Choreographer Jennifer Monson (NYC) will develop in tow, an ongoing modular dance project that addresses “experimental” as a performance category in constant flux, shaped by its political, economic, and cultural contexts.
Martha Duffy Resident Artist
Jennifer Monson is a choreographer, performer, teacher and dance curator who balances her artistic research and choreographic work between New York City and the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Since 1983, she has explored strategies in choreography, improvisation and collaboration in experimental dance. In 2000, her work took on a radical new trajectory towards the relationship between dance and environment.
This has led her into an investigation of cultural and scientific understandings of large-scale phenomenon such as animal navigation and migration, geological formations such as aquifers and re-functioned sites such as the abandoned Ridgewood Reservoir. These investigations provide the means to unearth and inquire into choreographic and embodied ways of knowing and re-imagining our relationship to the environments/spaces we inhabit. Her projects BIRD BRAIN (2000- 2005), iMAP/Ridgewood Reservoir (2007) and the Mahomet Aquifer Project (2008-2010) and SIP (sustained immersive process)/watershed (2010) are projects that have radically reframed the role dance plays in our cultural understandings of nature and wilderness.
By bringing the work into outdoor settings and creating a framework for viewing the work through workshops, panel discussions and community involvement, she has found ways to re-engage the general public in a heightened physical and sensory experience of the phenomena and systems that surround us. Her current project Live Dancing Archive (2012) proposes that dance systems themselves are archival bodies for the dynamics of ecosystems. The project includes an online digital archive and video installation drawing primarily on BIRD BRAIN and other environmental works. Her early choreographic work has been performed in experimental New York City venues such as The Kitchen, Performance Space 122, and Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church; as well as nationally. The BIRD BRAIN project and the theatrical version Flight of Mind were performed at Dance Theater Workshop, NYC; the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, MN; Diverseworks, Houston, TX; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; Tigertail Productions, FL; and Helena Presents, Helena, MT.
Monson's work rigorously investigates the body as a vehicle to re-conceptualize the nature of form and to constantly renegotiate the relationships between art, environment, power, and place. She has received a wide range of foundation support for her artistic work. Her work has received funding from the MAP Fund, New York Foundation for the Arts BUILD grant, Creative Capital Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Jerome Foundation, New England LEF Foundation, Altria Group, Inc., National Dance Project, National Performance Network, the National Endowment for the Arts, Foundation for Contemporary Art, Lambent Foundation and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is an inaugural Doris Duke Impact Artist (2014).
In 2004 Monson founded iLAND-interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance. iLAND investigates the power of dance in collaboration with other fields to illuminate our kinetic understanding of the world. It is a dance research organization with a fundamental commitment to environmental sustainability as it relates to art and the urban context, and cultivates cross-disciplinary research among artists, environmentalists, scientists, urban designers and other fields. In addition to serving as Artistic Director of iLAND, Monson is currently a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign as part of a new initiative of the Environmental Council. Monson is also a Professor at Large at the University of Vermont, a six- year term in collaboration with dance, environmental studies and libraries faculty.
BAC Story by Moriah Evans
April 7, 2016
In Tow is about what we carry, but it also is very much a portrait of what Jennifer Monson brings with her into the studio and how she arrives there—her past, her friends, people with whom she shares creative affinities.
Here is a list of all the people invited into this expansive project who also bring themselves, things, ideas, baggage, and skills in tow: Susan Becker, DD Dorvillier, Niall Jones, Rose Kaczmarowski, Alice MacDonald, Jennifer Monson, Valerie Oliveiro, Zeena Parkins, Angela Pittman, Nibia Pastrana Santiago, David Zambrano. Despite the varied artistic backgrounds of these individuals, all roles are shared and traversed. All the scores are dancing scores, musical scores, and designing scores. Everyone is assumed to be a novice and an expert in any and every role, position, and point of view. Research initiates and continues throughout this process; whoever comes into the room destabilizes what was there before and then what appears there then, now, next. These artists fortify and destabilize each other.
Extending creative intimacies from various moments of artistic practice into a methodology of choreographic thought is a deeply personal project. We watch these artists grapple with the questions of horizon lines, the limits of space, the exchange of one system into another, the sensations and sentiments of resonance and vibration. In this span of creative intimates and the tasks organizing their activities, how much of Monson's autobiography is a means to read what transpires in front of us—both in terms of methodology employed as well as the identities of the people in the room doing these activities? Monson does not indicate why such and such persons are present together—maybe we speculate who each of these people are and who they are in relation to Jennifer Monson. Maybe it's about comfort. Maybe it's about the dreamscape of a community. Maybe it’s about a hopeful wish for extraordinary collaboration—in self-organizing modes of proposing and expressing with others, maybe we can shift the world. They are just there together, trying to work without a predetermined aesthetic or product.
The means of production, at once personal and structural, remind us that the personal is political. In this scenario of gathering and examining, Monson attempts to make power transparent. It's not a faux democracy. She brings these collaborators in tow, and they bring themselves and what they carry. Without a common language and without aiming to arrive at something, they are simply agreeing to BE together. Whatever is established temporarily requires listening, patience and action. There is a stated attempt to dismantle hierarchy into methods of sharing. A generative and generous notion of creativity as a mode of exchange and decision-making guides this methodology of destabilization.
Improvisation-based systems and environmental systems manifest themselves as choreography. Monson maintains and disrupts her deeply embodied practice of years of work—encapsulated in her acclaimed solo, Live Dancing Archive (that premiered at the Kitchen in February 2013), as she proposed a form of retrospective, choreographed in each and every instant, from her decades of dancing and improvising. She also brings philosophies of ILAND—Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance that she founded in 2007. Her removal from the explicit context of nature and environment facilitates a return to the dance studio and the conventional stage as such—as a site for display and the imaginary. These methodologies are integrated into a form of inquiry within the social field in an effort to hold abstract time and space.
Etymologically, utopia means no place. What unfolds here? Is it dystopic utopic? In her own way, Monson is constructing and acknowledging a practice out of the social ecosystem of the dance community. This choreographic container is constructed to be porous and open, despite the fact that she has invited the artists working and thereby the identities, personalities, and materials that will build this container. Not knowing and moving towards problems without solving them is at the core of this pursuit. It's not form, rather a method. The modes of creativity, intimacy, trust, and power sharing are articulated through such frames as indeterminacy, synch of synch, larger cultural context, climate change, and improvisational strategies. Jennifer Monson continues with the emboldened attitude and courage to engage in the experimental—as defined by John Cage—setting up a series of conditions from which we cannot know the result. These structures delve into processes to excavate modes of activity and enactment. Monson speaks about how she is trying not to base anything on an aesthetic, but rather working to base this practice on something nimble enough for radical shifts.
In this forward thinking and hopeful quest, Monson now confronts: what is the relation to the public? What space are we in as people watching; what space are they in and where are its limits? Four women move in the room—this is not the entire cast. Their gender is apparent. They are more human, creaturely, and mature than some social construction of the feminine in the West. Sounds, humming, bells, fabric, the limits of a room. They share weight, share surface textures of themselves, liberated bodies, sad bodies, lost bodies, female bodies. I have to watch and keep watching to comprehend what these bodies are doing and why they do it. Despite a striking presence of gender, these bodies cease to represent. Perhaps they cease to represent concretely because they are so much in the process. They constantly learn to exist together in this space and they constantly learn to release whatever is established.
The horizon line recedes infinitely. A constant devolution of structure and rules; tasks emerge again and again. What is the ecosystem of these exchanges? We may wonder about the internal / external relations of these performers with each other and ourselves to them. Without any answers yet an appreciation, the form and the object of attention is inquiry. Inquiry is the form as well as a step or an action. Each decision each performer makes impacts the multidimensional space we occupy in In Tow. What is the chance of choice and all its indeterminacy? When there is no transparent law governing their behaviors, when sharing is attempted…bodies distribute themselves. Are they lost? Are we lost watching them? We are bodies trying to understand and relentlessly express.
Moriah Evans’ choreographic work has been presented at Issue Project Room, Danspace Project, the Kitchen, MoMA/PS1, Judson Church, AUNTS, American Realness, BAX, New York Live Arts, The New Museum, The Chocolate Factory, Dixon Place, CalIT2, Kampnagel and Theatre de l’Usine. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Performance Journal and has been involved with the publication since 2009. During her 2011-2013 residency at Movement Research, she initiated The Bureau for the Future of Choreography. She was a 2014 Artist in Residence at Issue Project Room. In recent years, she has had the pleasure to work with Trajal Harrell, INPEX, Tino Sehgal, Sarah Michelson, Jerome Bel and Xavier Le Roy. Her 2015 piece, Social Dance 1-8: Index was nominated for a Bessie award for the category Emerging Choreographer.
All photos: Rita McKeough