Jen Rosenblit laughs when I tell her I had a breakthrough in her dance class.
“Honestly,” I say.
“I love that,” she says.
We’re sitting in a coffee shop on twentieth, between seventh and eighth. It’s the kind of idyllic April day that makes you think in platitudes and take yourself totally seriously: “Life’s too short.” “Live in the moment.” “I had a breakthrough.” I’m eating a scone, Jen is eating something akin to a muffin. Our only worry is whether the tape recorder will pick up our voices over the wheezing of the espresso machines.
“For some reason this size doesn’t make me feel like I’m being recorded,” Jen says, contemplating the small plastic device. “Other times I’ve been interviewed, it’s been more like this size”—she makes a slightly larger rectangular shape with her hands—“and I feel like I talk differently.”
A few months have passed since I discovered the 120-word blurb. It had jumped out at me from the website for CLASSCLASSCLASS, a series of dance workshops that Jen helped to organize this year. As far as promotional copy goes, it was a masterful combination of intimidating and enticing:
Our pornographic bodies: … an ecstatic inquiry toward the body as a wet, excited, fragrant, demanding, uncomfortable, ugly, eager, fantastical site. We will explore ourselves from radical to neutral, move beyond neutral and really see each other. This class is for anyone who wants to be with other people, be a part of the making of things, talk, and locate dance and performance as radical as women burning their bras.
“Our pornographic bodies was just this crazy title to spark interest,” Jen tells me. “I feel like half of getting people to go to class is just igniting the fire, because everyone’s busy, and it’s easy to not go to class. Super easy. I don’t go to class.”
Jen, 28, went to college at Hampshire, near my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, a geographical coincidence that helps me explain to myself why I like her work so much. She moved to New York in 2005 and has been making dances here ever since. I saw her most recent piece, Salivate if you could, at Dance Theater Workshop’s Studio Series in March.
My notes from the show contained these scribbles:
Humming/breathing, from back of throat.
Z: Tripping/falling hands over face/chest. Drunk, but more than that.
Addys is bleeding. Lit[erally].
Heads disappear. A torso with three butts.
Spitting on floor.
As I watched, I kept recalling a line from her bio:
In her apartment Rosenblit spends much of her time rearranging the way the spice shelf looks and bouncing between the idea of hiding or showcasing certain objects used for everyday utility.
This meticulousness seemed to me at odds with the grotesqueness in her work—the blood, the spit, the quality that one audience member pinpointed when he said (admiringly) during the post-show talkback, “You guys were gross. You were mischievous and sketchy.” It occurred to me, though, that perhaps the tension between these impulses—toward order and disorder—gave the piece its particular weirdness, like a secret ingredient.
“Can sound come from a leg?” Jen asked at the beginning of her class, a few days later. That’s the kind of question that Salivate made me ask, as I wondered about the source of that strange “humming/breathing” soundtrack, a repetitive “hmmm” that evoked ecstatic sex as much as bored conversation as much as ritualistic song. And it’s the kind of question she asks when she teaches, as opposed to, say, “Can you watch this series of movements and repeat after me?”
For her—and many of the artists teaching for CLASSCLASSCLASS—making and teaching are not discrete endeavors. Coming up with a class structure—figuring out what to teach, how to teach it—is a way of delving deeper into what they’re exploring creatively. “Dance class for me—it has to be a combination of a critical and an experiential research time,” Jen says. “I don’t want to learn phrases. I don’t want to go across the floor. I don’t want to tendu.” She is more interested in exploring what it means, as a performer, to “experience texture. And to experience wet. Or temperature, not just sweating but actual internal heat.” And what does it mean, while experiencing those things, to be seen, to be “on” in front of an audience? Generally, she says:
We take class to train our bodies, then we make dances, and then all of a sudden we’re onstage and we’re supposed to know what to do. I’m interested in researching the moment that we don’t ever get to research except during the one second when we perform. You do the performance, and then it’s over, and you’re like, ‘Well fuck, I could’ve done so much more.’”
No bras were burned on the afternoon I attended our pornographic bodies. It was a lot mellower than that, but still intensely satisfying. We were a small group, all women, and all dancers or choreographers active in the world of contemporary performance, a factor that Jen acknowledges: “I was like, these people make work, and they live in New York, and they know what I’m talking about. . . I’m not gonna tell us exactly what to do. I have ideas about what we should do. But there are eight people in the room who all have pretty strong opinions, so this could go anywhere.”
We talked for as long as we moved, if not for longer. When we were moving, we didn’t pretend like we couldn’t be seen. We began by all moving together. One woman stood off to the side—a director, an onlooker, a pair of eyes reminding us that we were visible. Jen asked her to give us a “baseline,” a simple repetitive hand motion that we did in unison before veering off in our own directions. “The baseline is really just a distraction to get you going,” Jen had explained. “From there, go to the place where you usually go when you perform.”
That’s where I surprised myself.
I try to explain it to Jen:
At first, I felt super self-conscious. I didn’t want anyone to see me. So I was like, just do what feels the most authentic. Where do I want to go? I realized that what felt most comfortable was this really presentational place. I think it comes from doing so much Irish dancing, which I did for a really long time, and which has this very frontal, ‘here I am!’ quality. In the context of your class, that translated into standing still with my arms out, as if to say, ‘Look at me.’ You know? So either I went there, or I went somewhere really self-effacing, like, ‘No, no, don’t look at me at all.’ These extremes. I had never realized this before.
Customers come and go. The patch of sunlight on the table expands and contracts, depending on the breeze outside. Jen casually delivers these words:
Even though it was sort of a shameful desire, for you not to be seen, it was still a desire—a feeling of I don’t want this just like I do want something else. That’s something to latch onto. It’s something to read, to experience. And it’s something that people can relate to. These words—authenticity, sincerity, in the moment—that’s what these mean: open yourself up a little bit, soften just a little bit to understand that right now you are self-conscious. That’s sincere. And then you get to make decisions from there. Do I want to remain in this state? Or do I want to do something that pulls me out of it? Or do I want to acknowledge it and stand in front of people and say ‘Look at me?’ . . .
The times where I’ve felt really satisfied in performance, I’ve felt as though I had the potential of all these options. I didn’t have to choose one. I just existed in this potential. If you can stay in that state, then you can do a lot of things. You can make decisions, you can ignore things that come up. You can apply a false identity. You can lie—sincerely.
SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.