Bay Area native Margaret Jenkins trained and performed on both coasts of the United States, including study at Juilliard in New York and at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1970 she formed the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in San Francisco and has since created more than 75 works for it. In addition, her work has been commissioned by a number of other companies, including the Oakland Ballet and the Cullberg Ballet of Sweden. Jenkins has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, among other honors, and April 24, 2003, was declared Margaret Jenkins Day by then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. In 2004 she and her company launched Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME), an artist mentorship program. While working on her world premiere for the New Works Festival, she talked about the character of dance on the West Coast and the art of creating dance without music.
BACKSTAGE: I read that you think of creating dance as a social activity rather than an act of individual genius. Tell me what you meant by that.
JENKINS: I think that one of the many things that one does in making work is to be in community. I think you don't make work unless you've got dancers, and dancers make up community, and the work I make is an attempt to reflect the community that I'm in. One of the things that's complicated about making a work for San Francisco Ballet [for the New Works Festival] is that you've only got three weeks, and I usually take six months to a year to make a work. One of the reasons that I need that much time is because it gives you a chance to kind of understand the people that you are working with, get to know them—not just as people who can do extraordinary things with their bodies, but how do their minds work, what are they thinking about, what do they care about, and how do all those things that they think about and care about affect the making of work?
BACKSTAGE: You've spent a lot of time in India choreographing. What do you like about presenting dance there, and how did the people there respond to you and your style of dance?
JENKINS: Well, I actually haven't spent a great deal of time there, but my most recent work, A Slipping Glimpse, was made in collaboration with my company that, at the time, were 10 dancers, and 4 dancers from the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company from Calcutta, India. And I met them when I was sent there by the U.S.I.A.—the United States Information Agency—to make a work for [Shankar's] company in 2003, and I got fascinated by the thought of collaborating with a group of dancers from a completely other culture, where the language of movement has very different meanings than the language of movement does for my company. And so the work that I recently made and did in the United States was a collaboration between the two companies, and I spent probably a total of three months in India in the process of generating the material for that work before the dancers came here.
BACKSTAGE: You started your dance school in San Francisco in the 1970s. How has the West Coast dance scene evolved since then, and how has that affected the state of dance across the country, in your opinion?
JENKINS: I'm from San Francisco—but when I moved back here in the early '70s, there were a handful of us who had studios and had dance companies, and in the time between now and then, of course, there are hundreds of dance studios and hundreds of dance companies and probably thousands of people who are making work, so I think what's happened in the last 35 years has been no short of miraculous. I just think there's a lot of extraordinary work going on here. In terms of how the amount of activity happening in the Bay Area has affected the rest of the country, I think probably it's that many other states and regions of the United States have experienced a kind of renaissance in understanding that their areas can be as rich and dynamic in dance and creative activity as New York—that you don't have to be in what has been called "the center of the dance scene" in order to make work and to thrive as a young artist.
BACKSTAGE: April 24, 2003, was declared Margaret Jenkins Day by San Francisco's then-Mayor Willie Brown. Tell me some of the things he said when he gave you that honor, and what did receiving it mean to you?
JENKINS: Well, the receipt of that was because it was the 30th anniversary of my company and I did a very large retrospective and took over the Fort Mason pavilion and turned it into not only a theater but a place that I could represent the kind of visual designs that have been a major part of my work. And Alexander Nichols, who has been my designer for the last 20-plus years and who is also the designer of this work for San Francisco Ballet, kind of created the whole concept of the pavilion. So I think that, to some degree, these days that are proclaimed somebody's day by the mayor are in part I think a celebration of someone who's been around for a long time. I think it was an acknowledgment of my contribution to encouraging dance activity and dance-related activities in the city. I think it was a kind of thank you for having been here as long as I have been here and being a part of the fabric of what goes on in the city. And I think it always means a lot when somebody pauses for a minute and says "thank you." I don't think there's any greater gift than a thank you from a dancer or a collaborator or a mayor. It almost doesn't matter who it comes from.
BACKSTAGE: What interested you about participating in the New Works Festival?
JENKINS: I think that it's an extraordinary opportunity to work with a very differently trained and gifted group of dancers. Not unlike going to India, you know the minute you put yourself in a new environment, new things occur to you about dance and about meaning and you know, I knew it was an extraordinary opportunity to work with an extraordinary company. I think that almost goes without saying, that San Francisco Ballet is rich in its corps dancers and its principals and soloists, you know—they're kind of equal in my mind to the kids of things that they're able to do. So I knew that that was going to be unique, and I knew that, being a San Franciscan and having grown up here all of my life, that it was a very significant anniversary for the company, the 75th anniversary, so I was very honored to be asked to be a part of it. I don't make work to a piece of music, the music comes as a result of what I'm making; I always collaborate with contemporary composers. So Paul Drescher, who's the composer for this work, is going to have to score the work after it's done, which is a very unique process. So we're not having any of the music in this three weeks that I'm working because it's so far in advance of his getting a chance to work with the orchestra. I think to be part of a festival that celebrates, you know, a broad range of dancing and for Helgi to kind of reach in this direction is probably very brave, and hopefully won't be disappointing.
BACKSTAGE: So, does choreographing, does creating the dance without the music, is that any more challenging for you and the dancers?
JENKINS: No, it's not; I always work that way. I mean, the way that I always work is that I generate movement material and then the composer comes in to see what I've been generating, will go away and respond and make music that he thinks is responsive to what he's seen or that it's sparked him to think about—will come back with snippets of things for me to listen to, and from those snippets I will make decisions with him or her about the things that I would love to have extended, and he'll come back with them extended and we'll work back and forth that way' then once my dance is done he'll usually come in with his full ensemble and we'll start to score the work from the beginning to end with these different parts and see what we feel works. So it's not unusual to start without any music, it's unusual to go through the whole process without having anything present. But the dance doesn't come from music for me, it comes from an idea and it comes from the kinetics of the body so that's not unusual. And also there's a—besides Alex Nichols, who's doing the set, and Paul Drescher, who's doing the music, there's a poet, Michael Palmer, that I've worked with for over 35 years, who really has given me the genesis for this particular work, and the poem that inspired this work that he wrote will also be read during the performance, so language becomes a pretty important part of my work as well.
BACKSTAGE: Is there anything about your ballet for the New Works Festival that you think will surprise audiences?
JENKINS: I think some of them are used to including as part of what interests them works by someone like [William] Forsythe, or Eden/Eden, where they're not narrative ballets, they're nonlinear, if they have a narrative at all, and the audience isn't asked to follow a plot. And so I think people who are comfortable and actually even curious to watch work like that won't find what I'm doing such a reach. There's a lot of virtuosic dancing, there's a kind of story that propels this particular piece, although certainly not something that I hope everybody gets, I hope everybody makes up their own story—that's really kind of what interests me.
BACKSTAGE: What has the experience working with San Francisco Ballet dancers been like for you?
JENKINS: It's been great. They're extraordinary. They come with wonderful energy; I think they seem to be genuinely excited to do something very different, to be able to move differently, to be involved in the process and to be asked to create movement themselves, which they've been doing. We had a lot of material when we came in, so we did certainly come in and teach things, and my company has been very involved in helping to generate the source material and to teach it to the San Francisco Ballet dancers for the first couple of weeks. It's been absolutely—from walking in the door to leaving at night—nothing but incredible kindness and graciousness, from everybody. I couldn't feel more welcome, every step that I take in that building. The dancers in particular seem genuinely excited to be fed in this way, to use one of the dancers' words.
BACKSTAGE: So, you just mentioned that you had your own dancers come work with San Francisco Ballet at the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that worked, and how the two groups worked together?
JENKINS: I spent a couple months with my company prior to coming over to the Ballet to generate a lot of the material, and then when we came over my company taught the San Francisco Ballet dancers, and every time they showed something, there was wild applause, and on the last day that they were there, they kind of chanted "M-J-D-C, M-J-D-C!" —you know this love fest, it really felt like a love fest. Great appreciation from my dancers of what the San Francisco Ballet dancers are able to do, and then equal respect from the Ballet dancers to what my company's able to do that they recognize as different from what they do, and I think an eagerness to learn how to do it, you know, so I think that process of sharing information and kind of co-joining the worlds and breaking down some of the barriers is nothing but positive effect as far as I could tell.