This past weekend, the Dance Department welcomed the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company to the Center for the Arts (CFA) Theater for the New England premiere of the company’s original work, “Times Bones.” Highly regarded in the San Francisco area, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company has been working for the past four decades. Jenkins herself is a celebrated choreographer, having been granted residency at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy in 2013. At the center of Jenkins’ renown is her innovative, collaborative choreographic process. Rather than dictating all of the movements of a particular piece to her dancers, Jenkins opts to have a more democratic creative process.
“I come into the dance studio with these people, and we function with a great amount of integrity and collaboration, especially when we’re doing these sort of cross-cultural experiences: you encounter one another with a great deal of honesty and generosity and truthfulness,” said Megan Wright, one of the Company’s dancers. “And that’s the place your creativity comes from, as opposed to the top-down approach of someone with a big ego standing at the head of the room… That’s not exactly her working model.”
Collaboration was critical to the production of “Times Bones,” which is intended as a celebration of the company’s 40 years of performance. This time around, Jenkins’ collaborative process was not limited to the company’s current dancers working with each other, but also included them working with the company’s 40 years’ worth of past performances.
“Margie looked back over the 40 years of video-taped performances—there were some 68 performances over the course of the company’s history that have been filmed—and looked for ideas or images or fragments that seemed interesting to revisit, and then the current crop of dancers took those ideas and altered them or tailored them to fit ourselves and strung them together into a semblance of a whole that we could perform,” Wright said.
However, the Company’s history was not the only source of inspiration for “Times Bones.”
“Margie was thinking a lot about the myth of Osiris… the
Egyptian myth, with the scattered bones of the god, and you need to re-gather all of the bones, in order to sort of bury him and then allow him to be reincarnated,” Wright said. “That was part of the source material for this idea of, ‘How do you revisit all of these elements of your past and make them cohesive?’”
Based on the performance this Saturday, the company’s history, the myth of Osiris, and even the concept of collaboration all figured heavily into the performance’s themes. “Times Bones” began with a prologue, which was performed on and around the large entrance ramp at the center of the CFA Theater. Throughout the prologue, Jenkins read off the names of the people she had previously collaborated with and the dates and names of the company’s previous performances, all while the dancers performed around her.
Though I have to admit that the ramp was an interesting venue for the prologue—and the symbolism of starting a performance at the actual entrance to the space is fascinating—I also have to question the ultimate benefit of its usage. Because there is no seating around the ramp, the audience had to crowd around its edges. I was able to get some glimpses of the prologue, but I wasn’t able to see the majority of it, and I know of other members of the audience who were unable to see the prologue at all. Fortunately, there were no similar obstacles for the remainder of the performance.
For the main performance of “Times Bones,” the dancers were found on either the main stage or a series of small platforms directly in front of it. Collective movement was a staple of the production; for instance, it began with a trio of dancers on the rightmost platform who, through teamwork, gradually made their way to the leftmost platform.
Other forms of collaborative movement were present throughout the piece. Dancers frequently moved together as if sharing a single body in unique and innovative ways. For instance, there was one dancer who would frequently walk while carrying another dancer who made slow, fluid motions with her arms and legs. At other points in the production, the majority of the dancers would move in unison while one or two others were out of sync with the rest of the group. There was even one part of the performance where video recordings of past performances were superimposed over the dancers onstage, whose movements imitated those in the recordings.
Throughout the performance, recordings of a booming voice making cryptic, mysterious statements were played along with or in place of the soundtrack, emphasizing the performance’s more mythic origins. The piece ended with one dancer standing on the leftmost platform to the stage, writing the “story” of the performance in the air and signifying that the aspects of Jenkins’ past choreography—stand-ins for the bones of the Egyptian god Osiris—were finally collected, allowing for the story to truly begin. Though I understood the significance of this from reading the program and interviewing one of the Company’s dancers, I questioned whether the rest of the audience was able to comprehend its meaning, given that the performance itself gave no indication of “bones” or rebirth.
However, as Wright suggested at the end of our interview, perhaps this wasn’t the point of the performance.
“I think [her choreographic process is] what makes her a really fascinating choreographer and director,” Wright said. “She’s not only interested in the final product, but she’s interested in every aspect of the process, and how her process is going to influence the participants within it and not just the final observers. And she does always talk about how the audience is the final participant, the final theatrical element within a work.”
Perhaps Jenkins’ work is a true collaboration, one that is only complete with the audience’s interpretation of its events, regardless of what that interpretation may be or how accurate it is to Jenkins’ intention.