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Jenn kelly

What is your interest in performance?

I like working toward performance pieces because there is always the possibility for revelation and discovery. In solo work I learn things about myself through this exposure of the self, through performing in relation to an audience I have an experience of self-discovery and the audience as well hopefully receives something from me, some transmission through both kinaesthesia and this moment of bearing witness. There is so much expectation for what a performance is (from the audience) and also expectations of what the relationship with the audience is (for a performer) and really they are all people in a room sharing space and time, either watching or being watched, either moving or being moved. I am interested in this moment of communion. I am interested in what shifts in the space and within each person over the duration of the piece. I am curious about how I will change, what I will learn, and also what effect the work will have on the people who are engaged in it. I want to engage people in the work. I want to get them thinking. I want everyone to be thinking and I want to expose something as well. I want it to begin with a question and to continue with a question. The performance I don't see as an end but as part of a larger process of dialoguing and creating relationships within culture. The act of making oneself vulnerable and transparent is very interesting to me. It is allowing those who don't know you into a private world. It is a constructed intimacy. I think if the performer is completely open and giving of the self then this creates a reciprocal relationship where the people in the audience also are encouraged to open, to receive, to reflect, to open to their selves perhaps. I’m curious about this transfusion, this communication, how all of these people in time and space relate to each other in the beginning, the middle and the end.

What is your expectation of the audience as performer?

I expect the audience to sit in chairs or on the floor in the space which has been designated. I expect them to watch what I’m doing or maybe to look around or nod off, fall asleep. I expect them to be mostly still and quiet and not to interfere with the performance. I expect they will be pretty docile and receptive and not aggressive or loud. I guess they might not pay attention or walk out or yawn or cough, but I do expect their eyes and ears to be concentrated on the performance, I expect attention but not necessarily openness. I actually think I expect the audience to be less than open, that I will have to convince them of something, or get their attention and keep it- as a performer, and especially in the beginning of the piece I’m working on, there’s a sense of not wanting to lose interest, of needing to maintain it.

What do you think the audience expects of you as performer?

I think they expect me to move, if I am in a dance work. They expect something they are used to: movement, sound, music, taking up space, doing something that fills the time and space. They want to be entertained and to feel something.

How do you deliver and how do you deny your audience their expectations?

I do perform. I do move. Not the whole time (not in my current work). There is music, sound, I take up space, I don’t know if I’m entertaining. I don’t really want to be. I think I titillate and shock and provoke and make them uncomfortable. I present a person who is unpredictable and multi-dimensional: it is a show, it is partly enjoyable and partly not and I don’t think I allow anyone to fall asleep.

What do you mean by presenting a show? You mention earlier this idea of exposure or transparency. What is it you are hoping to show or make clear?

By a show, I mean there is something spectacular in my work. I present something out of the context of the every day, there is an aspect of the entertainer persona that I’m working with. But also, by transparency I mean two things; one, that I want the construct of showing to be obvious, that I want to make it obvious that I am enacting something, like a cultural symbol or proscribed role (ie. "bellydancer" and all of the meanings that can be associated with this role). The second thing I mean by transparency is that I want to see straight through the individual (in this case, myself in my solo) to reveal something universal. So it's not about me in the end, at all. I imagine if I am really open, really able to let go of the mask of my “self” then something universal and completely human will shine through me. I don’t want to make a dance or a performance just for my own sake – I need the personal to extend beyond – the immediate to somehow become timeless – I want to connect to the moment and represent something collective. This might be overzealous on my part but I do believe that we are all connected and really quite the same –so in theory if I can expose myself then it’s like allowing the audience to see something of their selves uncovered, unmasked.

What masks are you trying to take off or expose?

I don’t know if I can really take off the mask, but I think really what I’m trying to do is wear multiple masks. Can I perform these different masks and thus make it clear that none of them are actually “real” but constructed? Just like a dance is constructed, it is not really who we are, it is just movements we are making – but the only way to communicate with other people is through some kind of structure right? We can’t just pour energy or ideas out in raw form, it has to be in some form to be fully recognized or understood. This is what the mask is for, so we can recognize or read something. This is what the movement is for, so there can be some understanding and exchange. I do try to take off the mask though, I try to present myself in a raw form – but still I am presenting myself in a constructed way. I have a score and I am in a certain costume and there is something to be read in how I am moving and what is being expressed in my body. My body itself is a mask, is a construct, I am not my body in the end, but it is a way for me to express the idea of what is inside.

Can you talk more about this piece where you present something of yourself in a raw form?

In this piece, Odalisque, which I have been working on for over two years, I am exploring this idea of the beautiful and the grotesque (this is just the tip of the iceberg, but this is the simplest description of the work). I use belly dance movement as the primary language, and I am representing the extremes of beautiful, sensual movement and grotesque (well, also sensual) movement. I was working with the oppositions of beauty and the grotesque and then one day a friend came to my rehearsal and made a comment about her right-wing extremist, born again Christian aunt mentioning that she thought belly dance came from demon women who had snakes inside their bellies. I found this fascinating and starting working with this idea of having a snake in my belly. It made my movement grotesque and even disturbing. It was also very difficult to perform, ie. not pleasurable, as compared to the round and soft movements of traditional bellydancing. I’m not sure if this is a digression though—I guess I associate rawness with something not necessarily pleasing to the eye or to perform; I associate it with something difficult and from the unconscious, like a dream – but dreams can be both grotesque and beautiful/pleasurable. I think rawness is more like something without form. And dreams do generally lack form, they are disjointed and nebulous and sometimes barely remembered upon waking. I think the actual opposition I’m working with is virtuosity or performance that is conscious of what it’s saying vs. chaos or lack of style that is unconscious of what one might be transmitting. It’s the moment of expressing something unrehearsed and not presented in a pleasing package that interests me: what is said without realizing, what comes through the body that is formless and yet extremely powerful. How far can I push myself to reveal something of my own chaos and unconscious and how much can the audience bear to witness?

What does the idea of bearing witness mean to you?

I see no point in making work if there’s no one to watch it. I started making this piece because I am a performer and I want to perform, I have something to share, to express. But I also struggled with being this performer, with presenting myself in a certain context, especially with a medium as socially-loaded as the body. There were so many issues of representation of the body, especially a woman’s body, that I had to struggle with – how do I present myself, how do I not objectify myself? What is the risk I am taking? Am I perpetuating a system that I don’t believe in? How do I deal with the very real potential that my physical form will be consumed by the eyes of the viewers and that there might not be any thing of substance to gain from this exposure, for either party? I studied belly dance for three years and was nearly at the point where I could perform in a club or a restaurant (in its traditional performance context in the West) when I reached a stand still. I couldn’t bring myself to continue this training so I started studying contemporary dance. This was the same reason why years ago, at the age of thirteen I stopped studying ballet. I couldn’t put myself into this traditional female role. Neither the Western ideal of female beauty and sexuality nor the Eastern one. I didn’t want to fetishize or exoticize myself, nor could I colonize the movements of bellydance and myself for money. Receiving money in my bra was not an economic exchange I wanted to be part of. Being excessively performative and sexual in order to please the audience was also something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be entertaining. I didn’t want to conform to expectations of a beautiful woman dancing a beautiful dance. I also couldn’t justify the mystification of bellydance in the West and the history of its transfer to the United States, mostly associated with skirt dancers and strippers. Yet I also found so much value in these problems. I felt like it represented real issues that women deal with every day, belly dancers or not. I felt like it was universal. I saw a video of Shakira shaking her ass at the MTV awards, doing belly dance moves and completely representing herself as a sexual object. I saw this in clubs in New York. I saw this beautiful dance form being denigrated by Western economic and social hierarchies: suit and tie businessmen slipping singles in barely clothed bellydancers’ bras; men holding the money and the power and wearing the clothing; women selling their sexuality and their bodies for very little. And then there was the war: the US bombing the Middle East; the big man bombing the little man, and also, the mother land, the cradle of civilization, where the belly dance comes from. So, I wanted to present all of these issues through movement, in a context that would hopefully demand something more from the audience: to bear witness to what is happening in this world: destructive representations of women, the economic phenomenon of women being forced to sell their bodies in some way, the view of dance and especially women’s dance from the Middle East as cheap or solely erotic, the devastation of whole populations in war due to the greed and bigotry of Western values. So I tried to take on a lot, wanted to say a lot, but in the end I brought the work back to a conversation between the body and its context in contemporary culture, I brought it back to being a performer with a certain vocabulary of movement, with all of my conflicts and questions to deal with in the process of making.

How do you work through these conflicts and questions?

Lots of conversations: with friends, with watching myself on video during rehearsals, with texts and with situations I observed in the world. I talked through a lot of these problems. What is unconscious in the work that I need to be aware of? How can I introduce my own sexuality without making it explicit and perhaps too political? What is the problem with being political in art? Isn’t it all political anyway? I just didn’t want to be too extreme or too didactic and so talking helped me boil things down. I found that the dialogue outside of the studio was just as necessary. I was creating a framework for the dance through constantly searching for the puzzle pieces and building blocks that could complete it, I was receiving input and using it in the studio. I was writing and doing research. I was hyper aware in my observance of gender relationships being enacted in every day life. Also I started investigating this idea of being an object or a subject through modeling for artists. The experience of being the subject for a work of art, of sitting still and posing, of presenting myself in a certain way, in a certain form, got me thinking about my work differently.

What kinds of questions were raised for you through modeling?

The main thing I was asking is what’s the difference between being an object and being a subject? And how can I be a subject while still representing myself sexually? How do I resist falling into patriarchal traps? It isn’t so simple, beyond the concrete definition of feminism as the equality of men and women there is so much grey area. The idea of the male gaze feels so antiquated to me and yet it was very real when I was posing sometimes. I would be asked to stick out my ass and I’m thinking “who am I doing this for exactly?” Sometimes I’d go past my levels of comfort as a thinking feminist, sometimes I’d refuse. It was a process of self-inquiry: where are the lines and can I assume that I am an object because I am being represented in a sexual way? Where is the place where a woman can claim her own sexuality and even her own sexual power in an explicit way without it still being colonized by the stereotypical male viewer – and I also wanted to get beyond these stereotypes, beyond gender even – to expose the whole thing (like Judith Butler) as a grand performance. But I asked myself, will a woman watching this performance who has no knowledge of feminist, gender or queer theory understand what I’m doing? And if a woman ends up seeing one of these nude photos I posed for will she see that I have some agency, that I am thoughtful and in charge of my own sexuality or am I even fooling myself? It got sticky. One interesting experience was working for a painter who said he was over the use of the female nude due to the problematics of representation – but he was trying to find a way out of the conundrum – because much like myself, he loves the body, he thinks the female form is beautiful, but it’s hard to paint it and not feel like a perpetrator of patriarchy with a capital P. One day he asked me to do a particular pose and framed it sort of like this: “So I know the nude Odalisque is this exoticized, fetishized art object but I’m also interested in it as a cultural symbol and just for the sake of its beauty, so now I’m going to ask you to do the pose, knowing you and I both hate it” – and embodying this pose, the Odalisque who was a basically a slave, lower on the social stratification than a concubine, who could only rise in status if she were a gifted dancer, singer, or if she slept with the Sultan – gave me a lot of ammunition. I realized maybe I could fight being an object in my own dance if I were to be in control of the audience’s eyes. So I started tracing my body in these painterly poses, so the audience had to look. They were being asked to follow the lines of my body, to be very conscious of its form, as woman, as a sexual being solely for pleasure, all of these boxes I detested I was going to highlight and somehow through overemphasizing and controlling the way I am being watched, I could break the mold. A lot of the modeling work I did became about questions of control and having a right to say yes or no to direction – through drawing my own boundaries and presenting my body in ways that I wanted to, or through my own gaze, I found power and agency. I took this experience with me when I started rehearsing the piece again and performed it.

What place does pleasure and sexuality have in your piece?

It’s very present. The whole conception of the work was about the conflict between enjoying the dance itself but not enjoying the feeling of being an object for the audience’s pleasure – although I don’t want to deny the audience pleasure, that isn’t my intention: I just couldn’t figure out how both sides could enjoy the experience – if I deny the sexuality and pleasure in the dance than the audience doesn’t enjoy it. If I express the sexuality and pleasure in the dance than I don’t really enjoy it because I feel like I’m part of this larger machine which reduces a woman to her body and her sex. And there’s the whole double standard or hypocrisy in this culture, especially in the puritanical USA that women expressing their sexuality are low-quality and treated like things, that belly dance is not really an art form because it’s sexy, but people will pay to see it, for sure. I wanted to know what would happen when I removed this “sexy” dance from its context. I also wanted to explore my own issues of desiring women who do this dance (being a lesbian who desires very “feminine” women) while also being a woman who does this dance... or couldn’t do this dance because of all of the issues associated with it. I also didn’t want to objectify the dance itself, and I certainly didn’t want to bash it. The form has a history in the women’s movement, and even further back: the women who danced did so for each other, it was a woman’s dance. During the cultural feminist movement of the 1970s belly dance was taught as a healing practice for women to claim their own sexuality. The way it’s seen today by the majority, as just ass-shaking is disturbing to me. So how could I shake my ass and not be just shaking my ass? How could I do it and in some way be revolutionary? I played with the extremes and the opposites: beautiful/grotesque, object/subject, fear/excitement, east/west, virtuosity/nature, choreography/improvisation, tradition/invention, word/body, masculine/feminine. I don’t think my work provides an answer. I think it just raises more questions. I think in the end that’s my intention: if the people in the audience allow themselves to react to what they see, if they question me or themselves or relate it to the world and question a phenomenon they experience within our culture, then I think I have achieved something, communicated at least something of what I hoped for.