The world is so tactile, and I want the paintings to be that tactile.
Lauren Bakst visits Jen Rosenblit’s rehearsal to spend some time watching and discussing her latest project, In Mouth.
New York Live Arts presents
Jen Rosenblit brings it back to the body. The effect is almost distilling, yet her attention to the body as a site of multiplicity reveals a forever unraveling complexity. In her current project, a continuation of her collaborations with long-time friend and performer, Addys Gonzalez, their bodies hold the fantastical and the mundane, the grotesque and the fanciful, the excessive and the abject. Their depth is infinite; their capacity for transformation, unending. Jen’s work tends to sear through any superficial layers of analysis, tugging at me in ways that are guttural, visceral. As their movement accumulates, landscapes are built only to crumble, leaving me both fearful of and desiring to be within the embodied and relational situations I perceive.
One week after Jen and Addys welcomed me into their rehearsal process, Jen and I met up to have coffee and chat about her work as a choreographer, performer, and community shaper. Our conversation bounced from coordinate to coordinate, mapping traces of expansive communities, classical histories, normative structures, and radical bodies.
Lauren Bakst You take on so many roles within the dance community—curating a performative lecture to be hosted at your apartment, offering donation based, weekly classes that create a space to explore improvisation as performance, go-go dancing at Hey Queen, a queer, multi-gendered dance party. What was your desire to start reaching out in these various ways and how do these experiences extend and impact your work?
Jen Rosenblit Everything I do is very much to inform my work. Go-go dancing at Hey Queen is my desire to be in front of people and to see what that feels like in multiple situations. It has a very different feel than performing on a stage. For the past year, I’ve been exploring ideas of desire, wanting, needing, so go-go dancing is the perfect opportunity to see what’s read on my body and what’s read on the audience. Even these classes I’ve been teaching are super geared towards my agenda, but I feel like that includes an expansive space for a lot of people. These classes are about how we (Addys and I) can explore our ideas with other people, get new information, and engage—because it can be very isolating to do your own thing. How can we do that and create a space that’s necessary for everyone? I can address my agendas, or other people can infiltrate them. I’m interested in teaching, but I’m becoming clearer on what level. It’s not the classic model of me being the master of information, it just doesn’t work that way. I’m interested in a teaching practice as a learner. It just made sense to create this open space where everyone could get everything they need.
With the performative lecture, I’d been thinking about all these friends I’ve been meeting over the past few years. How can I be a part of supporting my friends and my peers in multiple ways of exploring work? Showing your dance in a venue with an audience in front of you, and sound and a light board, isn’t always the best way to show your work. Last year I did a thing called a performative lecture—I don’t even really know what that means—but Addys and I went to Harvard to do a showing and they wanted a talk-back. A lot of people are getting frustrated with the talk-back scenario, so we decided to perform the talk-back. We answer everyone’s question, but we perform it. We don’t break. There’s always that awkward point when the lights come up and you’re like, OK now I have to bow and smile but I didn’t smile in my whole dance; now I have to talk to you but I didn’t open my mouth that whole time. So it’s out of this desire to continue the research even through the talking, and I thought the two people I curated—Yve Laris Cohen and Courtney Cooke—would be interested in that. Also, I find the privacy of opening a home super interesting. My home is a huge part of my practice—the arranging of my home, what I put or don’t put in my home, negative space. It’s interesting because a lot of people that night commented, “You’re very minimal,” or, “Oh, everything’s in a jar.” To see what people notice, and what they think is intense or over-the-top or silly for a domestic situation—even some people said, “There’s nothing on your walls.” That informs me about what people want. It must be somewhere in my work as well, you know. I think I was just trying to negotiate a space between insane performativity and friends hanging out, and I don’t think I’m the first to do it, but I think it will keep coming back because people are interested. We’re not showing our work at Dance Theatre Workshop everyday, but we are around each other almost everyday, so how do we engage our thoughts if we’re not showing it?
LB When I was watching your rehearsal I was thinking a lot about how you work. What is the process for you of triangulating ideas, body, and movement? What comes first for you? Do you feel like you’re generating this material because of your body and Addys’ body, and the ideas emerge later, or …?
JR I don’t feel like one necessarily comes first, but I rarely feel they’re all working together at the same time, which is part of the struggle. I think about our bodies a lot because I’m interested in bodies, and because I have a body that I have to negotiate a lot of the time in public and in dance, so there’s always body. Movement is also one of those things that’s always in me. I’m pretty classically trained, maybe not ballet classical, but even ballet is in my body for some reason. I didn’t study it my whole life but there are these things in me, these classic structures that don’t go away, and I don’t always want them to go away. It’s been in the process of growing up a bit that ideas have become clearer. I’ve been seeing the difference between movement and an idea, or my body and a movement. That’s something Addys and I talk about a lot, Is this a movement or is this your body doing something? And do you want me to do it like your body does? Or should we isolate a movement around this? Or should we isolate an idea, and I can explore my own movement? I feel like these three things, they just have conversations with each other.
LB Watching your work, there is this fairy tale-like or mythic sensation about it. It reminded me of something Mika Rottenberg said when asked about the influence of fairy tales on her own work: “I’m more interested in drawing back to where fairy tales come from. The fairy tale is the filter.” That space of before-the-fairy-tale feels like a really dark place to me, because fairy tales are often quite disturbing, but then there’s also this fantastical element. How does this resonate with what you’re working on?
JR I’ve been trying to create multiple avenues for people to see something, which is something that I really take from Tere O’Connor’s work. Having a very specific goal, but allowing for the culture around it to be super expansive. So nothing anyone would say they feel would surprise me. But more specifically, Addys and I work in imaginary land the whole time. We talk a lot about, How does this movement exist? Even when we were doing that lean back thing in rehearsal, and I was saying, “It’s like a slingshot.” We have to build a landscape. Otherwise you’re just holding me and throwing me to the floor. There is this air of fantastical … I mean, I feel like dancing is fantastical. I feel like it’s super strange. I feel like it comes from a dark place. I’m definitely in the trajectory of early modern dance as something that’s dark and depressing.
LB For me, this “imaginary land” relates to how you rehearse in a small studio—because that’s where you can rehearse—but the dance feels like it needs to be in a space that’s—
LB Yes, like a horizontal plateau that never ends.
JR There is a kind of imagination that surrounds everything. Even the cloths that we’re using—we’re purposefully using these raggedy, rehearsal cloths that will be more glamorous for the show. I want to wear this fur on my shoulders, but I’m nervous to rehearse with this fur because of the thing it will do to the dance. Having fur on my bare skin is going to make me feel regal, probably grotesque, a lot of things. And so before I’m ready to feel those things, I want to see what it’s even like to have something on my bare shoulders. So there is this whole land of imagination. I feel like in this fairy tale, anything can change in a split second.
LB The cloth hanging from Addys’ mouth in the beginning is so distilled, especially in relationship to the cloth-in-mouth protagonist in Matthew Barney’s The Order, who is so elaborate. With Addys, it’s even more confusing or intriguing, because it gets stripped back to the nature of what it is.
JR When I saw Matthew Barney’s The Order again, I was so interested because there’s so much movement, there’s so much performance. It’s funny that dancers are introduced to this but dance is not a part of his conversation. Movement study and the body are not a part of his conversation. Well, male anatomy is a part of his conversation, but I wouldn’t call male anatomy the body. That being said, I was obviously compelled to take it. And especially having someone like Addys do it completely flips it around. Addys doesn’t have an attachment to showcasing or exploiting his male anatomy, so there’s almost this sick purity in that. He’s just gagged and that does something. That’s the movement part for me. This is where we can start. Something Addys specifically requested out of this process was for his body to be affected. He feels like I have certain elements—for instance my hair can arouse this feeling of, She’s all messed up, she’s going crazy. And I think he always feels calm and collected, which I think makes him feel very masculine. So there’s always this feed and conversation about masculinity and femininity, because both of us have very expansive ideas of what those things are on ourselves. Even when you have an expansive feeling—Devynn Emory and I were just talking about this in class. Devynn said, “Well how do you make an audience see that expansive nature?” And I don’t know, but I do know that it’s hard to have an audience see what you feel. The nature of the male body on stage is calm and collected, and Addys is calling my attention to the fact that even though he doesn’t feel calm and collected inside—he feels like a wreck—he can’t escape the visual of being calm and collected and he wants an outlet. The calm and collected is getting in his way, because it’s not really what he’s experiencing. So we’re trying to create situations, maybe they’re false, maybe they’re imaginary, but we’re trying to create external affect.
LB That makes a lot of sense to me, because I didn’t even think about the cloth so much as gagging, but more as this excess. The excess of everything that’s inside is hanging out of this person’s mouth. There are these moments in the piece that highlight certain choreographies of gender, for instance when you are dancing hysterically, or when Addys ties his t-shirt around his neck like a cape, or when he watches you slowly moving on the floor. What is your interest in those moments and how are you using them?
JR In wanting to locate an expansive idea on yourself, in always thinking about—What is this femininity in me? What is this masculinity in me? What is this negative gender in me?—there is the act of paying homage to that which you are expanding from. Referencing normativity and our part in it is super important to us. I would say that on the scale of gender, I’m classically female, and there’s not much about me that is pushing the boundaries except for what I feel inside, and I think Addys would feel the same way. Addys is a man. It doesn’t make sense for us that this woman is weak and this man is… men are weak, you know, and I think Addys would be the first one to pay homage to that. Men sit and watch. So it’s just one sliver of being honest about the whole conversation. We’re super conscious of every little thing like that, things like who picks who up. The first thing I remember noticing as a thinking person watching dance is that the men are always picking the women up. They’re always lifting them. And just feeling the desire to be lifted as one thing, and no one ever being able to lift me, and my teacher not even telling people to try. So I had this built up desire of why isn’t anyone lifting me? Why am I not of flying? Why am I not looking light, in the air, defying gravity? With Addys, because we have a close friendship, even though he can’t really lift me all the time, we were like, can we try? And he can. In some situations, he can lift me up over his head. So our personal relationship has been a lot about how we can make each other feel different.
LB I’ve noticed that you reference a lot of classical structures in your work, even watching you rehearse—tour jeté, fouetté—you use the language of ballet. And then there’s also the classic structure of the male/female duet, which I hadn’t thought about in relationship to your work until this second. But now that I think of it, it’s nice to think of your work as a continuation of that history because it’s such a radical departure from the classical male/female relationship that’s often seen in dance.
JR The tour jeté, fouetté section particularly is super interesting for me because Addys didn’t know what tour jeté, fouetté was, and he still doesn’t. Now he knows because I showed him, but I didn’t say, Ok now do tour jeté and fouetté in repetition. So there is something interesting about our histories of dancing and body memory, and Oh now he knows it, without ten years of ballet training, he knows what tour jeté, fouetté is. And I feel like I was beaten up daily trying to get tour jeté, fouetté, you know. There is something there about accessibility and body memory, what the body can hold so quickly. But also, this is just a little thing I do in the wine shop where I work in between the wine aisles. Out of boredom, I’m like OK, if I want to stay in between the aisles and not hit the bottles, what can I do? And I just started doing these tour jeté, fouettés in consecutive order. And I’ve been doing it for about three months, and now it’s something really interesting. It’s so clearly defined and it is what it is, and I want to see it in intense repetition. There is something about the classical nature of things that’s super radical if it’s paid attention to.
Jen Rosenblit will present In Mouth at New York Live Arts in February. Check out WREST at the Sound of Arts Festival in Long Island City on November 19th, featuring Jen’s choreography alongside the work of composer/performer Jules Gimbrone and filmmaker Elliot Montague.
Lauren Bakst is a dance artist and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.
The world is so tactile, and I want the paintings to be that tactile.