, War Memorial Opera House,
401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco 392-4400