The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality Performance, Performance Cabaret, Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. Contemporary Choreography is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts.
In Conversation with Jen Rosenblit
Interviewed by Sara Lyons
Jen Rosenblit has been making performance in New York City since 2005. Her Bessie Award-winning work questions intimacy inside of problematic spaces, uniting choreographies, text, and design towards philosophical quandaries. Her work has been commissioned by The Kitchen, New York Live Arts, Danspace, and others, and she has been a resident artist with Movement Research, LMCC, and others. Clap Hands was recently presented at the 2017 American Realness Festival at Abrons Arts Center, and Jen and I sat down after the closing performance to discuss the piece. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.
Sara Lyons: Tell me about the development of Clap Hands. What were your initial questions?
Jen Rosenblit: Early on I was reading a lot of [Lauren] Berlant, and she said: “The reorganization of life makes us lose our objects,” and I was just a bit haunted with that. So pretty quickly I realized I wanted to be working with a material that wasn’t anything, that didn’t represent something, that wasn’t an object that somebody could recognize, and I thought just material itself: fabric folded up in a pile, just fabric. I guess it could mean some things, but it also really doesn’t mean much. I sat with it for a long time. I did different things with the felt: I covered my whole studio in felt, I covered a table and a chair in felt, I quickly made this felt monster suit, just really playing around. And then as soon as we had assembled the performers, we really started diving into scores that were dealing directly with this idea of solo, both in the theatrical sense of the singular performer—a kind of stardom—as well as solo in terms of the philosophical aloneness, lonesome, dipping into elements of lonely.
SL: It almost sounds Buddhist in that way–the eternal human suffering of being separate from the rest of the world.
JR: Yeah, my biggest questions are really basic, they’re really philosophical and simple. What does it take to come together with other people and other things, and what happens when we do that? I have feelings that beautiful things happen, and then also some harder things happen. So I’m interested in the problematics of coming together. Which I think, inside of togetherness, reveals a lot of autonomy, a lot of separation. Not just separation and isolation, but a kind of agency of the thing: so I am completely myself, or this chair is completely the chair, but then when it’s painted yellow, and next to the table, it looks like it’s part of a set, or a family. So we started to apply a lot of theatricality onto these ideas of “this is this, this is that.” That’s a table, that’s a chair. There’s a boxer, there’s a fencer. All of these things weren’t so important in what they mean in the world—I wasn’t trying to comment on sports—but it felt right in order to speak about the singularity of a figure, to use a character.
SL: I think that idea by itself it can seem very dark and lonely, but I appreciated that Clap Hands was shining a light on the labor of collaboration given that separateness, and how sort of just awkward and funny and beautiful that collaboration can be. That to me is very hopeful.
JR: I find a lot of joy in problematic spaces. I find potential and availability and space and a lot of futurity in these spaces that are a bit difficult. We purposefully, methodologically are constantly adding problems. So, the felt is for some reason so hard to carry when we don’t get to use our arms, when we have to all carry it all together in the middle of ourselves. And then, on top of that, one of us has to get into a felt suit, and one of us has to find the felt bag in the pile. So it’s adding these silly problems, but they’re also pretty real. Like, most of my real big issues in the world are very simple problems. Like, I have too many things, I don’t have enough things.
SL: I could feel that too in how the space is set up, because it’s in the round, because the lighting design was never telling me where to look.
JR: It’s a bit awkward and diffused like a gymnasium, you know? Like, this light is for functional purposes of seeing.
SL: Right, until you decide that it’s not. The moment when the lights actually came down for the first time, I thought, wait, I’m watching a show. But I love that. That’s how we live in the world, everything is just functional to us, until we decide that—
JR: We decide that it’s poetry.
JR: This is where the final performer comes in, Lexi Welch, who is sort of the operator around the space. Lexi came on with this large notion of care. We take care of the felt, we take care of the table, we take care of the chair, we take care of the audience. It felt important to have another person who could take care of us.
SL: But it’s unsentimental care.
JR: Yeah, I definitely resist sentimentality. I think it’s just very easy to land there. Of course I crave sentiment, I crave intimacy, but in terms of crafting theater, I’m interested in a slightly more sarcastic entry point. I love for people to feel sentimentality, but I don’t want to create images that feed it into the work. If we’re going to talk about togetherness, we have to get a little absurd.
SL: The word technology kept coming up for me while watching this—the minute and grander technologies of how we come together in the world. Like the giant boom mic, it becomes a tool for intimacy.
JR: We talked a lot about the things in the room. There is a moment when we start to really address the things in the room as connecting prosthetic, like, this table now, if I’m touching it, it’s making me more massive than I am. If I can hold that boom, it’s the extension of my arm and my arm is now this close to your face. So we are really dealing with body in this way as it relates to thing-ness.
SL: And the audience becomes just as much a part of that, too, when you just move the seats around mid-performance.
JR: Yeah, very early on I kind of had this mandate that got super challenging to uphold, which is “all parts flexible.” And I felt like, OK, these metal benches are here and they’re so definitive, and they’re actually the most representative of anything—they really bring you back to bleachers at school, you know? And I was like, if these are gonna be here and be speaking, they need to be flexible, and they need at some point be able to move. That’s the practice we’re engaged with the whole time. This should go here, no it should go there. I’ll stand over here. You come stand over here with me. Let’s put the table there. No let’s put the chair by the window. It’s just a bunch of shifting, re-assembling.
SL: It feels very much like you’re entering the space in as present a way you can, as opposed to coming in and showing the audience a form.
JR: That presence in front of people, especially when they’re so close—which I tend to like—I think it’s very particular. It’s not that I’m not interested in virtuosity or form, but I think we talk a lot about letting the weight sink down so that other people can sink down and relax, because there’s a lot of preparatory inhales in performance.
SL: Especially with dance!
JR: Yes, it’s sort of embedded in my training. I’ve had to go back and be like “why does my body prepare itself like that?”
SL: Earlier you said that you’re not really actively engaging questions of representation. But at a certain point, isn’t representation always at play?
JR: Yeah, I mean, to hear it said back to me is like, oh, I’m a liar [laughs]. I think I’m interested in a contrarian behavior or analysis. I say constantly “this is, and this is not about us.” So what that means for me is it has to be 100% about you, and then you have to have the ability to completely not perform yourself but know that you’re only performing yourself. So that’s really just a bit of a mindf*ck, it doesn’t really make sense. And in the same way, I’m working not with images, but I am not shy about them occurring. They’re the distraction. The table and the stool, they are the distraction. The felt monster is a distraction. Anything that you can see and really go “that’s an image, that’s a picture,” it’s there to hold the space for something more delicate or precarious happening in the corner. For example, lying naked on a table is not something I would really do in a performance without a lot of other distraction. Because I wouldn’t take that to be so serious. So it’s about these two distractions coming together—the nude on the table, and the felt monster being silly, the joker. For me, they’re the same. Or they cancel each other, or they’re repeating, it’s a confusing thing. So, I am deeply interested in representation, but not in a way where I think it’s the most important thing. I just think it does exist.
SL: Right. It’s another problem that’s being layered into the work. I think it’s really interesting because I feel like when I look at your work, it screams queer, but at the same time, you’re not directly engaged with image, or icons, in the way that queer art so often is. Do you think of your work as situated in the legacy of queer art?
JR: I don’t think my work holds my identity, I think my body holds my identity. I mean, we are all people who are queer people in the piece, and yes that feels important, it’s just moving toward what I’m interested in. The work is also all about a flirtation with all things. Hailing the audience, putting out the call, seeing if anyone answers. So for me, it feels like, well, I want to hail other queer people, so it makes sense that I would craft this with them. And [it is] absurd. I think I relate and identify more to absurdity than anything surrounding sexuality or identity politics of people coming together, it’s more the absurd.
SL: It seems like a lot to negotiate as the creator and choreographer and writer, and also performing in the work.
JR: Yeah, and I’m interested in directing processes for sure. And I think my work is shifting and has been shifting over the past two years. I’m definitely attracted to working with people who are not exactly like me. The aesthetic of this work is not of my own—they’re all collected from the people making the process and input and proposals. It’s a series of proposals that I’m asking for from people, what would you want, what would you do, and then OK, as it comes near what I want, it’s gonna change a little bit, but let’s see then what that monster looks like. But I get a lot of joy out of crafting a piece, and also having to step into another role, which is performing it. But I also have a lot of tricks in there about, like, going to the floor, turning around to let someone else explore the room without the eye of me watching them. There’s a lot of kind of going invisible at certain points in this work, for all of us.
But I’m also making directly from the inside. There’s no form that doesn’t come from an internal felt space. So these choreographies are more about proposals rather than like, you kick twice and then I’ll jump and make sure the angle of your leg is here. That’s definitely faded from me over the years. That kind of precision I’ve reincorporated into a collection of proposals. Precise proposals rather than the precision of the technique, you know?
SL: Right, it’s about what problems you’re setting yourselves up to deal with in the moment of the performance.
SL: What is your working definition of a problematic space?
JR: Oh, I think just adding more. A space that is flexible and could potentially house a lot of things is problematic. A space that keeps a sort of feminist swing to it, like—there could be more room. It doesn’t mean it will be easy and it doesn’t mean I want to do it, and I might not create more room, but there could be. It’s this potential.
SL: Yeah, it feels more about your relationship to it, how you’re seeing it, how you’re finding possibility. I want to hear more about your process, too—you mentioned that your development for this started with philosophy, with reading.
JR: Yeah, in general I’m interested in reading queer theory and philosophy for sure. Existential questions are where it’s at for me, phenomenology. This is the kind of reading and thinking process that I feel like I can engage with rather than making a piece about climate change or something. I wouldn’t quite know how to go in that direction, but through this side door of the phenomenology of things disappearing, I feel like this is directly related to major problems in the world today. Like, bodies that are disappearing because people are killing them. Epidemically, which bodies are disappearing and why, and who are they disappearing from? Who’s doing the killing, and who’s being killed? Who’s being persecuted and who’s doing the persecution? So for me, the philosophical is not void of the political. But sometimes I wonder, how does dance speak politically? I think the body just does, uncontrollably. But the body is different than crafting a show. So yeah, I think these existential questions lead me to things that are really a problem in the news.
SL: When you’re making a show, how do you move from reading theory to practice, to the body?
JR: For me it’s not such a big movement away. Language for me is a very flexible form. I have a relationship to language that is poetic, and I have a relationship to the body that is poetic, and so writing doesn’t feel so far off from tangentially letting the body move through space. But I guess in terms of the translation of reading and writing, I guess I enjoy having these dramaturgical pinnings but I also know that making work, it just starts going in its own direction. So I’m not looking to marry anything, I’m not looking to marry the research with the outcome, I’m just researching and I know there will be some sort of outcome. And I think, based on that understanding, they will work together.
Jen Rosenblit has been making performance in New York City since 2005. Works include Swivel Spot (2017), Everything Fits in the Room, a collaboration with Simone Aughterlony (2017), Clap Hands (2016), a Natural dance (2014), Pastor Pasture, in collaboration with composer Jules Gimbrone (2013), In Mouth (2012), and When Them (2010). Rosenblit is a 2015-16 Movement Research Artist-in-Residence, a 2014-2015 LMCC Workspace artist, a recipient of a 2014 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for Emerging Choreographer for a Natural dance, an inaugural recipient of THE AWARD, a 2013 Fellow at Insel Hombroich (Nuese, Germany), a recipient of the 2012 Grant to Artists from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and a 2009 Fresh Tracks artist (Dance Theater Workshop). Rosenblit was included in MoMA PS1’s quintennial Greater New York exhibition in 2015, and has received support for her work from The Jerome Foundation, The MAP Fund, and Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory, and through commissions from The Kitchen, The Invisible Dog, Atlanta Contemporary, New York Live Arts, Danspace Project, and Issue Project Room. Rosenblit has also collaborated and performed with artists including Simone Aughterlony, Young Jean Lee, Ryan McNamara, Yvonne Meier, Sasa Asentic, Anne Imhof, Miguel Gutierrez, A.K. Burns, and Kerry Downey and Joanna Seitz. Recent works focus on an improvisational approach to choreographic thought, locating ways of being together amidst impossible spaces. Rosenblit currently works between NYC and Berlin.
photo by Maria Baranova