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Oral History: JoAnn Fregalette Jansen

By Alison Burstein and Matthew Lyons

May 18, 2020

As The Kitchen approaches its 50th anniversary in 2021, we have been working to expand the collective understanding of our institution’s history by organizing a series of public conversations among artists who have presented work at the institution across the decades. Alongside these public programs, we have been conducting a series of oral histories with artists and other practitioners who have both shown at The Kitchen and served on staff in various capacities.

One area that has been central to our research thus far is the history of The Kitchen’s dance program in the 1980s and 1990s: the now-postponed Choreographers Convening (which had been scheduled to take place on March 21, 2020) will bring together a range of artists to discuss their experiences presenting and programming work at the institution during this period. As a complement to this event, we will be speaking to additional choreographers who worked with The Kitchen in these years. For the first of these oral histories, Curator Matthew Lyons and Curator of Media and Engagement Alison Burstein spoke to JoAnn Fregalette Jansen, The Kitchen’s Dance Curator from 1992–1994.

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JoAnn Fregalette Jansen first presented work at The Kitchen as a participant in the winter/spring 1991 season of Working in The Kitchen. Initiated in 1990, this bi-annual workshop program invited a select group of choreographers to spend five-months creating work, sharing information, and receiving feedback from one another (a previous blog post traces the evolution of the Working in The Kitchen series from the ’90s through today). Each iteration of the program culminated in a presentation of new works by the participating choreographers. Fregalette Jansen and her peers in Working in the Kitchen (Brenda Angielczyk, Ellen Fisher, Barbara Hofrenning, John Jasperse, Amy Pivar, Meg Stuart, and Rebekah Windmiller) presented works across two separate programs from March 1–3, 1991.

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The following year, Fregalette Jansen returned to The Kitchen with her company J. Fregalette Jansen Dance to stage A Short History of Mirrors from April 9–12, 1992. The artist presented the eponymous piece alongside two other recent works, The Extravagance of Laughter and Albino Olympia (the piece she had developed and presented the previous year as part of Working in The Kitchen). According to the program’s press release, A Short History of Mirrors “explores an ever-deepening separation between ‘self’ and ‘other,’ involving the path from infancy to adulthood.” Shortly after this presentation of her work, Fregalette Jansen took on the position of Dance Curator at The Kitchen.

What follows is a selection of highlights from Fregalette Jansen’s oral history detailing her involvement with the institution both before and during her tenure on staff.

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Jansen Reflects on Her Early Career as a Dancer in New York

At that point in the late ’70s and early ’80s, most of the good dancers in New York were studying with a ballet teacher named Maggie Black. She was very innovative. She had a one o’clock class that combined the “star” ballet dancers and the “star” modern dancers—like those from Dan Wagoner’s Company, Twyla Tharp’s Company, Paul Taylor’s Company and then from the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. We were all in a class together. Now, that was a phenomenon that I don’t think ever had occurred, or has occurred since. The melding of all of those disciplines and the different types of animals that got into each of those different disciplines was extraordinary and so informative about human nature.

I danced with Wagoner’s company for nine years, and was his rehearsal director. And then Tharp wanted me to be her rehearsal director. But I was very close at the time with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and she said, “you can’t do that because you’ve been a rehearsal director now for five or six years. You could do that job again, but what will happen is you will never do your own creative work.” So I didn’t do it, and I started to focus on my own choreography instead.

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At that point, I had been in the New York dance world for ten or twelve years. And so I knew everybody. I knew every performance space—P.S. 122, Dance Theater Workshop, The Kitchen—and when you start creating your own choreography, you start learning where might you fit in.

So, that’s how I came upon The Kitchen because I felt like they were doing work that wasn’t a certain prescription of behavior or system. And I knew some other people there.

Recalling Her Experience Participating in Working in The Kitchen

I felt that the Working in The Kitchen program gave me a way to learn how to work. Because really, how do you know, except for by learning from whomever you dance with? You don’t know how to approach questions like, How do I create this? What do I examine? And through that program what I figured out was that my mind works in storylines. And what I wanted to do was create phrases of movements that are connected to nothing. Then I would go into the editing room with my lighting designer and put the storyline right in front of us on paper cards, and then we’d take those phrases and edit them together by the storylines. So I’d sit the phrase where it made sense to me as expressing the story I was trying to tell through from beginning to end.

I was just trying a new way, basically, because I didn’t want to do what I had learned as a dancer. I could have my designer come and look at the phrases I developed in the Working in The Kitchen workshops. So that was really what that program was for me—an opportunity to figure out how to really have a system of something. And we had time to play with things and people who shared comments on what you did.

Jansen Articulates Her Approach to Curating at The Kitchen

I’m such a curious person, so when I took on the role of curator it was fascinating to go to even more performance places than I had been before to see what people were doing. That’s how I went about it—by going out to see a ton of work—because I didn’t understand it any other way.

Tipton had a huge influence on me, because after she advised me not to take on the role with Tharp’s company, she told me that I needed to see everything, read everything, look at everything I could. So I already was at that point.

As a curator, I just went around looking and asking and talking to other artists that I respected— there were many. That was a great time for dance in New York. And coming up with things with those artists was exciting.

On the Performances She Curated by Neil Greenberg and Tere O’Connor (two participants in the Choreographers Convening)

The thing about both Tere and Neil was that we all took class at the same places. We got to know the people we were taking class with every day. We all hung out together, so we were aware of all the good dancers who were leaving big companies and starting to do their own work. That’s probably a lot of the stuff I was interested in.

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When I was curating, I had a very soft hand on the program. I really let the artist do what they wanted to do. I left them alone—it wasn’t a group conversation.

Commenting on Her Transition into Her Current Work in the Film Industry

Around 1994, I got hooked into this whole other life working in the film industry. I knew some people in LA—one of the first things I did was produced by a person I knew from Maggie Black’s dance class who had become a film producer.

I didn’t realize I would like this industry so much. It’s so plastic—in the sense of it being a plastic creative medium. You can move film anywhere you want, and you don’t have to kill people’s bodies the same way as you do with live performances. So it was a nice change for me—facing that financial crisis in the 1990s [with the changes in funding available to artists through organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts], which, you know, upended many dance companies.

My background is what makes me so desirable to be hired because I’m speaking in a language that not many people have heard. And I think that’s why I’ve done so many films, because my behavior is so different than anybody else people in the film industry know. It’s a different training coming from the New York dance community. I’m acting, coaching, and choreographing for these films, and there isn’t anybody else in Los Angeles who does that. It’s an odd combo.

JoAnn Fregalette Jansen is a choreographer, director, acting coach, and producer with a multitude of credits in film, television, commercials, and music videos. Previously, Jansen studied choreography with Bessie Schönberg; modern technique with Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber, Dan Wagoner, and others; and ballet with Maggie Black. She holds a BFA in Literature/Dance from Ohio University, an MFA in Kinesiology and Physiology from Smith College, and studied Psychology/Movement for Children with Special Needs at University of Massachusetts.

Images: 1) JoAnn Fregalette Jansen, A Short History of Mirrors, 1992. Performance view, The Kitchen. Photo by Dona Ann McAdams. 2) Advertisement for JoAnn Fregalette Jansen, A Short History of Mirrors at The Kitchen, 1992. 3) JoAnn Fregalette Jansen, A Short History of Mirrors, 1992. Performance view, The Kitchen. Photo by Dona Ann McAdams. 4) Postcard for Tere O’Connor, You Baby Goes to Tender Town and Pyscho-Sweet Civilization  at The Kitchen, 1993. 

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