Jen Rosenblit Blog

The Problem of Natural

By Katy Dammers

Jun 17, 2014

This evening Jen Rosenblit participates in the season’s final Kitchen L.A.B., an appearance coming on the heels of her work a natural dance, which was presented at The Kitchen from May 29 to May 31. Performed by Addys Gonzalez, Justin Cabrillos, Effie Bowen, Hilary Clark, and Jen Rosenblit herself, the fifty-five minute piece probed the idea of the “natural” by exploring the overlay of language on bodies, a panoply of references, and the notion of autonomy within choreography. Such spatial interrogations were extended designer Sam Roeck’s set for the work, which featured a white stage ground and porch placed in the middle of the audience seating nearest the stage.

KD: How would you say the porch impacted the audience’s experience of your work?

JR: There’s an uneven relationship among audience members with the piece, because people in the back don’t have the same relationship to the work that people surrounding the porch do. My intention was to architecturally highlight that difference and show that there’s no one perfect place to look at this. Even a New York Times photographer who visited was saying, “I can’t figure out the perfect place to shoot this.” And my feeling was, “Yeah, it’s not really a still image.” There’s no one place to be where you’re seeing everything perfectly.

KD: At one point during the piece, when I heard singing, it took me a minute to realize that it was you, because your back was to us.

JR: All the text and anything aural that happened was purposefully obscured. In fact, when I sing one song a second time, I’m offstage, so audiences are apt to ask, “Is this recorded? Is this not recorded?” All of this is to prompt very lightly the question, What is real? Would it be less real if it was prerecorded? I’m unfolding this question of “natural.” I’m interested in exploring at what point is something natural, or taken to be natural. When does something become unnatural, and, moreover, can something have a journey to become natural again after it was unnatural, or deemed unnatural, for a period of time?

KD: At another point, one dancer moves around on the floor asking, “Where did you go?” Through her repetition of this phrase, the text becomes so strange and almost maddening. Could you talk about your development of that section?

JR: This text is highly problematic. It creates this weird, longing feeling, and makes everyone wonder, “Who is Helen, and where did she go? Are one of these bodies I’m looking at Helen? Does Jen miss Helen? Is this about the dancer, because the dancer’s saying it?” It puts the problem of language’s relationship with the body very specifically into focus: It’s at odds, because the text is always going to be exactly as it is, and yet the body is constantly revealing itself as other things. Language has a harder time catching up and changing and shifting.

But the whole piece is about problems and navigating them. It’s kind of a problem to put two men who look similar next to each other in similar costumes, for example. It’s kind of a problem to feature two people with slightly larger bodies than some other dancer bodies—just because there’s this thing that happens for the audience, where they look the same. I let these problems exist and ask us to interrogate them, and also let them be what they are.

KD: You also sing, “Annie are you ok? Are you ok Annie?” It sounded very familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it.

JR: The use of reference for me isn’t about hitting people over the head with information. It’s about that weird feeling like, “Ah, that’s too familiar, and too far off from the familiar thing.”

KD: I’d love to know a little bit more about the costumes, which were notably oversize and strangely revealing in places while obscuring the dancers’ bodies.

JR: I’ve always been interested in both hyper-exposing the body and allowing it to be covered up. Those two things feel similar to me. As for these costumes, they’re really closely stolen from Comme des Garcons 2011 spring collection. It’s this beautiful collection of neoprene, puffy, bulbous suits that the women slip their bodies into and walk down the runway like dolls. I felt like my eyes were diamonds when I was watching that. It was new information. When I saw this I thought, This is what art is. It doesn’t matter what the medium is or what the industry is. It just makes you recalibrate everything. When I saw this line, I thought my understanding of the body is now sort of destroyed based on these shapes. To go that far, to really hyper-hide those bodies and use those bodies as just the catalyst to walk these shapes down the runway? I was blown away.

KD: What do you define as the natural?

JR: I have no idea. I talked at length with Neil Greenberg about this, and we more or less just laughed about it. But he really pinpointed that “natural” really speaks to God. It’s original and the first thing anointed among all of other things. So if you don’t believe in God—or Christianity, really—then it’s hard. You can’t take nature seriously.

This question came up for me because I teach improvisation and there’s always this standard, “I feel natural when I’m improvising.” I always get upset when I hear that. We feel most natural when we feel like no one else’s telling us what to do. Then we sort of trick each other into taking authority. We develop scores, and that’s someone saying “Maybe, kind of do this.” And we’re like, “OK, that doesn’t sound like you’re telling me what to do, so I can still be natural inside of it.” I was recently up at Bard College and some of the students were saying, “I can’t be myself inside of choreography because it’s too restricting. It’s only what the choreographer wants.” I understand that, but I don’t think it’s the only way. It takes a lot of labor to work with people and to not have one person be the one to say, “You do that; you do this.” It takes a lot of questions. It takes each individual artist owning up to what they want and what they believe in.

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