And all that jazz...

Jillian Pea's MOTHERSHIP lands at DTW.

[Editor’s note: The story has been extended with online bonus content]

MOTHERSHIP is described as a “virtual metadance.” What is the structure?
There’s a huge screen placed really close to the audience, so the stage is pretty much blocked off. The primary elements are the video that plays on it and the voiceover, which I made, but Katy Pyle and Rebecca Brooks are also performing—and they’re making their own thing. And the lights, by David Ferri, are a huge component. We’ve rented all these moving lights. It’s made to feel that the space the audience is in is the performance space.

Have you worked with Pyle and Brooks before?
I’ve known Katy for seven years. I chose Katy because I knew she could carry the weight of the piece with me, and she asked Rebecca. But they’re really ornaments of the piece. They’re kind of like Vanna White. Vanna doesn’t even have to flip the little letters anymore. I don’t even know if she touches them—she just kind of gestures toward them. But somehow she plays an important role.

Why are you drawn to landscape?
My father is a landscape painter. I’m from New Mexico. I feel really interested in the commodity of landscape art and just what that does to people. New Mexico is called the land of enchantment, but people also call it the land of entrapment; there’s something about the sky, which is really dizzying. It’s also the altitude. I think I also just want you to feel like you’re physically going somewhere in my work; it’s kind of incessant.

How important is color?
The colors of the lights that David is using—it’s very emotional. The way that I feel lighting designers can use light can completely dictate your emotions. And I think what I’m interested in doing is having that overall narrative be put on it, but without any kind of real content backing it up. So you’re like, I know I’m supposed to feel upset here, but I don’t—so you’re questioning your relationship with the work.

How closely do you work with David?
We worked together in the fall and have been in constant communication about it since. I think he really understands what I want, but of course I haven’t really been able to see it yet. At first, I wanted it to be lights and nothing else. And he is totally the one to do it. I wish that I had those skills. Everything else I feel I can learn.

What pieces have you seen of his that were really moving?
That first Shen Wei piece. I feel it was 50 percent him.

More like 75.
Shit. [Laughs] And in a couple of his later pieces that David was still working on, it became, like, 99 percent. I’ve also gotten to see him work with people at the American Dance Festival. You see the work before he puts the lights on it, and you’re like, This is complete crap. But it really does look good. I don’t know how he does it.

Is there interaction with the viewers in this piece?
There’s a voiceover that talks directly to the audience, and it’s kind of like a guided visualization; it’s also like a performance that asks the audience to get up and move around, but it doesn’t actually happen, so there’s something interesting in that for me. The audience gets put in a place of, Oh shit, I don’t want to do that. I hate doing stuff like that, and I always think, What’s my problem that I can’t engage with that kind of participatory art? In the piece, I don’t actually give room for it. I give room for you to think about it and to observe your reaction.

The voice is yours, right?
Yeah. It’s recorded. I used to like being in front of the camera, but I’ve done that less and less and now it’s just my voice. I feel ultimately that’s what this piece is about a little bit. It’s made entirely alone, but in looking outward and thinking that you see something. It’s that feeling where you see a mirage, and you’re like, “Wow, that’s a beautiful mirage, and I’m going to love this thing,” and as you get closer, it’s a mirror. I visualize going through that process alone. It’s anticipation, it’s hope, it’s desire. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just like, “Here I am again, in the same place.” It sounds like a cliché, but I think I’ve abstracted it.

And it’s all animated? Where did you learn how to do that?
When you want to learn something, you learn it. [Laughs] It’s not that high-tech, honestly. It’s all computer generated though, so I’ve either used animation or masked images together that I find on the Internet. But I like that it’s not real at all or anything that I’ve actually taken a picture of. It’s completely found stuff. I think it would look really different if I tried to shoot it myself. I’m interested in the imaginary space of it and in the virtual quality that makes it almost real.

Were you ever a painter?
I wish! I was a ballet person. But my work is kind of painterly. I feel like I’m fulfilling that desire.

And it’s also choreography?
Definitely. I think that’s how I think about dance within the work, too. It’s by thinking about what comes before the movement—what is dance representing? What is the fundamental thing about dance that isn’t representable? I guess that’s different than choreography. For me, that’s desire. It really starts with a bodily sensation. But the timing is choreography for sure.

When did you start ballet training?
I was three. I did it; I was really there. Then I went to a summer program at Juilliard. It was there that I finally—I had thought that modern was…

Yeah. I had gone to some program. Oh my gosh, it was so ridiculous. I don’t want to say who it was with, but I think my mom, to this day, still feels guilty about it. She was really amazing at researching things for me to do, and I said, “Mom, I’m interested in video, or how can I integrate dance with theater?” She found a program where you learned film, and it was terrible. We ended up trying to make a performance-art version of Moby Dick. I tried to leave, and they wouldn’t let me and called me an airhead. So I had that kind of perception of modern dancers, but at Juilliard it was serious and rigorous and I was really attracted to that, so I went to SMU for a second and studied Graham, which I loved and still do. I keep fantasizing about trying to get the rights to a Graham piece in order to redo it. I really want to do Panorama. So I hopped around a lot and then I basically quit dancing. I was back in New Mexico, which hosted the American College Dance Festival—it’s really cheesy but the Hollins women attended. I saw Ann Liv Young’s first group piece, and I was like, I’m not even going to look in the program. Wherever this school is, I’m there. And then I looked in the program and was like, Virginia? Shit. It was a really good decision though. It changed everything. The thinking there was really different from where I had been in dance.

In what way?
It allowed me to understand what I wanted to make. But it was really hard. In my year, there were eight people, and it was really tense; there were a lot of fights. I didn’t really have any friends other than Ann Liv. I’m good friends with all of them now, but while we were there it was really hard.

I was used to being an alpha female maybe? But that was all of us. And it wasn’t just that they were good dancers, they were good artists, they were smart, they were hot. [Laughs?]

Did you move to New York right away?
Yeah. I feel like we graduated and packed the toilets into the car and came up and did Fresh Tracks. It was really quick. We were really lucky.

You actually moved to London in October to work on your Ph.D. at Goldsmiths. Why did you decide to do that?
I have this amazing fellowship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. They fund graduate study up to six years, and I applied for it on a hunch when I was graduating from Hollins [in 2003]. I got it, which was really surprising. I wouldn’t have gone to grad school at all I don’t think, but I was able to go to the Art Institute of Chicago for my M.F.A. And I have to use those six years. I think of it as a full-time job because there’s no way that I would just be making work, and I really can do that now. It’s awesome. I have three more years.

Did you start your video work in Chicago?
Yeah. I had never really made a video until then. It solved every problem that I ever had in making dances. I was like, Thank God—I love this. I just always had this specific aesthetic in mind that I felt kind of bad putting on people. I feel a lot of people in my generation struggle with that. But I did want people to look alike. Aesthetically and visually, I have something really specific that I like looking at, and coming from a women’s college, it just felt complicated. So to put it on myself was great and in video I can mask myself together. So I can make the images that I always wanted to make. It really solved the problem.

What is the problem you have with asking others to conform to your vision?
I feel like we’re all struggling with this power problem. Even now, in rehearsals with Katy and Rebecca, I’m just like, “Do whatever you want, do whatever you want.” I do feel that way, but it’s also that if I did start talking, I would be very demanding and it would feel weird.

But it doesn’t feel weird to let them do whatever they want?
[Laughs] I think in the piece it works completely, but I don’t know. It’s partially probably a backlash even against the Ann Liv situation. It’s hard to understand how people fit into what you make, and I just wanted to run away from that question completely. And I still want to. Even when I was daydreaming about making Panorama, I thought, I know—I could use 20 versions of myself. I think it’s a generational problem. It’s funny because as a dancer I felt completely fine in that situation. I felt so liberated. I was obsessed with Russia, and I’m interested in that power dynamic, but for some reason for it to be in my hands…? I don’t know. But as a dancer I felt immense relief within that and as a human being it was also similar.

What does MOTHERSHIP mean?
It was originally supposed to be called Empire. MOTHERSHIP makes me think of the source. The original. It might feel like it’s enveloping all these other things. It seems kind of sci-fi. I just liked the references. I was thinking originally that this piece could be a prequel to my last dance, and that seemed fitting: Before the Promised Land came the MOTHERSHIP.

Jillian Peña presents MOTHERSHIP at DTW Apr 17–19, 2008.