Laurel Jenkins is a dance artist, educator, choreographer, and mother, based in Middlebury, Vermont. I was excited to speak with her on behalf of VDA this summer about her current relationship to her choreographic practice, as well as to discuss what it means to be an artist in the middle of a pandemic.
For a sample of Laurel's work: http://laureljenkins.com/project/wind-hill/
A Vermont native, Laurel’s dance training introduced her to “leadership and community art practices” from a young age. After 20 years living and working outside the state, primarily in Los Angeles and New York, she credits Hanna Satterlee and the creation of Vermont Dance Alliance in 2016 as an invitation to return. “Hanna lit up these light bulbs of who was here, where it was mysterious before.” Laurel has been grateful to VDA for the opportunity to be in active dialogue with artists of multiple generations and various disciplines since returning.
When asked to describe the work she produces, Laurel stresses her focus on an intentional process rather than a pre-defined outcome. “I’m interested in setting up collaborative spaces where the rules of engagement are clear enough that the dance can sort of make itself.” Laurel’s process honors the natural intelligence of the body—a focus inherited from her mentors, Trisha Brown and Joan Skinner, of Skinner Releasing Technique. Merce Cunningham’s curiosity toward chance is also an inspiration. She recently created a work with 30 teenagers at The Wooden Floor in California, in which she organized a set of parameters ahead of time, such that the young dancers worked together to choreograph the piece.
Laurel was slated to present her dance, “Party Lines,” at Vermont Dance Alliance’s 2020 Gala. The piece is comprised of both college students and Vermont community members and centers around societal divisions and the separations between people. It is about the act of coming together to make art. Laurel describes it as a “rule game,” wherein dancers call out instructions to each other that determine the course of action.
Broadly, Laurel's artistic motivations mean that “sometimes the works are messy improvisations, and sometimes they’re formal performances.” Her commitment to fostering community conversations through dance has led Laurel to collaborate widely and across mediums. She choreographs operas, creates frequently with live musicians, and is currently exploring virtual reality, mindfulness, and the borders of the body in a project with multidisciplinary artist Jesse Fleming. In short, Laurel says, she is interested in “engaging with people who do things that I don’t know how to do.”
Discussing the limitations presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Laurel explains that she has had to reimagine her creative practice and clarify where she is situating her attention. Over the past few months, she laughs, “everything has shrunk!” Laurel describes feeling a strange appreciation for the way this time has required less travel and the chance to slow down: “As an artist, there’s a pressure [that] you’re never doing enough—never traveling enough…When you’re not busy, it makes you ask different questions.” While she is amazed by the worldwide access provided by the online dance community—connections to different techniques, new teachers—she stresses her desire to remain rooted in her immediate environment: “I feel much more called to be in the woods and in the water and to be with my boy. What we have online is in addition, in support. I think there’s deeper questioning at play that this silence provides.”
During this quiet stillness, Laurel is sourcing inspiration from a combination of her friends, artistic peers, and individuals involved in radical community care and anti-racist activism. “I just listened to the artist, Laura Levinson, from Minneapolis talking about dancing in the streets and movement as a form of protest.” She recognizes how “what we know as artists can inform creating safe spaces and speaking truth.” Laurel feels an urgency to support queer black bodies and ignite human lines of connection to be fully attuned to our current societal crises. “We’re here—we’re three-dimensional beings on this planet for a limited time.” Exercising the change-making power of that presence, she argues, requires quiet, deep listening as much as being in a physical room together. Laurel is also inspired by her colleagues in the Middlebury Dance Program: Christal Brown, Lida Winfield, and Karima Borni. She mentions the work of dance artist and scholar, Thomas F. DeFrantz and Nancy Stark Smith’s tuning scores as other helpful tools right now.
Laurel is choosing to share an improvisational score with the VDA community that hones deep listening. “Working this way awakens intelligence that might be dormant if we were just sitting [at a computer].” She recommends experimenting with duration—improvising for very short and extended time frames, number of people—setting up a socially-distanced meeting with others, and location—dancing in both unfamiliar and comfortable environments. The basic tool is to engage your ability to listen with the whole body at a distance.
Below are Laurel’s written prompts walking through this improvisation, as well as her video: a five-minute demonstration of the score with one other person.
Slowing Down to Show Up
This score emphasizes listening with the whole body, rather than thinking and moving as disconnected steps. You are dancing in direct response to what you see, feel, smell, and notice in your immediate surroundings. Afterward, you may notice your senses heightened, with a greater understanding of your contextual role in your environment.
It begins by setting up a relationship with another dancer or being (such as a tree or mountain) far away. Look for a vast space to dance. The entire dance will charge the space between you and the one you’re dancing with. The score progresses from more to less specific to provide you space for more expression.
Use the above link to watch Laurel's demonstration or follow the written prompts below.
Listen along to the score with this link:
1: Start at a distance from another dancer--or a tree, a
This will be your partner for the duration of the dance.
2: Breathe. Drop your weight and notice your body.
Feel what’s under your feet.
Look around and see how much space you have.
Are you close to a tree? A person? How much distance is
between you—a foot? A mile?
3: Feel your connection to your environment. Who and what are
you dancing with?
4: Whether human or non-human, trust you are on the same
You are dancing together.
5: Beginning playing with unison.
An invitation to togetherness.
Enjoy how your whole body listens—this is not just a
6: Keep returning to breath.
Allow your movement to feel good.
Notice how your connection to others remains strong across
7: Experiment with stillness.
Let stillness generate energy, gather, and swell.
8: Play with call and response.
One person moves, while the other is still.
Repeat as desired.
9: Open the dance to proximity (*at safe, social distance*)
Move closer and further away from those you are dancing
10: Open the dance to unrestricted dialogue.
Previous rules and structure become only suggestions.
Each dancer is free to move at a different energy level, time,
Everyone is included.
11: Remember to keep it simple.
Stillness is always an option.
12: Come to an ending in collaboration with your fellow movers.
Options for responses:
- Write about what you noticed. Share a page of your journal, certain images, or language that came up for you after this experience.
- Film yourself (and your partner/s) dancing this score.
Please email responses to email@example.com by August 15. Thank you!
Tag @vermontdance or use the hashtag, #dancingdigitally to connect with us on social media!
We are pleased to announce that this project is supported in part by the Vermont Humanities Council. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed do not necessarily represent those of Vermont Humanities Council.