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

Jen Rosenblit


In Mouth, featuring Rosenblit and Addys Gonzalez

How did this shared evening happen?
A couple of months after my Studio Series [at Dance Theater Workshop], Carla Peterson asked me to come in to chat. We were just talking about things I was interested in after I'd had that yearlong residency of not really having to produce anything. I was not so geared toward having a show, but the way she proposed it made me really excited. I've known Vanessa for a couple of years, and I really like her work; the way Carla talked about this shared bill was that she was excited about our work being seen together—by the similar place we're in, but also by the differences in our work. Vanessa and I have a similar circle of friends and audience. We share a lot of dancers. Vanessa has worked with me; I've worked with a lot of her current cast members. Sometimes, on a shared evening, half the audience is there for one person and the other half is there for the other. But our work is innately different enough that it won't feel doubled or repetitive. She was interested in working with a group. I work with groups, and I work in the duet form with Addys Gonzalez, my friend and collaborator. I never know what I want to do, so [Vanessa's plan for a group work] swayed me in the direction of duet.

Does In Mouth have anything to do with Salivate if you could, your Studio Series work?
I'm sure there are things that I'm referencing that aren't super clear to me yet. There's one section that we're marking—meaning we're using the idea of marking—and there was a section like that in the Studio Series piece, but it was much more extreme. We were really trying to perform the hell out of marking it. But I don't think thematically that they're similar; visually, they're very different. I make really different decisions when I don't have a lot of bodies to explore spatial patterns with. And I got excited about the idea of production value. That might be a major difference. I got excited about lights and about costuming. Equally excited and scared. I got into theatricality. I've been reading a lot of Andr Lepecki and Jenn Joy and contemporary theory on performance, and I'm letting that absorb. I'm also really excited that this is in a theater, and a really specific one, where the seating is far away from the stage. Pretty early on, we started slipping in ideas of production; all these things you don't do when you're just making a work-in-process that will be shown in a studio.

Isn't it a reaction against the drabness of the studios at New York Live Arts?
Yeah. That space has been my graduate school almost! I've seen so many shows there that I've loved or hated; there's a lot of borrowing of information that I've seen and responded to. Or rebelled against it. So the production choices I've made are definitely in response to my history with that space.

What are they?
I've definitely been thinking about lighting, which I normally have a hard time with. I don't know how to talk about it; I'd rather it not be there, or I want it to be really amazing, but I don't know what that means. Lighting is something that's really outside of dance for me, but I've been approaching it this time as a little more connected to what I know, which is bodies and space. I'm working with Elliott Jenetopulos. Elliott is a friend and someone who I've seen shift in the ways that I've shifted in this field, so it feels exciting that we're bouncing ideas off of each other. We're interested in the theatricality of the space. Part of our conversation has been about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Are we rebelling against certain ways of seeing, or are we looking to new structures? Is the very essence of a structure outdated? Right now, we're at this place where we want to make the lighting [design] transparent. I don't think it's a new concept to see the lighting fixtures, but we're going to build structures out of the existing fixtures in the space. Instead of keeping the existing fixtures in their normal plot structure, we're going to try to build them up to make a new body of lighting. And we're also talking about me controlling them from the stage, which is making even more visible the idea of a crew and where things are controlled from.

You want to work with ideas of theatricality, but you want to show everything?
Yeah. Maybe it's because I work tech as one of my jobs. The idea of theatricality to me is partially behind the stage. I've always had some kind of job that's been a bit backstage—or not related to just dancing. Who does what? I am the house manager at Danspace Project, which is technically front of house, not backstage, and dealing more with audience, but because that space is so unconventional, it's all the same. In a lot of New York, there is no back of house; even my restaurant jobs—there's a very tiny kitchen that the customers can basically see into. So I think that most of my understanding of production is that it needs to be transparent because people can see through that facade of hiding.

How did this piece begin?
This actually started as a trio. We had a Catch show where they wanted each artist to show five minutes. It was an interesting nugget of time; we pushed out five minutes of an idea, and that has remained the core of the work. The way we're looking at it is that it's not a duet: It's two separate solos. Addys and I have always questioned the nature of our duets. We feel like it is that we are both solo artists. [Laughs] We situate ourselves as soloists in the same space.

But you do have contact with each other, right?
We do. In the past few years, we've been frustrated with our duets. I feel like I make these scenarios where I do something silly and Addys responds; it's created this dumb-or-dumber quality. One is tall and skinny, and the other is short and fat. It's easy to fall into what you know the audience will respond to. We sort of succumb to the giggles and laughter. I think this work is exploring the idea of how a duet can be two separate bodies, and that there is relationship based on being in the same space. We're interested in challenging and questioning the idea of what is relationship. How does it have to be portrayed and explored?

I don't want to put words in your mouth, but the press release talks about how the work may or may not be about gay marriage. Is that valid?
Yeah! Some of describing dances for me is that I want to be funny because I'm never clear on what I'm doing. We just, a few days ago, finished the essential choreography, and I wrote that press release three months ago. It's that funny nature of trying to understand a dance ahead of time. The second night of the Catch show was the day that gay marriage became legal [in New York], but there were already funny feelings and images of marriage that were coming up. In the early stages of this being a trio, there was a lot of duet nature in it, of gravitating toward each other and holding hands or stopping and looking at the audience. We were using a lace cloth that I draped over my face, and it felt like there were saintly images and a very interesting, funny marriage theme that at first freaked me out because I rarely deal so literally in theme. Part of the process was acknowledging, in a meditative way, what's coming up? Do I want to play into it? Can I just let it come up and not acknowledge it as theme? We asked some people to watch, and the idea of marriage consistently came up. [Laughs] Which is funny! I'm not freaked out by it anymore. I think it's a slight interlude of a hundred things that are happening in the dance.

How did you and Addys meet?
We met our first day at Hampshire College. We collaborated on our thesis show together—really challenging the idea of intermission. How long can you push it before people need a break? It became very apparent that we were interested in each other's ideas.

Did you specifically attend Hampshire to study dance?
I did. It's a general-arts program, but they have a good dance program and the five college consortium [Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst] offer more technique than Hampshire offers—and more composition—so it was actually a great program for me. I didn't want to go to a conservatory, but I wanted to be invested in a really artistic approach to dance. I have been dancing for a very long time. My mom put me in a dance class when I was five; it was a very hippie-esque studio. A lot of improvisation. Everyone was encouraged to make dances by themselves and show them, so I remember being seven and performing a solo to the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." But it was going to college that made me feel like, Oh, dance can be something that's not just an after-school program. I learned ballet much later—and even the difference between modern and ballet much later. I grew up in southern Maine. In high school, I was doing a combination of modern and lyrical jazz, but in a really small town. We didn't have costumes. It was one teacher, and we were more invested in the creative side than in technique or training. When I was a junior, I went to Portland, Maine, to take ballet with Karen Hurll Montanaro. Her husband was Tony Montanaro, the famous mime. She was really inspirational; she was a really hard-core ballerina, but she had another approach to teaching ballet, which was this miming pedagogy of imagination. So I learned a bit of technique from her and even learned pointe. I wasn't very good at it. I went to college with a bit of understanding of technique and a larger background in making my own work. And whether I understood what that meant, I liked making up dances.

Why were you drawn to dance for so long?
I think there's not much to do in a rural town in New England. I didn't especially love elementary school or high school. I didn't especially love all the people around me. I looked a bit different than everyone; that part of Maine is really French-Canadian—fair, blond. Maine became more of my home when I left it and understood how it influenced me. I grew up with ten other people who were going to the studio on the same days after school, and they became my best friends. It was more of a lifestyle thing and less of, "I need to become a good dancer." It was about the people I was with and how exciting it was to have shows, and to have your family and friends come to see them. But as I grew up, I became more aware of my body, and I had more questions about my body. I started reading and writing and learning about history and theory, and dance resonated for me as the perfect medium to explore my ideas. The practice of learning dance three times a week after school was the most appropriate way to think about the things I was learning or not learning.

Could you talk about your title, In Mouth?
I've liked other titles more than this one, but it has proved to be exceedingly appropriate over the past couple of months. Ever since I did my Fresh Tracks performance, I've been obsessed with things going in my mouth. I've always had a fear of the dentist. I don't have health insurance. I'm obsessed with brushing and flossing and making sure that I don't get cavities because the dentist is so expensive! So I've always had this funny thing about my mouth. At Hollins, I sat in on one of the classes and saw Matthew Barney's "The Order" [from The Cremaster Cycle], which I had seen in college, but it left my mind. When I resaw it I felt like, Wow, I'm 28 years old and I understand these references now. The main character has a rag shoved in his mouth; I remembered how much I liked it, how weird he is, how I didn't really understand all of his images, but what was the most interesting for me was how he as a visual artist was employing dance, yet there's never any conversation about dance as a form. At Hollins, where I think the students come out smarter than most people, there were a lot of comments like, "This isn't a feminist work, it's super masculine." My question was, Where's the conversation about dance? This is shown in every dance program—we watch this video, but we know that he's not a dance artist. We know that he's a visual artist, that he has a lot of money for his projects, and that he's in spaces that we will never go in. Yeah, I have thoughts on feminism and the masculine body, but I was more like, This is so beautiful—this is dance. From the very beginning, when we were rehearsing, Addys had a rag in his mouth, and we started meditating on that and on things being in our mouths and being affected. Not having a clear body to start from. I try to start each piece by asking whomever I'm working with: What do you want? Where are you? How do you want to be seen? And Addys was feeling like, I want to be affected. He talks a lot how I have props on my body, like I have weight in certain places or long hair—there's a lot that I can do to cover my face or add on or be affected, and he wanted to experience that. So this rag in the mouth is a perfect thing: It makes you out of breath. Your mouth becomes very dry. There is a whole facial thing that happens when you shove something in your mouth. It was the perfect place for him to start from.

You mentioned you were also going for costumes. How so?
I'm always thinking about what is exposed and what's not. We've had moments of nudity and exposure that have been more cheeky and commentary. And so I don't want to say too much about what's happening with the body this time, but there's been a pretty clear decision about exposure. I've had extravagant ideas for Addys as a mythical creature, so we're diving into fairy-tale costuming or a look, even if it's more casual than that. That's where we're coming from. We've been thinking about ourselves as fallen angels. I have these leather adornments. And on top of that, from the beginning, we've both been thinking about a historical context. I guess the two examples that we talk about all the time are the extravagance of the Ballets Russes—a dramatic approach to adorning the body—coupled with a closer look in our historical understanding of modern dance in the Judson era of streetwear. We're excited by both of them.

Vanessa Anspaugh + Jen Rosenblit are at New York Live Arts Feb 15--18.

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