Nicole Harris: Can you tell me about the work you’ll be performing as part of the OnStage Summer Performance Series?
Jenny Oliver: This performance includes sections from our upcoming evening length concert, ‘Hot Water Over Raised Fists’ that will be further developed during our DanceMaker’s Residency at the Boston Center for the Arts and premiered in June 2019. HWORF was originally inspired by my desire to create meaningful dialogue around the broad issue of water rights and protest. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the water injustices in Flint, MI have stayed with me for the past 2 years. These issues became the nexus of the two themes of my show. The first theme water, exploring its importance, the destruction it can provoke & the sustainability it provides. The second theme is protest, investigating why it is needed, how it is used & the longevity it provides. We are in the beginning phases of exploring the development of these ideas and this concert includes excerpts resonant of a flip book of different manifestations of the two themes through a visceral experience using modern dance combined with a mix of jazz and eclectic music. While allowing us to share our perspective about water and protest this concert also allows us to fulfill our mission of Philanthropy through Dance. A large percentage of the ticket sales will go towards the Rasin Foundation’s De-Worming Initiative that it provides to the community of Leogane, Haiti. As a Board member of the Foundation I am eager to create an intersection between art and health in a tangible way. We are currently serving 1,000 children and 168 peri partum women providing medication to help prevent intestinal parasites that potentially lead to death.
To be a humanitarian is a duty that all privileged people should be aiming for. As defined by Merriam-Webster: a Humanitarian (n) is a person promoting human welfare and social reform. (adj) relating to or characteristic of people who work to improve the lives and living conditions of other people.
These are the motivators for the work I want to produce. As Zora Neale Hurston is quoted as saying “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” My aim is still not remain silent about the things that affect my life and instead share my perspective with the world. The more variety of voices providing perspective, the richer the conversation and understanding can be.
N: Your company’s mission, in part, is to create research based choreography. Can you explain what that means and how it may differ from other choreographic processes?
JO: Creating research based choreography has been a wonderful experience and one that is new to my practice. In other works that I’ve made the focus has been heavily on movement, athleticism and the spectacle of the music. I’ve since shifted my approach to one that I’ve been exposed to through working with other choreographers that I admire and one that fully resonates with what I want to be saying as an Artist. Being able to immerse myself in the stories, facts, outcomes and potentials of the subject that I am focusing on has helped me to approach my dancers in a way that helps them create the relationships onstage that are full and robust. Once I have collected my research, I try to find ways to share that information with my dancers and discuss the most authentic representation on stage. Throughout my process with the dancers, we’re in constant dialogue about movement and how our relationships to each other are reflecting the overall message of the piece. Using this method is still new to my practice but experimenting with this approach has brought fulfilling challenges elevating my choreographic lens and enhancing the depth of my dancers.
Nailah Randall-Bellinger is a major mentor. She was my college professor who showed me a world of dance that I didn’t know existed. Almost 20 years later and she is the person that I call on as a friend and artistic advisor when creating work and discussing issues that effect that creation process. Bob Thomas was another college professor of mine who spoke truth to power about the realities of dance and career. He often helps me with strategizing to make money and inspires me with his ability to think way outside of the artistic box. He has often been a sounding board and friend to me over the years. Last but not least, Marlene Edouard, she has become my second mom and the person who introduced and guided me through the Haitian culture and tradition, not only of dance but life as well. She trained me in Folkloric Dance and opened many doors for me in Boston while encouraging me to dream bigger and execute larger.
Through the work of my company and the classes that I teach both in the community and through the schools and universities that I work for, I am providing a space for people to discover dance and themselves. By creating critically thinking individuals who, hopefully, will continue to pay forward everything that I share with them my intention is to raise the artistic bar in this city.
N: Who are some of your favorite choreographers and why?
JO: Ulysses Dove!! His works are some of the first that I saw that really moved me to want to dance fully and share stories through movement. Particularly, VESPERS, still has me awe struck and butterfly filled. After watching his interviews I felt more connected to his work. He states “I am interested in passion. In every embrace, every second of life (should be) lived so fully that there can be no regrets, no retreat, no looking back.” -Published in Connoisseur magazine
Other choreographers that I admire are Katherine Dunham for her anthropological approach to black dance, Pearl Primus for her choreographic works that reflected her research of black dance and culture in Africa and the Caribbean. Fatima Robinson for her edge and creativity in commercial dance and more recently Reggie Wilson for his approach and process to creating black dance using research based methods. I often find myself being motivated by the works that these people have created and the dedication that they gave to the art form.