Vanessa Anspaugh + Jen Rosenblit

One night, two voices: Vanessa Anspaugh and Jen Rosenblit share a program at NYLA.

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  • Photograph: Christy Pessagno

    Vanessa Anspaugh

    Vanessa Anspaugh

  • Photograph: Christy Pessagno

    Vanessa Anspaugh

    Vanessa Anspaugh

  • Photograph: Christy Pessagno

    Vanessa Anspaugh

    Vanessa Anspaugh

  • Photograph: Ian Douglas

    Jen Rosenblitt

    Jen Rosenblitt

  • Photograph: Ian Douglas

    Jen Rosenblitt

    Jen Rosenblitt

  • Photograph: Jim Cole

    Jen Rosenblitt

    Jen Rosenblitt

  • Photograph: Lily Gold

    Jen Rosenblitt

    Jen Rosenblitt

Photograph: Christy Pessagno

Vanessa Anspaugh

Vanessa Anspaugh

Vanessa Anspaugh


Armed Guard Garden,
featuring Aretha Aoki, Niall Noel Jones, Molly Lieber, Lydia Okrent and Mary Read

Did Carla Peterson mention Jen Rosenblit as someone you might share an evening with?
She mentioned a couple of artists that she was taking to. I heard Jen as a part of that, and I was like, Oh! Jen and I have been friends and creative colleagues for the last few years, and I thought it would be a great match, mostly because we share a similar community and some aesthetics and values, although we're still really different. I also love her as a person; she's like family to me. Anyway, I was excited by that prospect, but didn't want to hold on to it. Carla mentioned a lot of other people. She had also talked about putting me in an evening with two or three other artists. She said, "Maybe you don't need to do a split evening. Maybe what you have to say can be said in 20 minutes, and that's okay if you're that kind of artist." Because I'd never had even an evening-length show, aside from my Studio Series, I did say to her, "Actually, I think that I do tend toward needing length and space, and I would really prefer to have at least half an evening."

Tell me about your piece.
It's a really challenging thing to dive into. But I can tell you where I started. The last piece I showed in the fall was called We Are Weather. I made that in the midst of a pretty serious divorce after being with my partner for seven years. I was in a very raw place where I took a lot of risks and allowed the work to be really vulnerable. Also, my best friend was going through a breakup after seven years—Aretha Aoki. Mary Read, the other dancer, her mom had just passed away. Everybody was in a lot of grief, and the piece ended up being a pretty emotional work that was a lot about letting go. It was just really personal. I think [my work] always starts out with my fascination between self and other. I wasn't trying to make a piece about loss or grief; I tend to be really inspired by the people that I work with. I'm really interested in the people before almost anything else.

How do you depart from that in the new work?
I wanted to widen my lens, and I thought about getting out of this "me and you." How do I make it broader and in a way more political? Even though I feel that the personal is political, I wanted it to widen. I was thinking about landscape and space and borders as a simple way to think about that and at the same time, I was reading Storming the Gates of Paradise, by Rebecca Solnit. She also wrote A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I was reading when I made We Are Weather. She writes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, historical criticism and art criticism, and it's all in a mash-up. Beside being influenced by that style of mash-up, I was also thinking about borders. She wrote a small anecdote that really stuck out to me. It was about being in L.A.—I'm also from L.A.—in the Hollywood Hills and noticing that a lot of people's front yards were dotted with little signs. Everyone had immaculate gardens, which were kind of an in-between border between their houses and the street or the public space, and there were little signs that said armed response. She writes that it's like a sword for every paradise. It's intended for two different audiences, those who are not meant to see it, and those who are meant to be kept out. She asks: "Does paradise exist when we're guarding or protecting it?" I felt really interested in that idea, and right after reading that story, the words armed guard garden came up in my mind and I thought, That is a really beautiful collection of words that feel poetic and heavy. So I did start with thinking about that as a place to begin as a title. And then we got this residency at the Kaatsbaan upstate, which is so beautiful and incredible and wild.

What was that like?
The studios are gi-normous—100-foot ceilings. We were the only dancers there. I went there with Mary and Molly, so it was this very surreal paradise garden that we'd entered into, and I sort of feel like the beginning of the piece is actually the beginning of that time we spent together. The piece begins with two dancers just standing on the stage, one far downstage and one far upstage, for a really long time—maybe five minutes—and I think it's the beginning of situating ourselves in that in-between space.

Why aren't you in the piece?
I am a performer, but I don't know how people dance in their own work. It's really hard for me. I do feel very visually inspired, and so I have to see it a lot and be outside. The only way I can imagine being in my own work is if I kicked somebody out at the very end, which seems really horrible. [Laughs] I don't want to do that.

What were you drawn to in terms of dancers?
I feel that incredible dancers or performers tend to be incredible people. There's a chemistry between us—are we interested in each other as people? So that's the first thing, and then trust and vulnerability. Dancers who are able to stretch themselves. It's such a precious gift to be able to receive that space and that trust as a choreographer. I just think it takes a really unique person to be able to go to all kinds of different dark or vulnerable places and trust you as you take them there. I'm working with dancers across the spectrum. Molly Lieber is very technical—a very strong, powerful mover who spends every day dancing. And then I have Lydia Okrent, who also performs here or there but is more of a visual artist, and she lives in Philly. I was really drawn to the chemistry of all these different people together. I think that's also it: It's not just really great people, but who are they next to each other? Casting is 75 percent of the piece. I really want to take these people and put a light on them. I actually don't have to do much. I can just put a frame around them; the poetry of them next to each other is quite captivating. I'm also working in collaboration with a dramaturg, Susan Mar Landau.

You have a conceptual collaborator, too. Aren't there a lot of people involved?
It's true. It's a lot of people to manage; there are a lot of energies in the room, but not everyone is there at the same time all the time. It's pretty consistently the dancers and myself, and at a certain stage in the process I bring in my dramaturg and my conceptual collaborator—Cassie Maude Peterson—who is someone I talk to a great deal about my work and who influences me a lot in how I think about art. Both Cassie and Susan are helpful in contextualizing because I think I stumble around blindly a lot, which is my process. I enjoy that. I see it as being intuitive and paying attention to the moment, what's happening in the room, and then they'll come in and be like, "Wow, you're talking about war and objectification of the image and the body," and I'm just like, "Oh, yeah, okay." Sometimes it's off and sometimes it feels really spot-on. I go back and forth in my process of trying to close my eyes and make choices, and then I do get really tight and controlling and try to shape a lot, too.

Do you do that later in the process?
Definitely. However, this piece in general feels a lot tighter. Not tighter in a good way, but more controlled than some of my other works, and I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. [Danspace Project executive director] Judy [Hussie-Taylor] had come to see my Studio Series, and she really loved We Are Weather. She said, "I feel like there's a lot going on and I realize you're the kind of artist that probably takes a really long time to make a piece, so I don't want to show what you're working on now. I think we should show We Are Weather. It deserves more of its own space than when it was seen in Fresh Tracks." That was really hard for me because I felt like, Well, actually you just don't like the new one. But then when Carla approached me about doing something new, there was no expectation; she was like, just make whatever you want to make. It felt like she had a lot of faith in me, and that felt really good. But I think Judy's words have been haunting me—also in a helpful way. I've been wondering about how I do take on a lot in one piece. What am I really trying to get at? I rarely investigate one singular aesthetic idea or task. I am all over the map, and part of me embraces that. At the same time, I'm also curious about what doesn't come naturally to me. I want to challenge myself, and I'm interested in a more pointed, singular investigation.

Because you described yourself as someone who sees things visually, what will this look like?
It's going to be pretty theatrical and dramatic. I'm just going for it in that regard. And what's kind of wild is that the costumes are being done by Emily Roysdon, who is more a visual artist, and she decided everyone should be in the same costume. I kind of freaked out. I've never done that. I was like, "You don't do that in contemporary dance, Emily. That's not cool." [Laughs] She wrote me the next day and was like, "Your piece is really militaristic: It starts out with a sense of these two guards and so actually, that's the reason. You're working with the sort of insider/outsider militaristic frame." That's one big risk I'm still not sure about. I'm trying to just go with it. It's going to start with the dancers on the edge of the space, and then there are some lines being drawn with whole-wheat flour on the white Marley floor. So lines are made, and throughout the piece they get kind of messed up. The dancers aren't specifically rolling in it, but they get a lot of the mess on their costumes and in their hair.

I like the idea of the uniform, of the costumes being the same. I think dances are starting to look the same and part of that has to do with costuming.
I was talking to Reid [Bartelme] about that, and he was so excited. He said, "Everything is starting to look the same in everybody's pedestrian-dancer whatever clothes, and it's almost like there's a fear in that. As soon as there's a trend that is expected, you're afraid to break out of it. Don't you think you should?" I was like, you're right. In this piece I'm not feeling my own risk-taking enough. I'm still pushing that, I'm trying to find it, and I'm hoping it will come in the end. But this is something of a risk.

How did you end up in New York?
I did not come here intentionally. I loathed New York, and I wanted to live in the country. I've lived all over the place. I went to undergrad in Ohio at Antioch College, where we traveled every other semester to a different place. One of my internships was here in the city, and I had a lot of friends who moved to Brooklyn after school. When I graduated I wanted to live in New Mexico. I had worked at a rape crisis center there for one of my internships and worked at a photo studio, and I was doing a lot of photography. I wanted to go back to that life. One of my friends was like, "Let's all live in Brooklyn together" like we'd done the previous summer. I said, "Okay, but just for the summer," and then I got sucked in. I started seeing someone and building a life here, and I kept intending to get out. And I really did not like it. I did not want to be a New Yorker. I even got myself out of New York to go to Smith for grad school, which was not really about going to grad school at all, it was just about getting out of New York. They pay you to go to that program. When I moved to New York, I was really into making visual art. I was trained classically as a ballerina, and I had to recover and take a hiatus for five or six years, and I started taking modern dance in college. In New York, I saw a piece by Yasmeen Godder that totally blew my mind. It was the first real contemporary dance I'd seen with my own eyes. A friend was like, "That woman is you." She thought I was a lot like Yasmeen in my personality—overstated, theatrical gestures, and I felt a resonance with her work, but I had never made anything like that with the body. I was making a lot of visual art that was all pretty and expressive and awkward. So anyway, during the last year of college, I spent six months in India at a monastery meditating. Then I went back to college and made this performance dance piece that felt really influenced by both my time in New York and the meditation. I came back to New York—not wanting to move back to New York, but taking dance classes and focusing on the visual art. I was really not seeing the right stuff. I had no community of artists, I didn't know where to see dance. I kept seeing things that were not really inspiring me. I didn't even know about Dance Theater Workshop for years. I was in an aerial dance company for a bit, Fly-by-Night.

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