Jillian Peña talks about The Guiding Light

Jillian Peña talks about how ballet helped her survive a devastating car accident and how it led to her new The Guiding Light



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Jillian Pena

Jillian Pena Photograph: Chris Sellers

Jillian Peña talks about her new dance The Guiding Light, which is at the Chocolate Factory December 5 through 8. In this interview with Jillian Peña, the choreographer discusses how a devastating car accident led her back to ballet. In The Guiding Light, Jillian Peña takes inspiration from the Tiller Girls, science fiction, cults and ballet.

During the summer of 2008, a car struck Jillian Peña as she was crossing the street in Brooklyn. She was lucky not to be killed, but her recovery—which involved surgery to remove two hematomas and a medically induced coma at Bellevue Hospital—has been even more miraculous. She believes that part of what saved her was ballet. In The Guiding Light, which is at the Chocolate Factory through Saturday 8, Peña explores states of religion in the ballet body as well as what it means to believe in something. There’s even a tinge of sci-fi. As it turns out, ballet may be a little bit of a cult. Peña searches for its leader. 

Time Out New York: What were some of your ideas for The Guiding Light
Jillian Peña:
I always start with a title. For this, I started with the word chosen. I was thinking about that process of feeling chosen for something, and I was relating that to two things, which are what I’m generally interested in in all of my work. You’re chosen for dancing. It just is true. There’s something about a body. I know that I wasn’t chosen to be a ballet dancer. It’s that simple. And I was trying to think of what it must feel like to be born-again.  

Time Out New York: Or what it must be like to feel so sure about something.
Jillian Peña:
Right! It’s ludicrous. I can’t imagine, but I can.

Time Out New York: For you, is dance a calling?
Jillian Peña:
Oh, yes. That’s another word I was thinking about. I think it’s about feeling small in comparison to whatever it is. I don’t know a single person who is born-again so I don’t know what I’m talking about, but in my impression, how you feel must be nice because you surrender. You get to be a small part of a larger cosmos. It’s very modernist to think of the individual. I just really wish that I believed in something. And this is what the content is in a way. I’ve always been so jealous of people who are religious, but I do feel that what I can believe in is dance. I was thinking about how everybody always got homesick when they would leave for summers, and that I never felt homesick: I’m doing ballet. Why on earth would I be homesick? I’m at home. That’s the only larger force. So I am trying to equate ballet with religion.

Time Out New York: Where did you first study ballet?
Jillian Peña:
I grew up in Baptist ballet school. My mom would always shield me whenever they would pray before performances. She’d be like, “Just hide, just hide.” [Laughs] They told us that our bodies were vessels for Jesus. Imagine! I was aware of that from 7 to 18—but thinking of your female body as a vessel for Jesus? It’s like, no wonder I worked at a strip club afterward. Like, duh! Vessels for some guy. The correlation between dance and religion for me has always been in my sphere. That’s how I was trained. 

Time Out New York: You were living in Albuquerque. Did you perform religious-themed dances or dance in church?
Jillian Peña:
We performed in churches a lot. And it was kind of amazing how people in some churches  would rise up and dance with us. It was beautiful. I wish that I could ever feel that calling, that, Yes! I feel it. But there were also regular dances to Christian music.

Time Out New York: That’s worse for some reason.
Jillian Peña:
Oh my God, if you could see the tapes. They’re incredible. It’s dark. It’s dark that it wasn’t a choice for me. And I think that’s where my mom tried to give me the other view of it, but still it was bound with dance. In this process, I was thinking about religion a lot. Mitt Romney almost became president! Have you read about Mormonism? Nobody even addressed the issue that he was Mormon. Even Rachel Maddow! Did everybody get a memo? Don’t go there. It made me look at some of the stories about Mormonism. It’s so sci-fi. It’s like the stories of how they came into existence are so not scientific, but science fiction. They’re so imaginary. It’s outrageous.

Time Out New York: Cultish?
Jillian Peña:
Oh yeah. So I was reading about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard was a sci-fi writer before he became a leader of this religion. So that and religion feels really bound to me. I read the Bible in high school, in a history class, and it’s beautiful. It’s not sci-fi. It’s something else. Or I don’t know; I didn’t read all of it. [Laughs] I skimmed it. I was thinking about cults for this piece, and there is some text from [religious group] Heaven’s Gate. That’s the group that killed themselves in 1997 in California. They [also referred to themselves as] the Heaven’s Gate Away Team—and “away team” is from Star Trek. So they’re making that clear. They thought that the world was about to be recycled so they needed to get away. I feel all my work is about things like that: Searching for something beyond the body, but through the body or transcending the body. And ballet is kind of sci-fi anyway. How it lives in my body at least and why I love Russian training and Vaganova so much is the carriage—I feel this deep history, and it’s pretty strange. How were those positions and movements created? To me, it seems sci-fi.

Time Out New York: And you have to worship the form and the technique in a way. You practice it every day, just as you pray.
Jillian Peña:
Yes. And also you do believe in an image of perfection. We get better because we know that there’s something higher. But what is that? It’s even higher than Sylvie Guillem.

Time Out New York: You need a better example with me.
Jillian Peña:
[Laughs] I feel like I’m rambling. I worked with my dancers each separately and I was trying to ask them what their history of ballet is and how they came to it. Who they thought they were in it. One of my dancers, Lea [Fulton] said, “I feel like I’m finally living my dream in this piece.” To me, that’s perfect. I’m interested in the fantasy of dance. I was originally working with a girl and she’s young—20 years old—and I asked her who her dance fantasy would be. I didn’t continue working with her. She said, “Mila Kunis in Black Swan.

Time Out New York: God. What was Lea’s?
Jillian Peña:
She grew up in Hungary, and she saw dance on TV and said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” She bought pointe shoes even though she had never studied dance at all and was training herself. That’s the most romantic thing I ever heard. And then she moved to L.A., and they were like, “Try jazz.”

Time Out New York: What is your fantasy?
Jillian Peña:
Vaganova. Children of Theatre Street (a 1977 documentary about the Kirov School of Ballet in Russia). I want to be measured, and I want my parents’ arms to be measured. I was so disappointed that when I did go to the Kirov Academy for a summer they didn’t do that. They did the weighing and the measuring, but I was like, “Don’t you want to do that every week?” I wanted so much more strictness. I wanted to be under severe discipline. I think it’s because I didn’t have any. I had really liberal awesome parents who let me do whatever I wanted. I can’t imagine that everybody doesn’t want discipline in some way, but they don’t; I know it’s my own whatever I brought with me. I don’t feel like my brother’s like that. Maybe he is.

Time Out New York: Is there a core group of dancers in The Guiding Light?
Jillian Peña:
Yes. There are three—Cassie Mey, Lea Fulton and Alexandra Albrecht. So it’s really a trio and the others are multiplied.

Time Out New York: How does the notion of multiplication figure in?
Jillian Peña:
I feel like I’ve always used it in the work. I’m constantly on the search for what that really means, but I feel like it’s a symbol. This is kind of what my dissertation is about at Goldsmiths [College, University of London]. It’s about the multiple, and I started looking at the Tiller Girls. In 1927, Siegfried Kracauer wrote The Mass Ornament, and it’s about how superficial emblems reveal the subconscious of a society. He’s talking about the Tiller Girls; they’re revealing a modernist, capitalist ethos because of the repetition of the bodies and because the focus is on the lines and the patterns that they make rather than on them as individuals. Multiples are in a lot of artist’s work. I can’t tell what it means in terms of religion, but in dance we grow up with a mirror. Your partner is your mirror image. You have so many selves multiplied in dance because you’re trying to dance alongside other people—you’re staring at their mirror images alongside yours and seeing how their mirrors line up with your mirrors and then the ultimate image of the brilliant ballerina. In dance, I don’t understand the solo. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe I should work on a solo. 

Time Out New York: Are you still writing your dissertation?
Jillian Peña:
Oh yeah. It’ll be forever. It’s so different in America than in the U.K. They do just expect you to finish in four years, and in America it seems like people take from seven to ten. In England, they’re like, “Why are you still working on this? Aren’t you done?” It’s supposed to be half research and half practice—it’s so cool how the practice and the research are in conversation.

Time Out New York: How does The Guiding Light relate to your accident?
Jillian Peña:
Obviously, somebody’s work is in conversation with their history and their past, but I was thinking about how after the accident I heard doctors say things like, “This doesn’t make sense that you’re okay, this doesn’t make sense that you’re who you were—we didn’t know that you would be the same person and that you would be able to walk and that you would be able to see out of your left eye.” Watching them search for answers, what kept coming up was that Erika Hand would give me ballet class in bed. I can’t help but think that that has something to do with helping me become myself. What do we keep on revisiting in our bodies? I think this piece is about trying to relive whatever experience I had—that the ballet brought me back. That was a vehicle for finding consciousness and finding my identity. It’s similar to religion.

Time Out New York: What would Erika have you do?
Jillian Peña:
She would have me do ballet barre. I don’t know whether she would actually move my body or give me instructions; I feel like there was maybe a little bit of both. She would tell me what to do and maybe guide me.

Time Out New York: When you heard doctors talk about your recovery process, what state were you in?
Jillian Peña:
I was conscious at that time, but I don’t feel like my understanding was very grounded. I wasn’t getting it totally. I don’t know what you make up in your memory. It’s like the stories we create out of the stories that other people tell you.

Time Out New York: What do you remember about the accident?
Jillian Peña:
Nothing. I do remember making oatmeal that morning, and I feel like I remember leaving the house. I remember saying hi to a girl that was staying in the apartment with me—I think. Again, I can kind of come up with a memory of the accident, but I really don’t know if it’s from the stories that I’ve heard. I don’t remember the stories that people tell me about where the driver was coming from. My brain is like, Don’t remember that part. Maybe it’s nice to have no idea. I did go to a hypnotist afterward and I said, “I want to know where my brain was—what I was thinking about.” One of my friends had gone to a psychic who had said, “She’s in the forest. She made her own forest, and she’s really happy there. She’ll come out whenever she wants.” I wanted to hear about the forest. I told that to the doctors and they said, “Jillian, your brain wasn’t capable of dreaming. It wasn’t capable of having any imagination. You really didn’t. Go ahead and see all the hypnotists you want, but it’s not there. You’re just missing a month or two.”

Time Out New York: Do you believe that?
Jillian Peña:
I don’t know. It’s so cool because that’s kind of like empty time. It’s like it didn’t exist.

Time Out New York: When did you start becoming aware of what had happened?
Jillian Peña:
Because I was in a coma for a month and two weeks of post-traumatic amnesia, I definitely wasn’t really remembering things. I do have a memory of sitting with somebody—it might have been Miguel [Gutierrez]—and saying, “Dude, did you hear what happened to me? This guy hit me—he beat me up.” I really thought that I had been at the mall; I think that’s maybe because I heard the phrase that “some guy hit me” and to me that meant violence and, therefore, the mall. I’m a child of the ’90s. [Laughs] Where else would that happen? But I also thought I was in London. [I was] thinking that it would have been possible to be on the wrong side of the road and to get hit. I also thought I had a show in London that everyone had come to see me at. Those were the first three stories of my experience. So I don’t remember when I finally got it. I think when I was getting my stomach peg removed—I had a feeding tube, and I remember looking at all the machinery and watching my parents be so scared and I thought it reminded me of Grey’s Anatomy, and that’s when I knew it was a bad thing. I was like, in Grey’s Anatomy this would be a serious scene. It’s so embarrassing. We all have pop references to things. I just hadn’t been in a hospital with something scary happening before. For me, it was one of the best times in the world because I was just in a room with all my friends. It wasn’t a tragedy at all; so being apart from my friends and being with scared parents, I could tell.

Time Out New York: How does the empty time you experienced figure into a dance?
Jillian Peña:
Time multiplies, too. That makes sense that those girls can go on forever. It’s like a black hole, where there’s nothing and everything. That makes sense in most dances anyway.

Time Out New York: From your work in general, replication has something to do with that too, right?
Jillian Peña:
I think that makes sense because you’re going into this thing: asymptotic. How desire is asymptotic because you’ll never get what you want because what you want is always going to be out of touch. So I feel like that’s the perfect thing that I am trying to create: There’s just more. You’re trying to get the finite, but the deeper you get, the more infinite it gets. I like that idea. I feel like that’s religion too. You want that answer, that thing. It’s always going to be beyond you.

Time Out New York: Maybe this is too obvious a connection, but when you were talking about what the Tiller girls had to do with religion, couldn’t it be about flocks of people worshipping one thing, one way of moving?
Jillian Peña:
Yeah. It’s political, too. Have you seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia? It’s crazy, and there’s a dancing scene in it—it’s thousands of bodies in this field, and it’s so complicated. They’re the pro-Hitler Aryan nation, and it’s just such a fascist aesthetic, and that’s why I’ve always been uncomfortable with my interest in multiples. I remember at Hollins trying to cast girls that looked exactly alike. I remember somebody bringing up a race issue and how complicated it was. It’s sacrificing their individuality.

Time Out New York: Is it?
Jillian Peña:
I don’t know. And this is in the piece so much. We’ve really struggled with it. When I was younger, I wanted to go to a boarding school because I wanted to wear a uniform. Cassie Mey has always been, “Jillian, that’s not me, it’s not my fantasy.” So trying to make a piece that can also include her [personality]—she was a feminist high schooler, and I was too, but I also wanted to be in a group of people who all looked exactly the same. To me, it feels good to be part of a group. I really just wanted to have a boarding school when I was little; that was my dream. I remember designing the outfits for each year. When I was trying to analyze that later in life, how that was my first interest in the multiple, somebody pointed out that I didn’t want to be a student in the school or the director of the school, but that I wanted to be the school. That I wanted to be comprised of all these different disciplined people following the path of this leader. In my work—especially in the early videos—I feel like it’s still there.

Time Out New York: What are you thinking about in terms of the costumes?
Jillian Peña:
They’re uniforms, but each is different. Did you watch Big Love? Let’s just go back to Mitt Romney! [Laughs] It’s still a trio in my head, and the three girls kind of even resemble the cast of these three wives; I love that they’re each living out their fantasy that it’s kind of in competition with each other, but it’s all exactly the same, and they’re all following the same exact rules. I said, “You guys are wearing unitards, but you’re in Utah.” I don’t know how else to describe it.

Time Out New York: So the main part of the piece is a trio. Is that unison?
Jillian Peña:
Yeah. I love unison. Oh, it’s just so perfect. And it always fails, which I love, actually. I love the tenderness of unison. This is why I also love uniforms: When you see a group walking, and they’re all wearing different outfits, you look to try to find what’s similar about them, but if they’re all wearing the same thing you look to what’s different. I feel like that’s great in this dance, because I hope that it highlights the differences among them. They’re all such different dancers; they have such different qualities and training, although it’s all ballet. But I do hope that making it in unison with the uniforms that you see how different they are.

Time Out New York: Could you talk about the qualities of those dancers?
Jillian Peña:
Cassie is amazing. She’s a statue. Cassie has a lot of training. I think dancing for Molissa Fenley for eight years—it’s so clear and clean. I don’t feel like that’s language I think about. Lea is…they’re going to be mad. Right? [Laughs] I think I just have to stop. I did get in trouble—I need to redo the press release. (It states, “With their gaze shifting gradually upwards through the piece, the girls exercise the physically daunting, somewhat cultish, relentless ritual practice of ballet.”) When I read it to them, they said, “We’re girls? How did you come to that?” I hadn’t even thought about it. When they called me on it, I was like, “Oh, shit, I’m so sorry.” The word “women” I hate; they were like, “What about performers?” I realized it was because I’ve been writing so much about the Tiller Girls, and also Vanessa Beecroft calls her performers “the girls.” But it made their skin crawl; they were like, “It really feels like this old-school dancer term—we’re girls.” And I don’t mean to do that in using it. They said, “Leave it in if you’re contextualizing it within the Tiller Girls and Vanessa Beecroft—that makes sense.” I just never replaced it because I don’t know a better word.

Time Out New York: How does their gaze shift in the piece?
Jillian Peña:
I feel like I saw an interview with Marina Abramovic talking about this, and she spoke about how a long time ago the gaze was up toward the heavens and that through history it got lowered down. I am interested in seeing how that changes and what that does to the experience for the viewers. And also, how do they do the same dance differently when their gaze is up as opposed to forward?

Time Out New York: I was wondering if you were trying to reclaim the “modern-dance corner,” where dancers would stare into the distance with a meaningful gaze. Ailey still does it.
Jillian Peña:
That corner is just off into the distance. Right. Yeah.

Time Out New York: It doesn’t necessarily mean joy, but there’s deep feeling.
Jillian Peña:
I am trying to see what that looks like. There’s no irony in it. It’s actual curiosity about how that changes the dancers and our vision of the dance.

Time Out New York: Do you tell your dancers to feel a certain way when they perform?
Jillian Peña:
I want them to have an experience. And it’s interesting how that comes out so differently. For Lea, it turns into a smile, which I don’t want, but I love what’s behind it, because it is honest. You feel it. I’ve had a hard time figuring out what I want them to do and not to do. I feel that’s always hard as a choreographer: How can I take their own experience and their own person and shape that how I want it? It’s a balance between asking them to do something and then asking them to do what they…

Time Out New York: Do naturally?
Jillian Peña:
Yeah. I don’t tell them to feel, but I tell them to exercise the [idea of] what do I believe in? I think that’s also why I made it a hard dance; they have to be paying attention to it the whole time. I wanted to always feel like, This might not work. I should have made it harder.

Time Out New York: What is the idea behind the title? 
Jillian Peña:
I really like that because it’s the title of a soap opera. It makes it poppy and also light. When I talked to [artist] Marissa Perel about this, [she said] in the healing world, light is always referred to. People talk about going to the light. There’s something religious about it, but it’s also just very self-help. I like that the light would have the power. It’s a character just as much as the dancers are; it’s in charge in some way. I’m trying to make them have a leader. And I love the Chocolate Factory space. I asked my friend who’s an interior designer, “What would a sacred space look like?” She ignored me for weeks. She finally said, “Bricks and candles.” That’s just perfect. I love that it could be the home to a small cult, or it could be a sacred space.

Time Out New York: At what point did you discover that you couldn’t be a ballerina?
Jillian Peña:
[Laughs] Oh God. But equally important was the moment at which I realized I couldn’t be a Rockette. I remember being in a doctor’s office and asking, “How tall am I going to be?” And the doctor said, “You are going to be 5'4". I was like, “That’s just not going to work, so we’re going to have to do something about that…I need growth hormones.” It turned out that maybe just your fingers grow and nothing else. Maybe the ballet one happened more gradually. It wasn’t ever a moment where I knew, and it was also a choice. I would never be the ballerina that I saw in my head, which wouldn’t be fun. To not be the image of perfection? I just don’t understand how people do that. How people dance and aren’t amazing? Why? That sounds really weird. I know there’s joy in dancing. I guess. [Laughs] For some people.

Jillian Peña is at the Chocolate Factory Dec 5–8.

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