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Anne Zuerner
Performance Reviews
Dance Theatre Workshop
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

The Dual Lives of Jeanine Durning - interview and review

by Anne Zuerner
January 23, 2003
Dance Theatre Workshop
219 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011

The Dual Lives of Jeanine Durning

Interview and Review by Anne Zuerner
January 23, 2003

In the complicated world of modern dance, where one is always searching for more artistic integrity, so that dance may some day acquire the lofty prestige of the other arts, many dancers find that they must choose between two paths: dancer or choreographer. In modern dance terms, to be a dancer is to put one's artistry at the service of the choreographer (although inspired dancing is certainly artistry in its own right, though it is not as appreciated as in say, ballet). If the choice is choreography, one must not dance for someone else, or risk sacrificing creative energy and tarnishing originality as an artist, so the choreographer must set out on her own. Jeanine Durning has never seen these two paths as separate. To her, they are simply two lanes on the same highway.

Photo courtesy of Jeanine Durning

To see Jeanine Durning dance is to witness extreme, raw physicality, twisting and turning within a tiny muscular frame, which seems both to struggle to contain large bursts of momentum at the same time that it remains completely in control of the energy scrambling within. When speaking with Durning, this rambunctious energy subsides, and a calm thoughtful quality emerges. She speaks slowly and clearly, allowing her listener to absorb every syllable, every idea, as she forms uniquely abstract notions about her choreography, her dancing, and her life.

Durning is a dancer/choreographer in the extreme sense of the word. This does not mean, simply, that she performs in her own work, which she does. This means that since she graduated from Tisch School of the Arts in the early 1990's, she has had two simultaneous careers: one as a choreographer, performing her own solos and group works at many venues throughout New York, as well as at Jacob's Pillow, and the other as a dancer, performing with David Dorfman, Zvi Gothheiner, Yin Mei, Wendy Perron, Susan Rethorst, and others.

On the choreography side of things, Durning recently presented two premieres at Dance Theater Workshop, Part One Parting and Half Urge. These two pieces, the former a solo and the latter a work for five dancers, including herself, showcased her ability to maintain individuality as an artist, despite the amount of time she has spent at the service of other choreographers. She explains that dancing for David Dorfman, with whom she just recently finished a nine year career, and working on her own choreography at the same time, was not as complicated as it might have been. Although it meant working by herself in the studio from 10-1 and then running to rehearse with Dorfman from 2-7 everyday,"It was really easy for me at first. . . I was there, I was present, I didn't know about limitations," she says. Because Dorfman's process is collaborative, there was room for her style in his work. She explains that he looks for performers that have "very strong ideas about how to make work," and then gives them the opportunity to work through those ideas, so in a way, working with him actually nurtured her choreography. Inevitably, after nine good years, she says, "the ideas are bound to mix." She began to feel that her creative energy was being expended in Dorfman's rehearsals, while her own work was becoming a "reaction" to his work. She began to see were the limitations came in.

"It's a little scary," admits Durning, referring to setting off on her own as a choreographer; she is still not sure if she has it in her. She attributes her fear to the lack of resources, "which everybody is going through, but especially for what's considered emerging artists."

Durning has always been a choreographer. "After I left school, I immediately started choreographing. I had no agenda," she admits confidently. "My only agenda was just to do it. I didn't really know what the deal was. . . That was not part of the education…" The lack of support for choreographers in today's college dance departments is "a real disservice to dancers and to the community in general" she says. As a result, dancers leave the University without any ideas as to how to produce their own work. Each graduating class has to "go through this cycle of trying to figure out how to make it happen, and then we lose a lot of people…[college dance departments end up] almost handicapping [the dancers] instead of informing [them]."

Although she has made up for it, Durning started with a bit of a handicap herself. She did not start dancing until she was 14. "I was a brooder," she says laughing at her past. After spending so much time alone, reading a lot and hiking, dance helped her find her more communicative side. Although she said she toyed around with being a fiction writer, it was in dance class that Durning felt that she could get beyond her shyness. She says, "I got to be really communicative with my body. . . That kind of thing where people say that they go into a dance class and feel empowered, it was definitely that kind of thing for me."

She began with jazz and tap at the local studio. "I had no interest at all in ballet, I didn't relate to the aesthetic." Later, when she realized she wanted be a dancer, she began studying ballet, "but they would never put me on pointe shoes." When she did the local Nutcracker, they made her the Mouse King, and gave her a gigantic paper-maiche mask with a T-strap under her crotch. "It was perfect for me. They gave me a club and I was banging on the floor." She finally attended Tisch School of the Arts after receiving two rejections. The second time Tisch gave her the thumbs down, like any ambitious artist would, she went straight to the dean. They finally accepted her, mainly, she thinks, because they were "so interested in the gumption that that required." Gumption or no gumption, there is no doubt that what Durning really had, was talent.

Although Durning met David Dorfman at Tisch, she did not have her eye set on his company right away, and it was not until six years later that she got a call from him, asking her if she could replace a pregnant dancer. Right after graduation, Durning spent six years freelancing, "I said yes to everything," and producing her own work at any small venue she could find. She knew that she tended toward a more aggressive, blunt style of dancing, which she did not want to indulge. So after school she sought out what she considered more sophisticated styles, like that of Trisha Brown. She worked with Lance Gries for a while, who had just come out of Brown Company. "I learned so much from him," she says. She realized through working with him, "oh, well, actually, I can deal with my body in a really sophisticated way."

Watching Durning's dancing and choreography, sophistication is actually one word that may first come to mind. In her new solo, Part One Parting, she combines huge, thrashing movement, the simple motif of reaching on a diagonal, and the slow revealing of a poetic line of text, "This is you saying good bye to me from a moving train and I can't hear you." In the beginning, she mouths the text, then she speaks it as if a train is passing in front of her, mouthing the text, with a sporadic word jumping out here and there, and then fully, with the music swelling, her voice coming through loud and clear.

The line of text in Part One Parting came from some writing that Jeanine had done while developing Half Urge, the other piece on the program. Writing is a large part of her process, capturing images, and holding onto ideas. She says she works by association, creating dance material and then looking for the piece within the material, rather than starting with the piece and fitting the material into that structure. While she was working on Half Urge, she was also creating a solo for a faculty member at the University of Maryland. She noticed that the movement she was creating related to the passage she had written while rehearsing Half Urge: images of reaching and feelings of momentary loss. From there the rest fell into place. She is interested in recognizing the issues that are already there, living within the physicality, rather than trying to control things.

In a solo she made a couple of years ago called A Good Man Falls, she began with an image of herself in an astronaut suit. In order to excavate the image, she began to ask, "What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of its metaphoric content? What does it mean for me personally?" She discovered, "this has to do with isolation, this has to do with being a figure that's larger than life, not being able to connect to people. Oh, this has to do with me being a performer. . .I free associate. I'm working with what seems like abstract and conceptual images, but at the same time I analyze them to relate to my personal experience." So she ended up making a solo about being a performer, approaching the subject from many angles.

She has never experienced the story from Part One Parting, yet it does relate to her personal feelings of being abandoned. She found the writing had a nostalgic and delusional edge to it. From there she developed a character: an unfulfilled woman, circa 1940, on the platform of a train station, watching her lover leave and she does not want to say good bye to him. The structure of the piece reveals how one fractures experience through memory, until the memory becomes more powerful than the actual experience.

Half Urge came from a dream about an abandoned city, where she was driving a blown out car that was on fire. She recognized this dream as expressing very universal feelings of instability, of the world, which seems so stable, just falling apart. She says, although many people may associate her dream with September 11, it actually happened before the World Trade Center disaster.

Despite such apocalyptic beginnings, the piece does not communicate such disaster. It is full of architectural spatial patterns and inventive partnering. In generating the material, Durning worked with her dancers on the difference between the two actions collapsing and burrowing. The two ideas are similar in their physical effort, she believes, but different in intention. For her, collapsing has a destructive intention while burrowing expresses desire. This new found relationship between destruction and desire interested her as well. In working with her composer, Douglas Henderson, she said she wanted music that you could actually feel, rather than hear.

At this point in her career, Durning is at a bit of a turning point, yet at the same time, she seems clear about where she is headed. On the one hand she has built up a repertory and a reputation as a choreographer, as she says, she's been "emerging for ten years." She has also "officially" stopped dancing for Dorfman, yet she feels that she is at the peak of her career as a performer and she really wants to be dancing. "At heart I feel like I'm a real freelancer, because that's how I started." Working with many different choreographers has always satisfied her desire to be versatile and independent. You can catch her latest gig with choreographer Susan Rethorst at the Danspace Project at St. Mark's church this weekend, January 23rd through the 26th, and see her many dualities at play.

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