IN DEPTH// Jessica Marasa & the Somatics of Meditative Reconstruction

Jessica Marasa, image courtesy the artist and William Frederking.

By Michael Workman

This is the full, unexpurgated version of the interview with Marasa that originally appeared over at Newcity.

You’ve worked with a lot of figures in the dance community in the city. Are you originally from Chicago?
I’m from Fox Lake, originally. Northwest of the city is where I grew up. I moved to Chicago in 2006, almost ten years. Growing up, I used to visit Libertyville, which is where my studio was. Not as developed as it is today, it’s the last stop on the Metra line, so I used go to Libertyville where all the dancers were from Gus Giordano in Evanston. Then I started visiting Evanston, which had a larger group of people, a lot more energy, and from there I’d meet other teachers — it’s where I met Joel Hall — when I was 14, mostly jazz. Then I went to school and didn’t study dance, I was a journalist at the University of Iowa and after that I moved to New York to work at a public relations firm. At first, I worked at NBC, then I left that job, people’s peace of mind and overall happiness…I was really questioning it. So I left, got another job and was seeing someone here whom I was madly in love with, so I moved back in 2006. Shortly after that, I met Molly Shannahan and thought, “Dancing sounds good, dancing is joy.” I met her when she was finishing her long-term project, “My Name is a Blackbird,” and beginning an ensemble process and I got brought in, incorporated, and I’ve remained active with the community since. I worked with Julia Rae Antonick, Jonathan Meyer. Joanna Rosenthal, Ayako Kato, she is sort of a mentor for me and she’s cosmic, I think. Her studies and views, and Molly’s are the ones I have bridged into myself. Kristina Isabelle on a short project. But in 2012, I went to a study on Body-Mind Centering and it’s a somatic study, one I know Julia and Jonathan are very heavily influenced by, Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen.

She was an occupational therapist, she was unaware in what ways she was facilitating ease and mobility in people, so a lot of her work was bringing Eastern energetic and philosophical — but also Meditative consciousness practices — and her work can be sometimes explained as experiential anatomy, as a reductive way of thinking about it. But basically that her way of understanding the body was through an empirical understanding. So, her work was looking at developmental movement patterns from conception through the first year of life and how that process of evolution mirrors the philogenetic — animal development — so trying to go in and find an access point into the movement patterns of your body that are the start of it. That are of the jellyfish, radiating out and pulsating in, all of those patterns are within you. That work, a lot of it is sounding into the systems, moving into them, breathing from them, trying to understand one’s mystery through experiential anatomy — a lot of it is visualization, and she would call it somatization, and that those two things really give one a sense of embodiment and presence. I think there’s something about the nervous system, and how it gets really activated when our minds get going, and so to have that be as integrated, as experienced as all of the systems, blood, organs, the skeleton, fascia, for all of them to be together, there’s a sense of relief. And, these aren’t my words, but you “separate to integrate,” you separate the systems to try and integrate them. It’s remembering the body, which has its own memory. It’s in the tissues.

Jessica Marasa, image courtesy the artist and William Frederking.

I’ve always found that fascinating, the way trauma stays in the body, and how triggering can cause one to relive of those experiences.
I know very little about it except for my own experience of witnessing that with people and in myself…so it was there that I had the insight, where I thought: “bone recognizes bone,” and it was just that simple, and my non-hierarchical mind was like, “Oh! Okay.” Even in the bones, which in some ways is how we lever ourselves, where we stand above, how we even fit things into hierarchies…that drew me back because it made feel relational. I’m so drawn to dance because it’s a relationship, movement. So that’s what really drew me back in and reawakened it in my life. It was actually Lisa Gonzales, who organized a improvisation workshop at Columbia…I hadn’t really learned how improvisation was more than a tool to use to set movement, and using improvisation itself as the practice, as the container, as what we were observing. It really lit a fire. Since then, I’ve really started to find ways to bring that into my work. So, last year I created a series called “Jewel Tones,” responding to the call for wanting to know more about improvisation, and inviting people who know and practice it, just to share space with them together and learn from them.

That such a journalistic response: I’ve got to write about this to learn about it.
That was exactly it, that was the process. It’s also experiential. I just need to give me body more life experience, engaging with it, and the conversation will begin. And Jewel Tones was my first real effort with that, the seed for which had come out of that “bone sees bone” moment and while I was there, I met a friend who was practicing insight meditation or “Vipassana,” which translates into insight meditation, and it’s a Buddhist practice, it’s sitting and walking meditation, essentially just dropping questions into the unconscious and observing. It’s hard to describe. I went on my first meditation retreat in the summer of 2014 and prior to that I had started going to the Zen Buddhist temple here in Chicago and sitting on Sundays. And they have these internal practices they call “precepts,” and my understanding is that the precepts are the things that overlap in all of the different forms of Buddhism and so, when one takes a vow to the practice, one takes a vow with the precepts. So I decided to take the more formal precept ceremony at the temple that summer. Day two or three of retreat, leaving sitting to do walking, one of the instructors says, “Do as the Buddha, and make of yourself a light. So I walked outside, and was like “What are you talking about? How do I begin to experience that in my body?”

It’s a karmic notion?
Oh! I don’t know. The back end of that is “Make of yourself a light, rely upon yourself. Do not rely upon others.” That sounds like karma. Thinking about that, I also take a lot of pleasure often in wearing the same colors top to bottom, different shades of the same color, so I was thinking about monochromatics, and the words just struck a cord for me, “Jewel Tones,” so it was bringing all of those things together, it was an aspiration to free myself of prejudice and just be. For me, I wasn’t really speaking to that aspect of it because I was fearful of talking…also, knowing that my aspiration was after movements ahead of the words I could say about them. Just receiving. I had received something and I knew it was in the receiving that I knew I had to create the conditions for that, I had to create a dance. I think the reason I was mindful of speaking about it in the language I was using is that there really was the aspiration to be free of prejudice creatively, and really curious about how — and these are my words for it — how naked of a container can still keep everyone connected. How much form provides freedom? And, this piece about giving your body life experience, I feel like my body had so much experience of color and being a divisive agent, I was curious about what it might feel like for it to be the sole unifying agent.

Jessica Marasa, image courtesy the artist and William Frederking.

What’s next for you?
My next project is at Links, it’s a series I’m running that I approach [Links Director] Roelle about. I knew she was interested in having a works in progress series, which they used to have at the old Links. I proposed this new thing called Set Free, which is a progress in performance series. Hopefully it will become a place where artists can use performance to understand their own work, so performance is included in the process, not just as a place of arrival, but where it can constantly be a place of departure. The name for me really came from my value that people working with traditional forms of set composition, improvisation and free structures, that the two are not separate. I think I’ve felt that way in the works I’ve been doing, that there was a kind of either/or and that that was my own lack of perspective. I find that’s a way people talk about process and product. We’re going to do 5 months, 5 Mondays at Links and there’ll be a weekend show in August with 4 artists, 4 works, so instead of it being a 1-off performance night, this gives people a chance to repeat, return and continue, and provides some consistency and some continuity. I’ll be one of the 4 and I’ll be making a new work called “Woodpecker,” a duet between myself and drummer Ryan Packer, following up from Jewel Tones, when I became very interested in the interpenetration of the music and the movement.

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Set Free” takes place at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave., Chicago, IL 60618. (773) 281–0824. Performances take place the third Monday of every month: Feb. 15, March 21, April 18, May 16 and June 20, culminating in a weekend performance Aug. 18–21 (two evenings per artist). For more info: and