Jon Kinzel

The choreographer explores duets.

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Jon Kinzel, in his evocatively named evening-length work, Responsible Ballet and What We Need Is a Bench to Put Books On, draws upon more than 20 years of working within the duet form. A soft-spoken New Yorker, Kinzel was a staple of the local dance-and-performance world in the ’90s before he relocated to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in 2001. (He has since acquired an M.F.A. in dance from Sarah Lawrence College and is now an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.) In preparation for Responsible Ballet, to be performed at the Kitchen this weekend and featuring an impressive cast—Hilary Clark, Jodi Melnick, Jeremy Pheiffer, Vicky Shick and Christopher Williams—Kinzel spoke about the events that have made him the artist he is today.

When did you start dancing?
When I was in tenth grade, I was asked by a senior to be in a dance piece at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights. I already did theater, music and art, so it wasn’t too big of a leap. Right away, I was kind of bit by the modern-dance bug. Then, when I was in 11th and 12th grades, Stephan Koplowitz took over [the program]. Right away, he engaged us creatively and compositionally. [Pauses] But my first dance, really, in terms of formal eurhythmy, was earlier—I went to a Steiner School for three years.

What was that like?
It’s very formal. You put on white slippers and you have to walk into the room toe-heel, toe-heel, and you learn Blake poetry and do movement to language. I remember cracking up. What the hell is this? Secretly, I did start to enjoy it. And then in high school, club dancing was a very big thing. In terms of dance, it’s not to be underestimated, because I pursued it. It was athletic and very much solo form.

You made dances for a long time in New York, and then you left. What did you do in Martha’s Vineyard?
It was personal, a family thing. I delved into a whole other field and trained with the Department of Mental Retardation in Massachusetts and ran a home for three individuals. They were all diagnosed as being mentally retarded. I had to get work—if I was going to be there that long to deal with this family stuff, I had to. I lived with these people; it was quite remarkable.

What a change.
What a change. It was almost like one long meditation. I obviously have domestic skills.

What is “responsible ballet”?
[Laughs] It’s not a stand-in for a thing. I was working on animation during my M.F.A. program. One program we worked with was After Effects. A source for the visuals [in one project] was an old posterwith a drawing of a little boy with all these miniature little boys around him, nagging him, as all of the characteristics of the bad. The boy is the poster child for trying to do the right thing. A line said: “A responsible child comes to school to learn.”

Did you relate to that sentiment in returning to school?
Yes, I was dealing with these issues in terms of my age and experience. How do I act? How do I share classes with people who I was twice their age? I used that imagery in an animation project.

Animation isn’t in the piece, right?
No, but there are strong visual elements. I’ve been using tape since the early ’90s to make line drawings. Sort of like Harold and the Purple Crayon or something [Laughs]. There’s a certain innocence to it and also a certain refinement. Just by descending or making a line, how that changes space. It’s also cheap; there are all those issues, too, in terms of using what’s there. I feel like that’s a lot of my—not to be pretentious—raison d’tre: seeing what’s already there, the tool of the body and the space. One of the saving graces of that job at Martha’s Vineyard was that there was a little yard and I made a garden. One of the guys was in a wheelchair and blind, so I designed tall plants that he could touch and smell.

You choreographed a garden!
I did. It was a great thing to put my energy into, and they loved it. One guy was like a perpetual six-year-old, and he would lie on the ground and look at the bugs. It was a good garden-as-school kind of thing. I like that bridging of the naive or the primitive with the more sophisticated, like using different brushes and palettes in order to create an incredible surface. Like Elizabeth Peyton does. I have a lot of strong influences from the visual arts: Elizabeth Murray, Bridget Riley, Sol LeWitt, Philip Taaffe.

How does that relate to your work?
In my treatment of figures in space—almost treating the ephemerality of the body in action and depth of field with some of these same kinds of concerns as the artists. I think of it like one illusion superseded by another.

What are you investigating in terms of the duet? Why the duet?
I have made well over 20 solo pieces and nearly as many duets. They all have something revealing about them that is rarely idyllic. By focusing on the duet form, I was able to work closely with each dancer so that the piece might allow an almost intrusive and beautiful look at each performer. I wanted to learn from other dancers and to share my studio practice, largely shaped by working in concentration, alone, which has proven to help support a particular disposition and experimentation with theater, movement, style, articulation and the body. I approach research and dance-making with a scope that is at once considered, personal and spontaneous. And, importantly, I did not want to carry the whole evening alone.

Jon Kinzel is at the Kitchen Thu 28--Sat 30.

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