Updated: Mar 17, 2021
By Victoria L. Awkward
"I've had the pleasure of working with Jenna Pollack inside and outside of VLA DANCE. She is an incredible multifaceted artist and her beautifully detailed class structure leads to a fullness in movement like no other. Since first meeting Jenna, I've admired her - not just for her physical depth but also for her caring demeanor. Boston is lucky to have a thoughtful creative like Jenna who is asking questions that forward the landscape of contemporary dance. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Jenna to learn more about her work in the past, present and future. I believe you'll love her as much as we do."
- Victoria L. Awkward, VLA DANCE Director
What are you working on right now via class taking, class giving/teaching, choreography and/or performing?
With my collaborator Sue Murad we're in post-production for an art film that culminates our 12-month residency at Boston's Old North Church through the National Parks Service. The film is about structure and flexibility, and the kinetic potential that can be found in built spaces and built systems. Old North is both an active Episcopalian church and a National Park, and these layered, complex, and sometimes conflicting identities echo through the formal Georgian architecture. Inspired by the site's architecture and history, and informed by the way staff and visitors move through and experience it, we invited various levels of collaboration, participation, and play from its peers, clergy, congregation, park staff, and tour groups from December 2018 - December 2019. We created a world of embodied vignettes that are slight alterations of actions, practices, and behaviors traditionally embedded in this space. We hope the film's release, slated for this summer, offers folks a new way of visualizing this historic site.
Another ongoing project is a collaboration with mechanical engineer Dr. Benjamin Linder of Olin College. Since July 2019 we have been prototyping human-sized wooden sculptures that act as characters, props, and landscapes. Researching anthropomorphism, architectural phenomenology, and material decay, we’re exploring questions around our accountability for, and to, the built environment. Since January 2020 we have been working with three dancers - including VLA Director Victoria Awkward! - to build a vocabulary of behaviors with these sculptures. The interactions between the human and inanimate performers reveal how each of their identities corresponds, influences, and is affected by the other. We are ultimately building a language that explores the possibilities and curiosities of both form and function. In the larger context of sustainable design we are constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing physical and emotional states to consider: what’s in our control? What do we lose through inaction, and what happens when that is outrun out by the inertia of our previous choices? The project is in residence this summer at the Boston Center of the Arts and will culminate with a works-in-process showing. Hoping it may also receive a full technical residency at some point!
I remain continually humbled by my teaching practice. My college students relate to dance as a form, a culture, a community in an endless number of ways - I continue to work on making space for those expressions within institutional contexts. Growing up a ballet dancer I felt trained to be suspicious of other artistic mediums, and especially other dance forms. Well-roundedness and cultural context were myths explained between quotation marks, and this relegation was explained as an act of devotion to the form - an implicit declaration of mutual exclusivity between ballet and everything else. But now as a teacher I get to respectfully challenge this framework, to propose a different trajectory for this lineage. I like to think my classes offer embodied practices for physical listening, reflexive imagination, rigorous play, and the mobilization of community.
What dancers and artists are inspiring your creative practices and why?
Right now I am in full fangirl awe of 7NMS, "the co-visioning work of composer Everett Saunders and choreographer Marjani Forté-Saunders. The two tote a revolutionary commitment to art & performance as a ministry of liberation." They are a married couple that work together, parent together, organize together, recently built a new space for dance and music in their backyard together, and live in her hometown together. Their collaboration, so clearly true to their values, has really inspired me as I reimagine my career post-Covid.
I am still mourning the loss of master artist and teacher Kathleen Hermesdorf, who was taken too soon last year by cancer. She utterly transformed my relationship to my dance practice in 2009 when I was a very lost, very injured dancer living in San Francisco. Jumping in her workshops again around New England festivals the last couple years was always a check-in with my most core values, my most raw instincts. Her pedagogy still rumbles in me - wild, human, radical, playful, rigorous, imaginative, collaborative, loud, spacious for all. I hope that as a teacher I am carrying her, sharing her with my classes.
On the local level I must, loudly, shout out Midday Movement Series and the inimitable Marissa Molinar. Midday is a culture of community. Its orbit of people, pedagogy, and embodied practice extends far beyond the programming. And while contemporary dance can mean many things, stewarding a creative space with emerging teachers requires a very specific skill set. Marissa's leadership advancing this bold vision is remarkable, and I am forever grateful for her.
What is your class structure like?
I teach many different classes depending on the semester! I build my VLA class specifically for the self-identifying professional and/or passionate dancers of Greater Boston, and for the mirror-less ballroom paradise that is Hibernian Hall. I think of this particular class as dance training, versus something more oriented towards movement research or somatic practice. It works within a contemporary dance vocabulary to practice folding, falling, and failing within the form. I reverse-engineer movement material and improvisational scores from the final phrase backward, teasing out the pathways, images, and prompts I can scaffold from the floor to the vertical. I like to think my class invites play, questioning, connection, and empathetic destruction.
Jenna Pollack is an international freelance choreographer and performer, an Assistant Professor of Dance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and a Visiting Lecturer at Salem State University, and on the Staff and U.S. Board of Directors for Springboard Danse Montréal. Her creative practice spans the realms of dance, theatre, engineering, film, site, and cultural organizing. This season she is a Boston Center for the Arts’ Choreographer-in-Residence, a Boston Schonberg Fellow at Dance The Yard, a 2020 finalist for the Massachusetts Cultural Council Choreographic Fellowship, and slated to serve as an Arts Envoy for the U.S. Embassy to Colombia.
Register for Jenna's class with VLA DANCE here.