Mapp quest

A choreographer leaves politics behind to mine familiar territory-her own.

THE NAMESAKE Anna Sperber plays herself in Mapp’s Anna, Ikea and I.

THE NAMESAKE Anna Sperber plays herself in Mapp’s Anna, Ikea and I. Photograph: Alex Escalante

It’s difficult to predict just what Juliette Mapp has in mind for a show called Anna, Ikea and I, but one refreshing point can be counted on: She doesn’t do small. In her new multigenerational evening-length work, Mapp abandons former artistic concerns—namely her outrage about the war in Iraq—to create a more personal portrait about, quite simply, dancing. Sections for “mentors,” “peers,” “students” and “special guests” focus on what it means to be a dancer. As she noted recently over drinks in Williamsburg, “I think the piece is about what gets passed on and what gets left behind.”

Though she’s a popular teacher, Mapp considers herself to be a dancer first and foremost (a former member of the John Jasperse Company, she continues to perform with Vicky Shick and Deborah Hay). Along with Shick and Anna Sperber, Mapp is part of the core group in Anna, Ikea and I, during which she recounts tales of performing with Jasperse—who appears as a guest artist—and studying with Trisha Brown and Viola Farber, the late Merce Cunningham star who was Mapp’s teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. “I also tell a story about my friend Phoebe, who is a nondancer,” Mapp says. “The first piece I was ever in was a trio that Vicky made with Wendy Perron and myself. Phoebe and I were roommates and when I asked her what she thought, she said, ‘Well, it seemed like there was a lot going on among the three of you that was charged and unique, but I just wish you’d been talking so I could have understood it.’ I thought that was great.”

The comment has stuck with Mapp. Throughout her new dance, the choreographer, with typical aplomb and humor, provides personal and historical context to the dancing passages, though she stresses it is not a chronological narrative. “I’ve been trying to find the thread between the dance material and what’s said in a way that’s not totally insular,” she explains. “They’re my stories, but I want them to become universal. It’s like, I’m telling you this story, but I hope there’s enough space and time for you to have your own inside of it. That’s the invitation.”

In the end, there’s much more dancing than talking. In addition to original material, Mapp, alongside Shick, Perron, Diane Madden and Iréne Hultman, performs Trisha Brown’s Spanish Dance, in which one performer raises her arms grandly like a Spanish dancer and is gradually joined by the others until a line is formed; set to Bob Dylan’s rendition of “Early Mornin’ Rain,” the dance made a huge impact on Mapp early in her training. “I realized, Oh, you can make a dance that deals with postmodern concerns to a Bob Dylan song,” she says, laughing. “I was 19.”

Along with such epiphanic moments, Mapp brings up difficult times as well—like those that marked her relationship with Farber. “Viola had a lot of rules, and I actually was not a big rebel or anything like that,” Mapp says. “I tried to adhere to the rules, but I couldn’t figure them out.”

But during the past year—a particularly rough one in which she taught at George Washington University—Mapp found herself thinking more and more about Farber. “I took a full-time teaching job, and I struggled,” she says. “I struggled with wanting to give the students information that I didn’t feel they wanted. And I also struggled being in an environment that felt like it wasn’t about dancing. I began to think about things that people said to me about Viola—that she didn’t like teaching in colleges. It must have been tricky for her to have been in that position. But I’ve also been thinking about her in terms of what she brought to class. Her whole life was present. Merce Cunningham said something like, ‘We dance for that brief moment of freedom.’ I think that was always the promise in Viola’s class.”

In many ways, Anna, Ikea and I is an homage to that line about freedom. And while the experience of being a dancer is certainly not whitewashed in the work, it is, as Mapp sees it, a dance about joy—however hard-won. “I always thought that making a dance seemed so incredibly difficult, but now I feel that being a dancer is harder,” she says. “As a choreographer, they’re your mistakes and your choices, but a dancer is always after some unattainable perfection. You’re the one transporting the work and making it happen. My teaching has informed this piece a lot—watching people try to do things correctly and beautifully and how beautiful that is to see. And I think that’s part of Viola, too: Striving for this thing that just disappears.”

Juliette Mapp presents Anna, Ikea and I at Danspace Project Thu 21–Sat 23.