Jillian Peña in conversation with Marissa Perel on The Guiding Light

Jillian Peña investigates “light” as a concept, belief and pop symbol with CC co-editor, Marissa Perel. Peña’s new work, The Guiding Light, premiers at Brooklyn Arts Exchange [BAX] on Friday April 27 and runs through Sunday April 29 2012. The artist relates, “My mom was agnostic. She was like, ‘Just hide when they all pray. Just hide.’ They would tell us that our bodies were vessels for Jesus…I like the idea of the vessel, but when you really believe in something it’s like this emptying out in order for that to fill you, which is sexy. So, I am interested in that physicality. Religiosity in a physical sense. What that means. What that looks like.”

Interview Date: April 15, 2012

Download a PDF of this conversation

Marissa Perel: I am sitting with Jillian Peña in Brooklyn to talk about her show, The Guiding Light, which opens at BAX [Brooklyn Arts Exchange] April 27th and runs until the 29th. I saw a version of this in November, but how long have you been working on it?

Jillian Peña: I started in the Summer, maybe August? It hasn’t been long enough. But, maybe after this show, I feel like this is one show in itself, in its entirety, but it’ll keep on developing to be a show at the Chocolate Factory in December. So, I feel like it’s almost like Part 1. I wish people would actually see both of them and remember this one in their distant memory, months ago. You know, I don’t want it to seem like a work-in-progress, and this other thing, and then the real thing. I want it be like a real thing, like a prelude or something.

Marissa: Who’s in the dance?

Jillian: Two of the same people you saw [in November], so, Cassie Mey, who’s so incredible, and Lea Fulton, amazing. And, then…[you saw] Anne Marie Gover, who is a student at UArts [University of the Arts] in Philadelphia, but now it’s Alexandra Albrecht, and she’s great.

a work-in-progress image from “The Guiding Light” at BAX

Marissa: I remember during the open studio show in November, the dance was in unison, but you had worked on it with each dancer individually and it was the first time they were together. Has this process continued? What is the tension between the individual and the group in The Guiding Light?

Jillian: I want everyone’s attitude be different but I love multiples in my work. It’s a focus on the self, multiplied. In my early dance work I was always trying to cast the people that danced almost exactly the same. So, I came to want the dancers to become part of the same body. This is not natural, and it’s not that they fought it, but they were like, “This is not going to work.” Their energy was just so vibrant and strong and against each other, rather than all together, but it’s not a battle!” I want them to do exactly the same, intricate movement but just completely differently. Have you heard about Laban’s Movement Choir?

Religious cult/ group exercise, Fleyhausen. http://margaretgunnng.blogspot.com/

He was working on movement choirs where the focus was on all these different bodies…they had to focus on the unity as a group, but they had to do all different movements. And, I feel like I am doing exactly the opposite. I am trying to have exact movements the same but you can see how differently each body does it. It’s coming from ballet. I was obsessed with Russian ballet when I was little, I wasn’t trained in Russian specifically, but the flick of the hands, how the fingers are held, and the carriage is so dramatic. It feels like you’re embodying this historical drama. I am just so obsessed with Russia. I studied Russian for four years. I don’t know if I learned anything [laughs]. So, I feel like I came at it from Russian ballet.

Marissa: There’s something in [Russian ballet] about drama and history and seriousness that’s really different from American ballet, that’s about turnout and showing like a showboat. I think you’re reading the ballet differently in Russian ballet.

Jillian: That’s true, but I am also obsessed with ballet in general right now. This doesn’t trace specifically to Russia. It’s about the sex in ballet. I had this great dance history professor in New Mexico. I think she probably wrote a book about this that I should read, but it was about how the pointed toe is supposed to reference orgasm, actually. All the extensions are about a physical climax.

Marissa: I learned that in sculpture.

Jillian: Oh really?

“Iris, messenger of the gods” by Arthur Rodin, Bronze, 93 cm (36 5/8 inches), 1891 http://hayhill.com/docs/rodin/r21.htm

Marissa: Yeah, Rodin’s, “Iris” is of a woman’s leg in the air with her toe pointed. There was a belief that the sign of climax for a woman is a foot cramp that makes the toes curl. So, this sculpture is of a woman holding the arch of her foot with her toes curled.

Jillian: Ballet is based on that arched foot, too, so it’s based in sex. The leotards used to be ankle-length tutus and they just kept getting shorter to sell tickets to the ballets. And, the tutu was just this crotch shot. I just love the inherent sex, the sexuality of ballet. No matter what, it’s just sexy.

Marissa: What are the dancers wearing for the show?

Jillian: I’ve been looking at religious, liturgical dance costumes, which are incredible. But, I also don’t want it to become about that, you know? I want to reference that but it just holds too much…

Marissa: I see a theme here about liturgy with the title, The Guiding Light, though that’s also the name of a soap opera…

Jillian: It is, and the music for the piece is from a soap opera. I do mean guiding light in more of a religious way. I’ve always been obsessed with religion and I did study at a Baptist ballet school.

Marissa: Growing up?

Jillian: Yes.

Marissa: What was that like?

Jillian: My family isn’t religious. My mom was agnostic. She was like, “Just hide when they all pray. Just hide.” It was weird. They would tell us that our bodies were vessels for Jesus, which is very sexy.

Marissa: Being a vessel is sexy.

Jillian: Yes, it’s like no wonder I became a stripper right after! I had liturgical dance and then went to the strip club. It feels really connected, too. You know? Sex. It’s everywhere. But, I was trained in this physical praising in ballet. We were really taught to praise our bodies.

Marissa: You just did a gesture of going up. Like you’re always looking up to this thing?

Jillian: I like the idea of the vessel, but when you really believe in something it’s like this emptying out in order for that to fill you, which is sexy. So, I am interested in that physicality. Religiosity in a physical sense. What that means. What that looks like.

“The Light” video still, Peña 2006

Marissa: I think there’s a correlation between this emptying out for the Divine, and the emptying out for [choreographic] form. Dancers are being filled by a form that is animating their bodies – the artistry is in how they are instrumentalizing the idea of the choreographer.

Jillian: Ugh, it’s so weird. Maybe that’s why I cannot dance for someone else!

Marissa: But that artistry is very specific and involves just as deep of a skill set as the directing part, right? The reason why I don’t do that is because for me, there seems to [be] something inherently violent about getting rid of something of yourself for that thing to come in, but then I am in awe of it at the same time. I am always curious about how people decide to make versus to dance for someone else.

Jillian: It’s funny because I loved working with Ann Liv [Young]. The boundaries were very clear, where she was in control and you were executing her ideas. There is something about just doing that, and doing it well. But looking back on it, I am also really wondering how much I enjoyed dancing. I’ve always loved barre. I loved the first half of class but I’ve always suspiciously had “injuries” that prevented me from finishing class. I don’t love just dancing, which is weird. I am just, now kind of owning that.

Marissa: Well that’s why dance in your work is so smart. It serves this bigger idea, commenting on culture, society, sexuality. It looks at a bigger picture of how what we are is manufactured by lots of cultural input.

Jillian: The dance doesn’t come to me through my body. It’s very visual. I have all these notes. I’ll just be sitting there and it’s like I choreograph in my mind and in my imagination.

Marissa: Your video work is very much imaginary. I haven’t seen your work in a few years, but I know you used video in Mothership. Is there video The Guiding Light?

Jillian: There is video. I can’t get away from it. There are two live feeds of the performance in this piece. I like how it multiplies them [the performers] exponentially because of its set up. It’s just like, “ding!” There are so many bodies in the space! I love video. It’s so much easier to make  than performance for me.

Marissa: Because…

Jillian: Because I can do it alone. I have control over it. You know the image and it doesn’t change.

Marissa: What is it like to go from having that intimacy with the process and that kind of control to managing time and space with other bodies as a choreographer?

Jillian: I don’t feel like I am completely good at it yet. I feel confused as to what to share with people and I feel so personal about making things. I am not always sure of how to share my intention. At the same time I feel really inspired by my dancers, and this piece wouldn’t exist with different people. I do like feeling inspire by other people, so it’s a step. Mothership was my last big performance, actually. I’ve done a lot of work since then but it’s been in the form of formal studies and readymade exercises. This is the first real performance in a long time.

Marissa: I want to go back to your use of “religiosity,” and probe at it a little bit in relationship to the soap opera theme.

“Go into the light/ don’t go into the light…” http://www.onepagewonder.com/poltergeist_movie.htm

Jillian: At first I was working with the movie, “Poltergeist” and how in the theme there’s a woman who says, “Go into the light. No, don’t go into the light.” I wanted the light to be a signifier, or an actual character. I love the title, The Guiding Light. I wanted the work to border on kitsch, but that pushed it too far into kitsch, so I had to take it back. But, I do love that idea, so I am just trying to imagine it. What does that phrase mean? I feel like it’s very common, like, “I see the light!” The light is some experience. What is that?

Marissa: I always have gone through really intense stuff about that as a healer because I end up encountering healers who have these really stereotypical beliefs about light and darkness. When we’re working, someone will be like, “You need to find the light” or “This needs to have light.”

Jillian: Totally.

Marissa: Or they say, “this is in the dark” and it’s like light = good, darkness = bad. I always laugh about that. I never talk to clients about what they’re going through in that way, and I also feel like that dichotomy comes from religion and it is a system being imposed on someone’s life.

Jillian: Yeah, it’s so ridiculous. That’s totally, exactly what I’m [going for].I feel like Guiding Light is a reference to fake impressions, [and] our plastic version of something higher or transcendent about God, death, and heaven.

Marissa: Or like “finding god.” The only way to be redeemed from committing a crime, or from becoming a drug addict as a celebrity is by “finding god.”

Jillian: Have you read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish?  love that book. I love how it talks about the way we just discipline our bodies into operating in the larger societal body, as if there is a way out of physical punishment through “finding the light…”

book cover http://web.ics.purdue.edu/

Marissa: Will you tell me more about this “flip” [in your work] where something is kitsch and is real at the same time?

Jillian: Yeah, I feel like my work always borders on that. It’s because there’s something in deep sincerity that can be seen as kitsch. When it tips over from one into the other. That’s the interesting thing about the whole self-help thing, or how you talk about New Age healers. How we’re talking about this thing that’s a joke to us, but it’s also sincere for a lot of people – that is kitsch. I’m not a believer, but I really want to [be]. That’s what this piece is trying to embody. I just really wish I believed in the light. Wouldn’t that feel so good, to go towards the light?

Marissa: When you’re saying that do you mean it in a religious way where God is this clear goal?

Jillian: Yeah, I kind of do. I really do wish that I believed in anything. Like, anything.

Marissa: So, that goes back to Foucault, then.

Jillian: It always goes back Foucault [laughs].

philosopher, Michel Foucault http://inthehallofmirrors.typepad.co.uk/

Marissa: I know! [laughs]. I feel scared talking about these things because these things are what cause war and this is real stuff that we are making fun of, and we sincerely are making fun of it because it’s ridiculous.

Jillian: But I sincerely want to be a part of it.

Marissa: Well what about the sci-fi bent of “Poltergeist,” and working with multiples? That’s different than an idea of a god, but it’s still working with something alien watching us, something “out there.”

Jillian: I feel like a lot of our lives are sci-fi now. Like the political situation, the pro-life movement, it seems sci-fi to me. It’s so ridiculous how bodies are being treated, it’s like a fantasy. It seems like some kind of futuristic terror.

Marissa: Like Ursula K. Le Guin was writing about reality, not sci-fi.

Jillian: I don’t think there’s that big of a difference between sci-fi and today.

Marissa: I remember a video piece that you screened at Dixon Place in 2006, where you were multiplied and you looked like an alien.

Jillian: Yes, Siamese Twins. I got in trouble for that because the politically correct term is “conjoined twins,” even though I was creating something virtual that was supposed to be a mythological creature.

Marissa: Ha, well is there a similar desire for twinning in this piece? Are you interested in the dancers being reflections of you?

Jillian: In this piece I don’t think the dancers are me, multiplied. They are different people. But, I do feel like I am comfortable using people with a similar background and body as mine because I can relate in terms of movement. It’s easier. It’s like a more direct translation. Does that make sense?

Marissa: Yes. They are models in a sense, but in this piece they are just referencing themselves.

The Tiller Girls http://www.tillergirls.com/

Jillian: I’m writing my [M. Phil] thesis [at Goldsmiths] on multiples in performance. I feel like it’s a bad word today in contemporary culture to think of unison and the homogeneous. It’s outdated or just not cool. I was looking for answers as to why I do it, basically. That led me to the Tiller Girls, who were the pre-Rockette-rockettes in England. There’s an essay by a German philosopher that said that superficial emblems, like the Tiller Girls, reveal things about culture more than its politics. It makes sense: by looking at art, by looking at TV, we can actually know more about a culture than whatever it says is going on. So, it’s a really good essay. That’s the chapter that I am writing now. John Tiller had troupes that would tour all over the world, and many troupes were made in their likeness, including the Hiller Girls, which was started by Rolf Hiller, and they would perform with guns for the Nazis.  All those groups were individually owned and operated, but were using the same formula. They said propaganda was best seen through entertainment than by directly saying what you believe in. Laban was aligned with Hitler. Did you know that?

Hiller Girls http://www.flickr.com/photos/25763479@N04/5413654403/

Marissa: No!

Jillian: Yes. I mean, there are books written about this, but Cassie Mey works in the Performing Arts Library and she said she saw a letter, or she heard a voice recording of Laban saying, “I am trying to get all of them out of my school” to Hitler.

Marissa: Whoa! I had no idea. It sounds like you’re working on some very important material. It’s funny to think about when we were younger, and you had first moved to New York. I remember you were so fascinated with Vanessa Beecroft, but who would’ve thought you’d end up writing a Master’s Thesis on multiples?

Jillian: I know. It’s crazy. It’s disgusting how much school I’ve been through at this point! Thank god I’m teaching and I’m going to be done.

Vanessa Beecroft, VB60, Shinsegae, Seoul, Korea, 2007 contemporary-art-blog.tumblr.com




Cassie Mey
11:07 am
April 27, 2012

Thank you for this fascinating conversation! To clarify my source: The documentation of the letters between Rudolf von Laban with the staff of Joseph Goebbels can be found at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The evidence of this correspondence was extensively researched by Lilian Karina, who gave a public lecture in 1993. The sound recording of this lecture is available for listening in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division Oral History Archive, on the 3rd Floor research area. Here is a link to the NYPL catalog record for this resource: http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/16519154052_the_dance_in_the_political_storms_of_our_time.

post a comment ›