Fri Dec 9 2011
Photograph: Anna Finke
You're from Kentucky. How old were you when you started dance?
I started dancing when I was four. [Laughs] A very long time ago.
Why did you start?
I don't remember making any conscious decision about going, and I don't know exactly why my parents put me in dance class, but I do remember that my father had an office next to a dance studio, and when I was born, my great aunt went to the woman who ran the studio and said, "I have a new dancer for you." And the woman said, "Well, great. When does she start? Bring her over!" And my great aunt said, "Well, she was just born." But I ended up training with this woman four years later. The studio had moved locations, but that is actually where I grew up and that's where I had my dance training. Her name was Joy Johnson and her studio was Johnson's Dance Studio and then also the Owensboro Dance Theatre, which was a preprofessional company that she started with another woman, my ballet teacher, Karen Carothers. It's funny to think about that.
Was the training predominantly ballet?
No. I started with typical ballet, tap and gymnastics. And Ms. Johnson told my mother that she really should put me in just a straight gymnastics class because I was trying to do things that were too advanced, and she thought that I needed a bit more supervision and more of a challenge. So when I was very young, I actually was more interested in gymnastics. I wanted to be the next Mary Lou Retton. I trained a bit and competed and did all of that, which feels like another lifetime.
What were you drawn to in gymnastics?
The floor routine because it was the most dancey! I loved the balance beam and I loved the floor. The uneven parallel bars and the vault—I just didn't have that bulk strength and I knew it. Even as a young girl, I was like, I like the dancey stuff. So I had to make a decision around eight, nine, ten: Am I gonna give up gymnastics and really focus on my dancing? What am I going to do? So I chose dancing.
It's crazy how little kids have to make such serious decisions.
Yeah. A nine-, ten-year-old making a career-path choice at that time? It seems absurd.
How often did you train at that point? Was it serious?
Up until age ten, it was probably two to three days a week, and then after that, definitely four days a week. I started going to some auditions for summer dance programs—ballet summer programs. When I was 12, I went to the Boston Ballet children's summer program and that sparked a greater focus on ballet. But also about the time I was seven or eight, I studied jazz dance. We had very, very good jazz training at my studio: Gus Giordano's jazz—his style. And his daughter Nan used to come and set pieces on us. It was very serious. Actually, the classes are quite similar to even a Cunningham class.
You start with various back exercises and isolations of the body and legwork and move into combinations across the floor. So I ended up with very serious jazz training and very serious ballet training. Jazz dance is very serious and very sexy and sensual. I thought to myself, I'm 12. You know? I'm not sexy. [Laughs] This isn't for me, this is for when I'm more mature, and I've had some life experience. I don't know that most kids today would really think about that, but having this very clear understanding of my own development as a person was kind of humorous. So when I was 12 or 13, I started becoming more serious about ballet and really wanting to pursue that. I started supplementing my training by traveling to a town that was an hour away from where I lived to take class on the weekends and on Wednesdays because there was no class at my studio on Wednesdays. Just to get all that I could.
You went to Purchase. What happened in terms of ballet? Did you continue?
I left home my senior year of high school and moved to Connecticut to study at the Nutmeg Ballet. It's a conservatory program. I spent my senior year of high school at the public high school there. I was totally living on my own with some other dance students; their training is hard-core Vaganova. So I did that program for two years and also did an apprenticeship with the Louisville Ballet for a season. And then I took a little time off. I was actually thinking that I was gonna quit dancing. I went to a lot of ballet auditions and something wasn't clicking. The typical story: You make it to the end of the audition and then you get a phone call: "We want someone with more experience." It's like, Okay, I'm 19 years old. How am I supposed to get experience if everybody wants someone with more experience?
Now, after having a career, I have more sympathy for that. But I was very unsure about what I was going to do. I was interested in visual art. I thought I might become an art student or go a more academic route. After visiting a lot of colleges with all different sorts of programs—every school had a dance department, but not all of them had majors—I just sort of woke up one morning and said, I still want to try to dance. And I'd had a little bit of modern dance training when I was at Nutmeg Ballet. I got introduced to Graham. Momix actually was very near, so I had just seen a lot of their performances. I went to Purchase with the intention of wanting to study modern dance. But of course, I get there and I had obviously had a lot of serious ballet training, so the ballet faculty was very excited to have a very well-trained young dancer to work with. So it was difficult, because you get labeled when you enter a program like that: Oh, they're a ballet dancer; oh, they're this.... But I was introduced to Cunningham, which somehow bridged the gap between the modern dance that felt really, really unfamiliar to my body and ballet training. Somehow, it made sense more than any of the other modern classes. One day, [the choreographer] Kevin Wynn said to a friend of mine—I was new, a freshman: "That Jennifer Goggans, she works like a dog!" I wanted to learn everything. I wanted to learn as much as I could. I didn't care. Graham class, I didn't really understand what all the drama was about, and I knew that that wasn't really instinctual to me, but I wanted to learn something new—it just didn't matter. I wanted to learn as much as I could.
When did you encounter the Cunningham technique?
The second semester I was there, Cathy Kerr came to set Duets. I wasn't in the piece that first year, but she was my teacher. I had her twice a week, actually from second semester until I left. So I had very good Cunningham training all while I was at Purchase. They did Duets for two years, so I was actually in the piece the following year.
What part did you do?
Well the second year that she set the piece—because a lot of the same students were in it from the year before—she cast it so that each person danced three of the six duets. So I did the odd numbers: one, three and five. It's sort of strange: We just reconstructed Duets recently, and I'm doing one of the same ones I did at Purchase. It's a very strange circle.
Did you come to the city to take class at the studio as well?
Yeah. After my sophomore year, I was on scholarship for the summer. I did some waitressing on Sixth Avenue and took my Cunningham classes. The next year, I actually didn't come to the studio. I was recovering from an injury; I had a very bad stress fracture in my shin. So that healed up very nicely. [Laughs] And I didn't spend a lot of time at the studio again—I would come during spring break—any chance I had. But I was here the winter break of my senior year. And I came and did a workshop that Robert [Swinston] was teaching for a piece called Field Dances. In Field Dances, you learn all of these small phrases—they're relatively simple; most people could do them. You don't need extensive dance training to do this dance. Then you pick and choose what you do, and there's a bit of a sense of improvisation within it. I took this workshop and I was actually very unhappy. [Laughs] I was a senior in college. I wanted to learn a serious, hard-core, technical dance, and this wasn't that.
What did you do?
I called my mother at the end of the week and I cried and I said, "What am I gonna do with my life? I really like Cunningham, but there are all of these people that have been here for so long. And there are students and understudies and I'm never gonna have a chance and woe is me." [Laughs] And I hung up the phone with my mother, who was trying to console me, and about an hour later, Robert called and said, "Jennifer, there is a woman who has given her notice that she's going to be leaving the company in June, and we are looking for a replacement for her. I need you to start as an understudy on Monday." And this was Saturday. He said, "We have let go of the understudies that are currently here"—which was sad—"and we're hiring you and Mandy Kirschner, who had been my roommate in college. So we were, in essence, competing for Maydelle's [Fason] contract. Which is not a very easy situation to be in with a close friend, but luckily, we were close enough that we could talk about it and help support each other through it. And so I said, "Robert, I have to start school on Wednesday. I don't know what you're talking about!" And he said, "Oh, I've already talked to [the] school, and we've already worked it out." I felt like the gates were open and suddenly I was able to see my life ahead of me.