Jennifer Monson Back to Theater With ‘Live Dancing Archive’

February 10th, 2013

Valerie Oliveiro

Jennifer Monson, once wanted to be a park ranger. She is bringing her nature-inspired “Live Dancing Archive,” to the Kitchen.

Among the many unusual aspects of Jennifer Monson’s “Live Dancing Archive,” which opens a two-weekend run at the Kitchen on Thursday, it takes place inside a theater. Unusual, that is, for Ms. Monson, an esteemed choreographer and improviser who, for the past decade or so has situated most of her work outdoors.

For 20 years New York was her wilderness, as she immersed herself in the experimental dance scene of the 1980s and ’90s, earning praise for giving improvisations the rigor of on-the-spot compositions. But part of her yearned to quit dance and become a park ranger; while growing up in Southern California, she had often wandered in the desert near Joshua Tree. Around 2000 she thought of how she might have it both ways.

Walking her dog in an abandoned industrial site on the East River she noticed migrating birds and began to ponder the connections between animal navigation and dance. This led to the Bird Brain project, which sent Ms. Monson tracking the migration of gray whales from Vancouver to Mexico, the travels of osprey from Maine to Venezuela and the flight of ducks and geese from Texas to Canada. Camping along the way, Ms. Monson and a few colleagues danced on beaches and in parks. They danced in front of school groups and people just passing by. They gave workshops embodying ideas about animal perception and flocking through improvisational exercises and held panel discussions with zoologists and environmental scientists. “It was like going to graduate school,” Ms. Monson said recently during an interview in a restaurant in the East Village. “My whole world exploded open.”

That was an experience she wanted to share with others. So in 2004 she founded the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance, known as iLAND, which helps facilitate cross-disciplinary research among artists, scientists, urban designers and others with curious minds. In 2006 she added a residency program, called iLAB, and since 2009 the organization, financed by various foundations, has held an annual symposium.

“No one has done this before in such an organized way,” said the choreographer Tere O’Connor, a close colleague of Ms. Monson’s for decades. “Choreography is a way of looking at the world, not just making dances, and Jennifer’s combination of improvisation and choreography has been incredibly influential. By giving young artists the chance to engage with scientists, she’s opened up the potential again.”

The goal of iLAND, Ms. Monson said, is to give others “an opportunity just to be in an interdisciplinary process without having to produce anything,” and some of her own recent projects, like an investigation into New York’s watershed, have been so process based as to be “kind of invisible.” (Few people saw the dancing.) One impetus behind “Live Dancing Archive” is to make Ms. Monson visible again.

In addition to the performance, which is Ms. Monson’s first hourlong solo, “Live Dancing Archive” has two other components, both offering access to her approach. The first is a digital archive, which collects photos, journal entries, dance “scores” and other documentation of the Bird Brain project. The second is a video installation at the Kitchen: footage that the videographer Robin Vachal shot of the 2002 osprey migration trip, edited into a three-hour loop. “I imagine,” Ms. Monson said, “that people will come and space out like they’re on vacation.”

The performance draws upon some of that same footage. About 20 minutes of the dance is material that Ms. Monson has learned off the video. The idea is not just to give extended life to impermanent dance but also to explore the ability of dance to archive ecological systems, to reveal place through a person.

That person is not just Ms. Monson. She reproduces the improvisations of the other dancers on the 2002 tour, different bodies responding to the same environment. “I’m trying truly as I can,” she said, “to dance like Javier Cardona, a six-foot, gorgeous Puerto Rican black man.”

Still, it’s Ms. Monson’s 51-year-old body that’s on display. She chose the solo form because “there was something in my dancing that I couldn’t translate to other bodies.” Some of that something is her history in New York, her queer activism of the ’90s. “Live Dancing Archive” is in part a reminder that Ms. Monson is not just a nature girl, though she reminds the audience of her previous work by lip-syncing to a song by an old East Village confederate in challenging normative notions of gender: “Bird Gerhl” by Antony and the Johnsons.

The lip-syncing too is something Ms. Monson says she never would have tried in New York. It came out of a graduate composition class by Mr. O’Connor, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they both teach part of the year. “Having Jennifer in class,” Mr. O’Connor said, “was an amazing lesson for the other students. Someone so accomplished, still looking forward.”

Long before the Bird Brain project, reviews of Ms. Monson’s performances commonly compared her to an animal. She recognizes the likeness but chafes at it, preferring to be perceived as a system. With Ms. Monson there are few assumptions that don’t come under scrutiny: false dichotomies between city and nature, her anthropomorphizing of her dog.

In conversation and in Ms. Monson’s journals the words “critical” and “question” and “conflicted” crop up often, and in her performances there is evidence of this restless mind. Yet she’s also known for disappearing into her improvisations, accessing something beyond her. The comparisons to animals or forces of nature attempt to describe that transformation.

Performing for people who had never seen postmodern dance (“I saw the birds!” “You look like whales mating!”) led Ms. Monson to rethink what her body might be representing. In “Live Dancing Archive,” she is after a quality of attention she learned outdoors: “At first, for years, I would feel like I was spacing out. But I came to value that open concentration.”

“That’s one reason I tell the audience that they’re the ocean,” she continued. “So that they feel they don’t have to do anything but breathe and give a spatial relation to the performer.”

In her travels and studies Ms. Monson also learned about broad-wing hawks, which cover large distances with minimum energy, following mountain ridges to ride thermal currents. “That’s a metaphor for me,” she said. “The most efficient way to get where you want to go is not necessarily the most direct. There’s something about that in my dancing.”

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