Vermont Arts Council

Community Through Dance: An Interview with Laurel Jenkins

How do we build community and connections through a digitally-enhanced world, especially one compounded by greater distances due to Covid-19? Beacon Fire, a collaborative dance performance with choreographic direction by Laurel Jenkins and musical composition by Matthew Evan Taylor, attempts to make sense of this question.

Laurel and Matthew are both Assistant Professors at Middlebury College—of Dance and of Music, respectively—where they began conceptualizing Beacon Fire. In 2019, Laurel received a Creation Grant from the Council to help finance the performance. The piece was originally set to premiere last summer at the Cold Hollow Sculpture Park (CHSP) as part of the park’s performance series Why We Make Things, but the event was canceled due to Covid shutdowns. CHSP’s series is back on for summer 2021, though, and Beacon Fire will debut there at 2 p.m., August 21

The performance features costume design by Mira Veikley, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Middlebury, and features musicians Mary Gibson, Patricia Jančova, Randal Pierce, Matthew Evan Taylor, and Polly Vanderputten. The dancers are Julian Barnett, Julia Berazneva, Kristin Borquist, Laurel Jenkins, Sonnie Jenkins-Kent, Tyler Rai, Maia Sauer, and Jocelyn Tobias.

The ephemeral movements of Beacon Fire set against the stoic statues of CHSP call to mind the questions behind Why We Make Things. Why do we create things that are temporary? How does a performance affect someone’s thinking after it’s over? How does the shared experience of watching a performance generate a sense of community? Laurel Jenkins discusses such ideas and her passion for dance below.

Niamh Carty: How did you decide on Cold Hollow Sculpture Park as the location for Beacon Fire?

Laurel Jenkins: That’s a really good question. I met my collaborator Matthew Evan Taylor when we were both new faculty at Middlebury College four years ago. We started improvising every week, and then we thought of this piece, and I wrote a Vermont Arts Council Grant application for it. The underlying question in my grant application was, how can I be an artist in Vermont? Matt and I were both asking, how can we build our communities here? We had both just moved from cities and were questioning how our artistic practices could thrive in a rural place, and also wondering how we could gather our team and really make this place an artistic space as well as a space where we teach. So, that was the origin story for the piece, and we were thinking through it before Cold Hollow came up. 

Shelley Ismail, one of my dance teachers in my youth, lives up near Cold Hollow, and she said, “You have to go here—to Cold Hollow Sculpture Park. It’s a space for dance.” I think Shelley may have connected me with David and Sarah Stromeyer, and we had a meeting and tour. They have a performance series each year, and CHSP recently became a nonprofit, and their audience has been growing. We were artists-in-residence last summer to make this piece, but then everything shut down. We’d been thinking about this piece for years. It almost feels like we’ve already made it because it’s in our heads and we’ve talked about it so much, but now we’re actually making it.

With COVID, at what stage in your planning was everything shut down? Did you have rehearsals throughout the year, or did you just restart more recently?

Once we had landed on the premiere at Cold Hollow, we had rehearsals right before everything shut down. We were rehearsing at Middlebury and UVM—indoors because it was March. But then those all stopped. We’ve had two rehearsals so far in July, and those have really been the first time we’ve all been together since the shutdown. Now we’re vaccinated, and we can be outside. I was already interested in distance dances in relation to perspective and landscape before COVID, so this past year has just heightened the necessity for that. The concept of Beacon Fire is that the music pulls the audience through the space. The title relates to how back in time messages were sent hilltop to hilltop through fire signals. The music signals the audience to travel, and the dance unfolds in each location.

How did the process work in collaborating with Matthew Evan Taylor? Did you create choreography first, did the music come first, or was it a combination of the two?

Five musicians (two violins, one saxophone, one accordion, one bass) play in front of a forest.
The musicians of Beacon Fire perform during a recent rehearsal.

Matthew and I worked very similarly in that we created a super-structure together: the audience pathway and locations of the main events. We provide scores for the artists and then we really call upon the artistry of our collaborative artists to fulfill the instructions. For example, I said to Jocelyn and Julian, “Make a duet that repeats three times: far, close-up and touching, and we end with a gesture phrase.” So there’s room for their interpretation of our instructions, but we have very specific containers for each section so that the whole piece moves forward.

So improvisation is a large part of the piece? 

Yes, I would say there are improvisational structures that we work inside of, but the superstructure of the pathway and what happens at each site is quite crafted. For example, the dance starts as a solo, then it’s a duet, then it’s a trio, quartet, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of structure inside the big piece. Not every single moment is choreographed, so there’s plenty of room for artistic play from the performers.

You mentioned how you have been interested in distance dancing even before Covid. Could you talk a little about the other inspirations behind Beacon Fire?

Well, I like making operatic works. Our costume designer Mira Veikley designs and makes costumes, and teaches at Middlebury College, too. And I’m really interested in scale. So, I love a performance that has original costume, original music, and original movement. I also like having a lot of performers get together. Scale is a major inspiration for Beacon Fire.

And then the park has different themes each year, and this year it’s Why We Make Things, and that’s what all the works and Q and A’s revolve around. Part of why Matt and I make things is to build a community that we want to live in and want to collaborate with over time—really bringing people together. It’s a really beautiful aesthetic, sometimes stressful, but a really, really great excuse to gather around art and making. So that’s one big motivation. 

The other is to collaborate with Matthew and to build a community of dancers here. And I think the pandemic has brought everyone into questioning that. Why are we making art? Why does this even matter? How am I spending my time? Do I really care about this? And it really comes down to, I love moving, I love watching movement, and I love the aesthetic magic of performance. And it’s really simple. It’s really about the presence of being together after this really strange time, and maybe not being together in the same way, but finding new ways. Taking dance out of the concert space is really interesting, and it’s a tradition that I have been a part of for many years in my career. Beacon Fire calls to mind questions like what happens to live music over distance? What happens to dance over a huge distance? It’s quite beautiful to experience the park through these questions.

Can you talk a little more about the idea of taking dance out of the concert hall space? I’ve seen some of your other works on your website, and they are often filmed outside. How does Beacon Fire compare to other pieces you’ve made?

Well, just a few bullet points: I grew up in Vermont and then left for 20 years. I danced with the Trisha Brown Dance Company (TBDC) in New York City, and Trisha and her contemporaries really pioneered site-specific dance. They started dancing on rooftops, and dancing down the side of buildings in the 60s and 70s. That just wasn’t happening before and was really developed in that urban landscape with Trisha and her peers from Grand Union and Judson Church. After dancing in TBDC in NYC and performing on stages and in museums internationally, I moved to LA for four years. When I moved back to Vermont, I did this really big opera with 250 people called MASS. Talk about scale! So with Beacon Fire, I was asking what kind of piece can live here in Vermont, in this landscape, that can’t happen on stage? And how can I give the audience an experience that is pleasurable and beautiful? That introduces and evokes new experiences in the space that we’re in? How can I make an immersive performance in this landscape? 

So, what brought you back to Vermont after being in LA?

So, I grew up in Essex Junction, and then I moved to New York and then LA. I wanted to feel nourished by the land again, though. LA was on fire, literally. I wanted shade; I wanted to be in the forest. I had friends who had moved back here, and our friendship opened up a space for me to return. And then I found out about the job at Middlebury and applied for it. So it was kind of all those things all at the same time. I always wanted to come back, but I never knew when I would, and then it just like hit me over the head. Go back now.

A lot of your pieces on your website are filmed. Did you ever think about filming Beacon Fire once it was interrupted by Covid and then having it shown online? Or would that take away from the site-specificity you were talking about?

Three dancers rehearsing in front of a red sculpture.
Jocelyn, Laurel, and Julien during a recent rehearsal.

Yeah, so I have a filmmaker, Tori Lawrence, coming to film the piece before we actually perform it. I like when a piece can exist in multiple ways and in multiple formats, because maybe the show happens once and there’s a hundred people that see it. So film will allow a lot more people to experience it, and it will become its own entity. It’s not a documentary film, it’s more of a dance film in and of itself. You can really craft a viewpoint with film. I’m also trying to craft a view of the dancing for the audience in person too, but who knows—they might look another way that’s out of my control. So that’s something I have really learned from film: that you can frame what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background, and craft time. I like to film because you can bring more of an audience to a place, but I’m also really motivated by live performance, so I’m doing both with this one.

Are there specific thoughts or ideas you hope people will leave Beacon Fire with?

When I see something really beautiful, I feel taller, I feel like my awareness is heightened. And I think that there’s a sense of interbeing between the audience and the performers. If people arrive feeling separate, my hope is that through the act of participating as an audience member, people begin to sense their own bodies and presence in relation to each other and the space. I hope people leave with a heightened sense of being alive in this moment.

CHSP’s performance series always have post-performance Q and A’s, and the theme for this year is focused on the idea of building community. What role you think dance plays in building community?

I think a lot of the ways that we’ve learned how to communicate over the past year, through Zoom and all… we’ve gotten good at them, but something’s missing. I think everyone can admit that. There are a lot of things that are possible that maybe weren’t possible before, but the body is often missing. This work aims to bring us back home to embodiment. This dance reminds us that we all have bodies and that we have this compositional power with our individual and collective bodies. We can choose where we put our bodies, and we can choose how we want to present ourselves. And this has been such a powerful year in terms of people moving onto the streets to protest for the Black Lives Matter Movement and to say all bodies are of value, and particularly bodies that have been oppressed matter. I think dance has a role in moving collective and individual bodies in a way that is empowering.

We need to remember our bodies in this society. We need to practice taking care of our bodies and of each other’s bodies. We need to listen to each other’s bodies. We need to be able to send messages without words across space sometimes. There’s so much misunderstanding right now. When the body speaks through movement, there is a directness and specificity, because the body is always in the present moment. And I think that’s when real change happens and when we experience joy, and that’s when people really come together. So making dance is one small way that I can speak to the present moment, by contributing a unique conversation with body in space.

Is this sense of community building something that drew you into dance? Is dance something you always saw being part of your future profession?

I was like a shy little kid that just opened up when music was playing. I just always loved to move, and it felt like the most direct and alive way of being in the world for me. So that is how I’ve been my whole life. I also loved visual art and theater. Being in the performing arts has allowed me to travel the world and work with a lot of different people as a performer. And then being a teacher now, I just keep coming back to how much I really enjoy bringing people together. For me, dance is a platform through which I form new friendships.

Moving with people is a big motivator for me. And it’s interesting because I really like to lead and direct and I also just want to dance. I like being on the outside, but it’s a little conflict, you know? Like am I just the director, or am I just the dancer? No, I’m both. I have to have a double role because I love dancing too much to just always be on the outside of work. But I need to be on the outside enough that I know I’m making the right choices, and that people are getting enough instruction. So that’s a funny dichotomy, but both are true.

Interesting you bring that up, because I was actually wondering if you prefer creating choreography or doing the dance yourself.

Yeah. I’m doing my own stuff all the time, but when you’re doing a big piece, you really have to step back. Otherwise, it’s a mess. So I try and make my instructions clear to the other performers and then jump in. But I always enjoy it more if I’m dancing.

Yeah, a tricky balance to find. Is there a big transition to make between being a dancer and then being a choreographer? I’d imagine that comes after you’ve had a lot of experience dancing yourself.

Two adults and a child walk beneath a sculpture.
Jocelyn, Rio, and Julien walking beneath a sculpture at Cold Hollow Sculpture Park.

Yeah, I’ve always made things, but it’s not easy to make a dance. Like, it’s easy to make something in your living room, but it’s not easy to present in front of a lot of people. So basically, I danced professionally, and then when I went to grad school at UCLA, I started really making stuff, both while I was in school and after I graduated. It was a good four years of just making. While in the Trisha Brown Dance Company, I was an interpreter. I had a lot of say in what I made in the company because it was collaborative, but it’s really Trisha’s work. The movement vocabulary is specific and references the postmodern tradition. We had proscenium pieces and outdoor pieces in modern art spaces and sculpture parks. I got a lot of experience touring these works, and I learned a lot, but I really wanted to develop my own voice. I started thinking about costumes and story, and I really found my voice in LA as I engaged in interdisciplinary collaborations and made all different kinds of pieces. I feel like I’m my best choreographer when I have my body in the work in some way. Even if I’m not dancing in the performance, I’m dancing in the rehearsals, and I’m dancing with the other dancers. 

That makes sense. So are you performing in Beacon Fire

Yes, I am dancing in it, but I’m not in all the sections. I keep saying I’m going to dance less, and then I’m like I’m like, no, I’m going to dance more.

Yeah I can imagine it’s hard not to when you feel so connected to something you’re creating. Did you do other types of performing arts growing up, or was dance the focus throughout?

Yeah, I did a lot of theater and eventually I felt like I had to choose. But I do think I’m finding my way back through opera and story. I’m really a big fan of integrating arts and interdisciplinary work because it calls upon all the senses and it calls upon storytelling and movement and music. And so even if it’s a non-literal story, I’d still like there to be some sort of a journey or a sense of a story. So yeah, theater was a really big one for me growing up.

How have you gotten more into opera recently?

Well, when I was in the Trisha Brown Dance Company, we worked with Baroque operas, and I also danced some of Trisha’s other operas. And then after I was making my own work, I worked with director Peter Sellars, and I was a character in his opera, Oedipus Rex & Symphony of Psalms. So I had a dance inside that, and then I recently created the choreography for MASS, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer. It’s a modern opera. And that was really interesting, to work with so many people and the director and to try to unpack how to tell the story through the choreography. And it’s a complicated story, so it wakes up my problem-solving brain, which I feel is a really creative space for me—to have a set of restrictions and then understand how to navigate it. And with Beacon Fire, I am constantly in my problem-solving brain: What’s the pathway? Where does the audience go? How do they know where to go?  The park is so big, so we have to figure out what we want to focus on. But I like to chew on big questions.

Do you have any other projects that you’re working on right now?

Yes, I’m working on a project with a working title of Expanded Body, and it’s about scale. There are going to be really big projections and really detailed movement. So it’s almost the inverse of Beacon Fire where the movement is detailed and really refined, finely choreographed. We use technology to echo the movement out into space really far. So the movement creates the sound or the movement creates a huge image across a screen. It’s a collaboration with VR visual artist Jesse Fleming and composer Lewis Pesacov. It’ll premiere in a year and a half or so. It takes a while to make things.

Beacon Fire will be performed at 2pm on August 21 at Cold Hollow Sculpture Park, 4280 Boston Post Road, Enosburg Falls, VT, 05450. Click here for more details.

*All photos by Richard Skurdall.

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