Jillian Peña on the fantasy of ballet, queer temporality, and doubling in her new performance Polly Pocket.
Before conducting this interview, I went to one of Jillian Peña’s rehearsals to watch a run-through of her new work, Polly Pocket, which premieres at the American Realness festival this January. The title is inspired by the miniature self-contained dollhouses, which when closed, don’t look like much more than plastic pastel containers. But look inside one, and an entire domestic architecture—at once magical and mundane—is revealed. Peña’s Polly Pocket functions similarly. Though it is a pristine dance, requiring exactitude and virtuosity, within its inner workings are freaky Freudian twists that confront fundamental questions of self and other, self and self.
Peña’s work crosses both live performance and video. In her videos, you will often find images of herself multiplied, so that she can question, fight, flirt, and converse with the many differently desiring versions of herself. Polly Pocket brings this premise of the double-multiple-self to live performance with dancers Alexandra Albrecht, Andrew Champlin, and Kyli Klevin, and the result is both enthralling and mystifying.
Lauren Bakst For a while you were making dances in the form of videos. This is your second project working in live performance again—what triggered that return for you? What was your interest in going back to the live body?
Jillian Peña I question that decision every day, because it takes so much more time, money, and negotiation because you’re using people. People are hard to deal with and working alone is so nice. But I also feel really inspired by people. I think I was a little bit sick of myself and I’m interested in how things I was working on in the videos are actually real, not just my fantasies alone in a room. Going back to performance is making sense of the videos in a way. I also had been doing some work in between that was trying to figure out whether or not I liked live performance. I was giving headphones to people to act out performances. Have you seen any of those?
JP They were funny. I would cast audience members as the dancers and then they would push play on their headphones and it would give them instructions. With those I was interested in the language of ballet and how people would translate the directions in the same way. I also liked the instant confusion it would create. It didn’t go far enough though, I just tried it out.
LB What were the directions like? They were in reference to ballet?
JP Mostly. There were some other ones, like, Visualize something, and make a face about it. The first one I tried was at CPR (Center for Performance Research) and John Jasperse was one of the people who volunteered. It was priceless, because he’s such a funny and specific mover. They were good. I knew that there was something there.
LB With The Mothership there were live performers, right?
JP Yeah, yeah. And with the piece before that, which I liked better, The Promised Land at The Kitchen. Both of them had two live bodies in front of a video. I feel like I offended the dancers when I said this, but, they really served as ornaments in those pieces. They weren’t intended to be the subject—the audience was. The audience was the performer. It was about their own movement in themselves . . . Deep thoughts from Jillian (laughter). I wanted to get back to dance and just strip it down. I have this desire to just make dance. And I know that’s not what’s happening but that’s the desire and that’s what I go in thinking I’m going to do.
LB Has ballet and that vocabulary always been such a force in your work?
JP I think it always has been. I just really am captivated with how consistent it is. With ballet, I can speak to people that I don’t know in the same language. And modern dance is much more ambiguous. There's also something about how my body feels when I’m doing ballet. There’s some fantasy, especially in Russian ballet. Certain ports de bra and certain tilts of the head—they send me to a different zone. I feel history in my body, and that’s a long history. The history of Russian ballet is so complicated and then it even goes further back than that, to the French courts. I like how that whole lineage lives in your body. Of course, I love and respect modern dance, but I don’t care about pedestrian movement. I’m not interested in the history of that.
LB It seems like there’s a relationship between ballet and what you were saying about your videos. The way that ballet activates this other space in the body has something to do with how the situations in your videos are also real and not just in the image.
JP Ballet helps me get other people to that place. It’s such a fantasy. It’s a ridiculous, fantastical form. It feels very science fiction, very otherworldly. I think that in this piece, Polly Pocket, that I am making something real that I was trying to do in my videos. When I started making the videos in which I replicate myself, I thought I was just going to make really beautiful dance videos where everybody looked the same, but obviously the relationships between the bodies became much more compelling to me. That’s what has happened in this piece too. I chose Andrew and Alexandra beacuse they are amazing technicians who match each other very well, but what ended up being more compelling to me was their relationship to each other. That’s what interested me in bringing Kyli in as well.
LB Andrew and Alexandra’s relationship in the piece is so freaky. There’s this brother-sister thing going on, but then also this mirroring, and then when they touch, it’s like, Oh wait, they shouldn’t be touching. It’s complicated.
JP I like that ambiguity. I’ve been thinking a lot about queer relationality and how it’s not this very set relationship. They are like queer partners, really. They love each other in a way that doesn’t necessarily make sense. I’ve also been thinking about their relationship in terms of queer temporality, that their relationship is going to keep on shifting into these different places and it’s never going to go anywhere. I think there’s a desire for some beautiful resolution between them, but I don’t want their relationship to resolve. It feels like we want to make sense of those three together, but that it actually needs to keep on going and going.
LB It does feel like it’s in this other time, or maybe they’ve been there for thousands of years. Or not even that it’s in the future or the past, but that it’s in this other galaxy or something.
JP Timeless maybe. But also just expansive . . . infinite. That’s what I hope.
LB How did the title Polly Pocket come about?
JP I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to call it Polly Pocket or Family Romance, which refers to one of the Freudian stages. It’s a fantasy that you’re adopted, that you’re obviously from a different family and that you’re obviously in the wrong place. But it’s also when kids want to be big like their parents, there is some size matching and also competition. There’s this great sculpture by—do you know Charles Ray?
LB No, I don’t think so.
JP The sculpture—it’s at MoMA actually—is a mother, a father, and a boy and a girl, and they’re all proportionately right for their ages, but they’re all the same size. It’s so weird.
I was interested in that matching, and I wanted to call it that, but I couldn't, because Charles Ray took it—and even though I was doing the Freudian thing, I didn't want to be so literal. So Polly Pocket—I was always fantasizing about those toys, and it just sort of stuck. I like the colors and the textures that title makes me think of—the plastic, and the pastel.
LB I like that it hints at the voyeurism that’s set up between the audience and the performers. You’re peeking into this world.
JP Yeah, I want you to feel like you’re not supposed to be looking in.
LB Which makes you want to look more.
JP Of course. I like the architecture of the Polly Pocket doll houses. They’re so enclosed, so tight, so embellished.
LB So you kind of mentioned this, but the piece started as a duet with Andrew and Alexandra, and now it is a trio. What was the shift to bring Kyli in?
JP I’m always interested in how the self relates to other selves and how the self relates to itself. In the piece, Andrew dances with a video projection of himself multiplied, and that is pure bliss to him. I also wanted to think about what would happen if that was real, and how it’s completely maddening. It’s the whole story of the doppleganger, which has been used in literature forever, and usually what happens is that one of them ends up killing the other one. There’s this really good quote from Otto Rank, this psychoanalyst who was a contemporary of Freud's: “This use of the double theme arrived not so much from the author’s conscious fondness for describing preternatural situations or separate parts of their personalities as from their unconscious impulse to lend imagery to a universal problem, that of the relation of the self to the self.” I love that it’s just the main problem of our world, the big thing we’re all coping with, unsuccessfully or successfully. So I wanted to watch Alexandra go through these different stages of relating to Kyli, the first being that Kyli is Alexandra's mirror image.
LB There’s an interesting tension in the fact that Andrew has these image doubles, and then that Alexandra has to deal with another actual person. She doesn’t get to have the bliss of the image; she has to deal with the complexity of another body. I feel like the piece keeps setting up these situations and relations, and then shifting them. Or they resolve themselves but then new problems are created. Alex gets her double, she loves her and she hates her, but then she doesn’t kill Kyli. Kyli gets released and gets to be her own person. Then there’s what happens to this couple once there is a third. It’s always making room for the other.
JP That makes me think of this Luce Irigaray text. I hadn’t thought about this—and I really never mean to make work that makes some fucking theory visible—but Irigaray talks about how men are always in relationships of themselves to many, of one to many, but that with women, it’s always one to one.
LB Alexandra does kind of seem to be in charge throughout though.
JP No, she is. (laughter) In all of those partnering lifts, I didn’t mean to just have her lifting Andrew. It just happens to be, that’s how their bodies relate to each other.
LB Watching the piece, this question kept floating around: When do you recognize that you’re a self? And how do you come to that recognition? Their names are also very present in the piece—they call each other’s names and their names will be printed on their costumes. So what’s the importance of—
JP The identifier?
JP I think that the whole piece is about attention between the individual vs. the collective, so I love how in those moments there's this rapid-fire conversation. They’re calling each others’ names but they’re doing it in unison, affirming both their individuality and their collectivity. Andrew Alex Kyli. Andrew Alex Kyli. I feel like this is what my thesis [for a Master's of Philosophy at Goldsmiths, completed in 2013] was all about—how you recognize who you are in the mirror stage. I like that somehow, at least in the first half of it, Alexandra and Andrew become themselves with each other or by each other.
LB They haven’t seen the mirror yet, or they haven’t seen themselves in the mirror yet.
JP They think that they are looking at the mirror—they’re each other’s mirror. Maybe, but I don’t know. I like that I don’t know.
LB How did you develop the text?
JP The conversations are very typical, confusing—they’re not fights, but I wanted them to be these general conversations that would make you say, Ooh, I’ve had kind of that conversation with somebody. It’s a vying for control, or a desire to have somebody else’s interest.
LB It feels like there’s always a misunderstanding. People want different things, and they’re on different wavelengths.
JP But they really think that they’re on the same one, so it’s those moments of realizing, Oh wait are you on a different . . . ? The first conversation in which Andrew says, “I had an idea,” was originally, “I had this dream,” and then they would talk about the dream. I think that is such a conversation that’s like, “Oh my god, I had the craziest dream,” and you’re like, “Tell me about it, but I don’t actually care.” The two people that I showed it to—Marya (Warshaw) and Levi (Gonzalez)—both thought it was cheesy or too precious. The idea was much more like, Who the fuck cares about somebody’s idea? I could have paid more attention to the language but it actually feels like it's more about their energy than about what they’re actually saying.
LB Do you feel like you’re working with narrative?
JP I don’t think it’s a narrative. I think it’s like a picture. It’s a moment that you can add lots of narratives on to. I hope to never resolve it and I hope to make you feel like it’s been going on before you were there.
I don’t really know how narrative works. I don’t want a beginning or an ending. That is what’s so annoying about making work that is time-based, because inevitably it has it. That’s why I always said that I want this piece to ultimately be three hours so you can be eating your dinner during it—
LB A dinner theater! That would be so great.
JP That would be nice, because then it also accesses this private space. It relates to watching TV at home. I want you to be able to look, but then look away. It does feels continuous, yes, but alas, it’s only an hour now. That means that I can keep on working on it—I just feel like I want to keep working on this piece forever.
LB That’s great.
JP Yeah, but it’s also though not great. It’s a weird feeling.
LB Do you feel like you want a resolution? Not to the piece itself but for yourself in making it?
JP Well, it just makes me scared about what the fuck I am gonna make next. It feels like my dream piece.
LB That’s great. Don’t worry about what happens next! Did you start making this after you finished your thesis or did they happen simultaneously?
JP I was almost done with my thesis when I started making it, but it was happening simultaneously.
LB How do you feel like that writing relates to your process?
JP Well, shit, I had to pull it up a couple times in order to reference it during this conversation already! I didn’t know that would happen really. I was trying to talk to a student about this the other day—that I wrote that thesis because of my work. I was inspired to think about that Charles Ray piece and the Otto Rank work because of things that were going on in my work. That’s what’s so pleasurable about being simultaneously involved in practice and research. It just keeps on going. There’s such a great loop in the way things talk to each other. I do think that, for me at least, it works best when I’m not thinking about that at all in my practice. I really didn’t think that it related to my writing until this conversation, but it makes me want to keep on writing. It leads me somewhere.
Jillian Peña’s Polly Pocket premieres at Abrons Arts Center as a part of American Realness January 16th-19th. And check out Peña's Kickstarter Campaign which is raising funds to support the production of this work and to pay her collaborators.
Lauren Grace Bakst makes dances and organizes conversations.