Jennifer Howard winds down her career with a Sarah Michelson spectacle.
Thu Oct 12 2006
Photograph courtesy Walker Art Center 2005
Jennifer Howard, 33, has danced with more choreographers than we can name, so here’s a short list: Eliot Feld, Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs and Douglas Dunn, followed by a job with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, which in turn led to her current job dancing for Sarah Michelson. In Michelson’s Shadowmann, Part 1, Howard, wearing a high-cut leotard and using her legs like knives to slice across the stage, was a bewitching presence. When the choreographer was creating material for 2005’s Love Is Everything, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet, she worked in the studio with Howard, who also had a major role in last summer’s Daylight (for Minneapolis) at the Walker Art Center. But Michelson’s newest production, Dogs, might be Howard’s last dance. “I feel that it’s pretty much my last show on this scale,” the vivacious dancer remarks. “Never say never. But I can’t really imagine I’m going to be back at BAM again.”
How did you get started as a dancer?
I started when I was five. We were living in Andover, Massachusetts., and I had primarily ballet training until I moved to New York. Intense ballet training.
Even when you were five?
Yeah. I started straight with ballet. I think I did it once a week. What happened was, the ballet school didn’t take kids until they were six. My mom didn’t know anything about dance, but I had been really pushing my parents about wanting to take dance. I don’t remember that so well. The ballet teacher was like, “Okay, fine,” and she took me at five. But I never did that mishmash: 15 minutes of tap, 15 minutes of jazz, 15 minutes of ballet. I had ballet slippers from the get-go.
When did you realize you were loving it?
I didn’t realize it until I was 22. I did love it. Between tenth and eleventh grades, I went to boarding school at St. Paul’s. There actually was a dance department there, but St. Paul’s is a typical New England boarding school; it’s not a performing-arts high school. I wanted to quit ballet and start playing soccer and my parents were like, “You should really think about it.” They didn’t necessarily want me to become a dancer; they just thought that I’d given so much to it that maybe I was making a rash decision. So I didn’t stop, and I always loved it in a way, but it wasn’t until I left Juilliard in 1995 and spent a year performing with Eliot Feld that I had to come to terms with dance: Do I want to keep going? It ended in a weird way.
Why did you apply to Juilliard in the first place?
That was really a push back at my parents. After St. Paul’s they wanted me to go to an academic institution. My plan was to leave St. Paul’s, move to New York for a few years, become a professional dancer and then go to college. I thought I’d defer for a few years, and they said, “Absolutely not. You’ll never go back. We (a) didn’t send you to St. Paul’s for you not to go to college, and (b) you’re going to college.” I was kind of like, “Screw you, I’m going to apply to Juilliard.” I applied to NYU and when it came time for acceptances I was still thinking that maybe my parents were going to let me defer from NYU. George Washington University had given me a really big performing-arts scholarship. So of course my parents were like, “Go there.” It would save them a lot of money; but they were open to whatever. In the end, they didn’t give up on that idea of me going to college, so I said, “Fine. I’m going to Juilliard.” I went because I wanted to keep dancing, but I was also doing it to get to New York.
When did you start?
In 1992. I spent three years there and then, in 1995, I left at the end of my third year in and had an eight-year hiatus. I went back in 2003, but I had spent my whole first three years trying to get out by auditioning and getting random dance jobs. One was with BalletMet [in Columbus, Ohio]. I got a job with the second company of the Joffrey. Ben Harkarvy was the director of Juilliard’s dance division, and I would always go to him and say, “I want to leave, I have this job,” and he would say, “Don’t take that job. Leave for something better than a second company.” Or, “Why would you go to Ohio when you’re here in New York?” Then I got the job with Eliot, and he was like, “Go.”
Yes. I think probably by then he was just sick of me. He was a mentor for me—always there for me, all the way through.
Did you like Eliot’s work at the time?
Um...yeah. [Pauses] Did I like his work? It was fine. I liked Eliot. He had his good days and his bad days, but I didn’t even really think about the work. That first year I was like, I finally got out of Juilliard! I did my first two tours and we had two weeks at the Joyce in the summer and five or six weeks in the spring. It was all very exciting. But it wasn’t the be-all, end-all for me. I knew that it wasn’t going to be the last stop. It was an interesting experience, put it that way. And it was great in the end because that’s when I realized I was committed.
What was it like working with Eliot? What were the good times like? The bad times?
Eliot can be incredibly charming. He has a great sense of humor and he’s supersmart. He used to always joke with me: “Oh, you’re a college girl,” and he definitely respected education. Those qualities were great, but he has a temper. I was very lucky. I only got yelled at maybe once or twice. Actually, I think it was difficult when I was there also because that was the last year he had people from outside the school in the company. There were a lot of kids. More than half of them, if not half of the company were under 18. And then there was another woman and myself, having our first professional experience. Also, there were dancers like Buffy Miller, who had been there for five or six years. There were days when he was trying to put a young kid into the lead role in Harbinger. The kid was probably 15. When you’re dealing with a 15-year-old, you’re not only teaching them how to dance, but you also have to teach them work ethic—a way to work and a way to train—and Eliot would get frustrated and those were days. He’s screaming and you’re like, Oh, God. I feel like that’s inherent in dance anyway. I had ballet teachers screaming, poking and prodding. In the next moment, he would be so great and totally fine.
Yes, his temper is sharp but it passes quickly.
Actually, when I left Juilliard, Ben Harkarvy—who really loved Eliot—said, “Don’t let that situation or anybody in the future ever take away from you the thing that you love about dance.” I could imagine that if I had stayed with Eliot for a long time that I might hate dancing. So leaving was a great thing.
I worked with him for a year, and I had a letter of reengagement but I hadn’t signed the contract; we had a five- or six-week break. I got a phone call from his manager on a Friday night saying that Eliot wanted to meet me on Monday morning. So I spent the whole weekend thinking, What’s happening? I went in on Monday morning. I’ll never forget it: it was pouring rain, I lived in Williamsburg, I was taking the L train, and I had a feeling that something was not quite right. I went into his office, and he said, “I just want to use students from my school.” There were five of us in the company who weren’t. He said, “You’re not from the school, so I’m going to let you go.” I remember riding home on the train that day thinking, Oh, shit. I’m 22. It’s late June, and I missed all the auditions. Am I really going to go back to Juilliard with my tail between my legs? I felt kind of desperate, but at the same time I realized that I was committed to this profession and that something else would happen. And ten days later I got a phone call from my friend Roger C. Jeffrey, who was dancing with Twyla.
Did you have an audition for Twyla?
This is my favorite story about Twyla because for me, it’s the best way to explain her. Tharp! had started when Roger called and said, “Twyla’s looking for dancers. Could I give them your name?” Shelley Washington had seen me take a class and I got a phone call the next day telling me to come in. I went to City Center and had maybe 20 minutes with Shelley who taught me a phrase, maybe 16 counts, from a piece called Route 66. And then she said, “I’m going to have you do this ballet combination.” It was waltzes and few pirouettes. Then she said, “I’m going to go upstairs and get Twyla. Think about reversing it.” Ten minutes later, they came back. I showed Twyla the phrase and she gave me a few corrections. I did it again and we worked on one part that had a turn in it and then she said, “Can you show me the reverse?” I had figured it out. Shelley showed me the ballet combination and oddly enough I did four pirouettes, which I never do; I’m not a turner. I finished with a big grand jet and then she came over and asked, “Where are you from?” I said, “Andover, Mass.” And she said, “Where do you come from in terms of dancing?” And I said, “I just spent a year working with Eliot Feld.” She said, “Okay, well, you know we work very hard here, Jennifer.” I said, “Yeah, that’s good.” She said, “See you on July 8,.” And she walked out. [Laughs] You cannot argue with that. She did not mince words. She was right to the point. Shook my hand and walked out. I was floored. It was so fast, and in the end that was the thing about Twyla that I loved all the way through: She just doesn’t mess around.
How long did you stay?
I was there for two and a half years. I started in 1996 and my last show was mid-December ’98.
What dances were you a part of?
We did 66. Heroes and Sweet Fields. And I did The Fugue. That was the highlight. After I did The Fugue, I had six more months, but that was the highlight.
It’s such a great piece. Twyla really did something for dance in that piece. And what was so great about it was how hard it was to even be able to do it. There was a cast of men, but not really a cast of women. I learned Sara Rudner’s part, which was the part that Shelley Washington had done. Hubbard Street had done it, but it had been years. I still have my notes that Sara had written out: It’s like The Fugue written out. It felt like I was a part of history. It was a real challenge. We worked on it and then Twyla came to Miami and we did a run-through for her and she kind of coached us on it. Then she gave us the go-ahead to do it. So we were working with Twyla on it. She made it but she also performed in it and it was direct: from her to us. I remember having a rehearsal with her once and I had to do something slow. I think it was in the 17th section. We were at Aaron Davis Hall and she was really pushing me to answer the question of why I wouldn’t do it slower. Why I was moving so quickly through the movement? For whatever reason, it was really painful for me to hear her say that she felt that I wasn’t doing it slow because I was afraid to really be seen onstage. When you’re doing something really slow, you’re kind of forcing people to look at you, and she was totally right; it was hard to confront that. Eventually I was able to have the confidence to be slow and to not be afraid to be seen—or in a weird way, to force people to watch me. That wasn’t really my style.
So she changed you as a dancer?
Definitely. She worked hard with me, I felt. Some days you’re like, “Leave me alone,” but in the end it was so great. I even learned how to tour and train and stay conditioned and how to be focused on my body. I already had a pretty strong work ethic, but she reinforced that for me.
Why did you leave?
I was 26. I left because I had this crazy notion if I’m going to be in a ballet company, I gotta do it now. That was my theory. I pulled out the pointe shoes [Laughs]. I had done pointe work with Eliot, and I had spent time with Twyla working to be more physical. I was doing a lot of hard dancing. But I was like, I’m going to miss the window of opportunity if I don’t move now. So I started taking class on pointe and I went to Ben and said, “I’m thinking about pursuing that. What do you think I should do?” He wrote a letter of recommendation and he sent it all over. I remember Miami City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre were the only two companies that responded. I went to an audition at Miami City but it didn’t pan out for me. I didn’t think it would—my training was English, not Balanchine.
What happened at ABT?
[Laughs] I got a letter asking me to take company class at City Center. In hindsight, part of it was to see, could I do it? In a weird way, I’d spent all that time with Twyla trying to get away from that aesthetic. Trying to be more balanced or contemporary, so I went and took the class. David Richardson watched and he didn’t say anything. Anyway, when I was in the class, the good thing was as I was looking around the room—I didn’t have the experience that those dancers had of doing these classics professionally, but I felt like I could hold my own. I looked different. I left and [ABT dancer] Gil Boggs, who I knew, said, “They might not call you back,” so I thought, Okay whatever. Next day, nothing. I was bummed out. The following day I got a phone call saying that they wanted me to take class again. I was like, Great! David and Kevin came in. The thing that sucked about that was that I had just taken off my pointe shoes. We were doing big jumps. Anyway, the class ended and Kevin was great. The first thing he said to me was, “Please tell me that you have a job.” I was still working with Twyla. He said, “You could be in this company in terms of your technical ability. That’s not a question.” Basically, he told me that I had to soften my port de bras, which I took as that I was much more muscular and not waiflike. I had gotten rid of that aesthetic. When I was at Juilliard, I was definitely going for that look -- very slender. With Twyla, we worked with a personal trainer; we were building muscle. I was still very slender, but I just didn’t look like the dancers around the room. He said, “If you’re still interested”—and he probably knew that in the end I wasn’t going to join a ballet company—“come back in the spring when we’re at the Met.” And he offered to write a letter of recommendation. He was great. I walked away from that.
You would have been a peasant in a story ballet.
Also, I would have never gotten to be a Julie Kent or a Paloma Herrera. It was too late and it wasn’t me. I just had to be sure that if I wanted to I still could do that. It was eye-opening. I was like, Oh, okay—actually, I don’t want to join a ballet company. And then that was the end of that.
But you left Twyla anyway?
Yeah, at the end of that year she was letting people go and she was going to work on another project. She had asked back a few people. It was a sextet and we all had individual dinners with her at Josephine’s. She was holding court and talking about the work we had done and what she was going to do in the future. She asked me to come back to work on this project and that she had a great partner for me. I said yes. Shortly after Christmas I had dinner with her again and somehow she wasn’t going to be doing the project. All of a sudden, not dissimilar to what happened with Eliot, it went away. I started working with a company that’s based in Heidelberg, Germany, through a friend who was working with Amanda Miller. And of course, a month later I heard that Twyla was back doing [that same project] but I had signed a contract with UnterwegsTheater. We performed a piece at the Kitchen in 1999 called Middle of Nowhere. I performed with the company on and off from ’99 to 2003.
You started dancing with Lucinda Childs in 2000. Is that how you got involved with White Oak and Douglas Dunn?
Oh, my God, Douglas Dunn! I love that guy so much. He saw the show at the Harvey. He needed a dancer, and I did one show with him and then a few months later he asked me to Aerobia at P.S. 122. Douglas is crazy. I remember I had never seen Douglas do his solo and then all of a sudden the Steve Winwood song came on—“If You See a Chance”—and he starts running around the stage, dancing, and I was like, Oh my God, you have got to be kidding me, that is just untouchable. He is just a really funny guy. So it was through Lucinda that Douglas happened. I had met Misha when I was working with Twyla, but we taught Concerto to White Oak for the Past/Forward program, and I taught him a part in the second movement. I don’t really know how that all happened.
That seems so unusual.
I was nervous. I knew most of the people who were in White Oak at the time, so I was sort of comfortable. It was funny. I was kind of like, How do I teach this person? At first, I figured that I wouldn’t have to teach him anything but the steps. I did that, but not unlike all of Lucinda’s stuff, it’s somewhat complicated in terms of counting. I really got into that funny counting thing that she did and Concerto had weird counts. So I taught him all this stuff—there was one diagonal and then a quartet around it, and the diagonal would switch. He got it, but I realized that sometimes he was just following the person in front of him. It’s that funny thing where like, he’s Misha—he’s a fast learner, I’m not saying that he’s not—it’s just that sometimes he would really fuck it up. And the thing about Lucinda’s work is that if you do mess it up, it can really snowball and take everybody down. And if it doesn’t take everybody down, it takes you all the way down. When I was working with her, there was always someone who would have a complete meltdown onstage; you would always see someone completely implode. By the middle of the week, I felt comfortable enough to say, “You’re doing that wrong.” And actually, he was really receptive to that; it felt like he preferred that rather than someone tiptoeing around it, just saying, “Oh, that was really great.” It was kind of a highlight, I guess. And then it led to the next step.
Which was White Oak?
Yeah. I had gotten a heads-up. Misha called me at 8:30am on a Friday. We talked on the phone for a little bit and I said yes.
What did you work on?
The first piece I learned was Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. I feel I’m very lucky. Yvonne was someone I studied at Juilliard in dance history. To do The Fugue and Trio A?
Did it feel like you were in a grown-up company?
Yeah. Compared to the situation with Twyla or even Lucinda, this felt like a peer group. Even the way that I learned the material. We were dancers learning the stuff together. It was different.
Did it feel like you had to take more responsibility for yourself?
Yes. Once I decided that I really wanted to dance, after performing with Eliot, I never wanted to be a dancer that made my whole name and career with one person. To me, the thing that I kept as a bottom line was to always be trying to do something different and new. I think it was a more intellectual approach. I didn’t want to just explore one thing: I wanted the emotional and intellectual challenge of pushing myself outside of the box. I have a love-hate relationship with that. I love the process of what that is but it’s also very hard.
Did you first meet Sarah Michelson when she was making The Experts?
Yeah. That really changed my life. It was also exactly what I was looking for, too. It was that intellectual, emotional challenge. It was very painful, but very satisfying in the end.
What do you mean by “painful”?
I don’t know if it’s just my personality. I remember one day when we were in rehearsal, we had to get up on the hillock—it was a mound on the stage. We were doing some movement and Sarah was like, “Get up there like you’re rock stars.” It’s not that she wanted that, but she wanted a certain commitment to how we were getting up there and I remember she had me do it a few times. Everybody was there, and it was painful because I knew I was scared in a way to push myself and be vulnerable in front of a bunch of people even though I knew them. But I also really wanted it; I really wanted to get it and I knew I wasn’t getting it and I knew I could. One day I figured it out. And literally it was taking three steps up this thing and turning around. It was simple, but it was hard to find because I had to let go of ideas that I had about myself and dance. I had to trust her and myself and try something new and it worked out. I can be a bit dramatic, but it feels like shedding skin. Painful in that way. I’d rather just climb into my little shell and be safe.
What else happened during that rehearsal process?
It was intense. Did you hear about the yelling? There was a section when Misha was saying, “Ahhhh” and Emily [Coates] was saying, “Yes,” that I had to scream out, “Ah!” every once in a while, really loud. Somehow, Sarah and I were face to face, yelling at each other, not in a negative way, but doing that sound that she wanted because I wasn’t getting it. We were really face to face, going back and forth. And Sarah can belt it out. That was a huge breakthrough—probably the biggest one in terms of my relationship with her and also with that piece.
Why did you want to get it so badly? Had you seen her work before?
No. I’d never seen her work, but just after working with her for those few days, she was asking something of the group—consequently, me—and something that I hadn’t had to do before. I was intrigued. I loved the ideas that she had about performance and presence and I wanted that. I wanted to figure out something about that. Twyla was always working with performance quality too, but this was another layer. I just thought it was great and I immediately felt that Sarah really was doing something that I wanted to understand.
What was it about performance and presence in that piece?
Sarah is always very clear about what she wants but she’s also fluid in the way in which she might get it. It was an idea of being so committed to the thing that’s happening, exactly when it’s happening—not before or after. Really being in the moment, but it was more specific than that. The part that I ended up having in that piece was very difficult, and I couldn’t in the end even think about how I looked. It was all about the action, and I had to trust the feeling that I had even if I was, like, dog-tired. One of the things I had to do in that piece was some jumps on the diagonal. I think I was turning the jumps into something more pretty and more classical. And that’s not what Sarah wanted. It was about something different, so I had to let those ideas about how I was being seen go for something bigger. For me, the White Oak experience was that. Obviously, because I’m still working with her. I loved it and I was very disappointed, actually, as time went on; that piece became, in some ways, something that it wasn’t in the beginning. I knew what it was supposed to be, but you go on tour and you do it a lot and it starts to turn into something else. I was very disappointed.
What did it turn into?
I just felt like people let go of all that work that we had done. Maybe some people never got it in the first place, so there probably wasn’t as much to let go. But especially because of the way that piece was designed or choreographed, I had moments where I was standing on that hillock and I was watching the piece not be the piece. I took it very seriously. I felt very committed to that and it kind of fell apart. After having had the experiences I’ve had with her, and how hard the work had been—and I mean that in a positive way. It requires so much. I realized, Of course I’d want to do something that takes all of me. It was just the right time for my age. I had enough experience by the time I met Sarah.
Shadowmann was your first piece out of White Oak?
Yes. I was only in part one, and also I came into it really late. I was on my last tour with White Oak. I wasn’t involved in Shadowmann the way I was in Minneapolis or even now. My experiences with her have grown in terms of how much my involvement is now. In Minneapolis I was the assistant. I loved Shadowmann. I didn’t even have the hardest part in that piece, but that is probably the hardest piece I’ve ever done. I don’t know why—Sarah and Parker [Lutz] do that whole duet. So I don’t know if it was the repetition or what, but physically that piece was incredibly demanding.
You were Michelson’s assistant for Daylight (for Minneapolis), which was incredibly involved. What was that like?
We were in Minneapolis for a little over a month and took the piece to Seattle for three weeks. I think there were 44 kids in it. It was crazy. I had never been in a situation like that with Sarah. We had those kids in Shadowmann, and I’m sure she was going through the same thing, working with kids in different cities with different cultures. I feel very proud that I was a part of that show. It was great to work with Sarah like that, to see how much work it really takes and how crazy it was to deal with all those kids. It was nonstop, from morning to night, but I loved that. It felt really good to be involved in that way.
What is the role like now?
Oh, god, don’t ask me anything about the show. I’m not saying anything. No comment. [Laughs] It’s not dissimilar—everybody is working on things in the studio and outside of the studio. Everybody is really involved.
Who is everybody?
[Laughs] I’m just paranoid that I’m going to be the one to drop the ball!
Why is it important for you to keep secret?
I have a lot of respect for Sarah—and her way and process—and also there’s something about the audience not knowing that works. It could probably work for anybody; Sarah obviously feeds off of that in some way, too, but it probably has something to do with the expectations of an audience. If you know nothing, you’re going to desperately try to have some expectation—that’s just what people do. It’s human. But if you haven’t read a bunch of stuff, it’s probably better. Sometimes it’s better to just not say anything.
You are getting married in June. Will Dogs be your last performance?
Yes and no. I feel that it’s pretty much my last show on this scale. Never say never. But after the show, I’m going to start teaching at National Dance Institute. I always feel weird about saying this, but I do feel like the focus is going to shift away. I can’t really imagine I’m going to be back at BAM again or on a huge proscenium stage.
I’m curious about how you finally got your degree from Juilliard. What happened?
Well, in the interim, between ’95 and when I went back in September of 2003, I had taken a couple of classes online and one class at Hunter. They were academic classes. I thought I wanted to go to law school or that I wanted to do grad work in international relations or political science. In the end, I wanted to get my degree. Not even necessarily from Juilliard. I wanted to have all the options open to me: I was getting older and realizing that I did have other interests. On my own, I had been reading lots of history books and Foreign Affairs magazine. I had contacted Juilliard in 2002 to see if I could come back, and they said I had to reapply because [too much time had elapsed]. It was Ben, and he said, “I imagine you probably don’t want to come back for a whole year.” I was disappointed. When we were doing Shadowmann, I was looking into transferring to NYU, but they would have only taken 60 credits from Juilliard, and I would have had to have done two years. It would have cost $50,000! Or I could transfer to Hunter and be a dance major and get my degree there. But I had three years at Juilliard. Why would I do that?
How did you get back in?
I decided to ask one more time. Misha wrote a letter of recommendation. Long story short, they eventually let me come back for one semester, so for four months I went back into a ballet and modern class each day, Monday through Friday. It was kind of hell. I was taking dance classes with 18-year-olds! [Laughs] But I graduated with the class of ’03.