IN DEPTH// Precious Jennings: Relationships in Idealized Evolution

Precious Jennings in her role dancing with The Humans’ production of “Inevitability and Escape” in Paper Shoes. Image courtesy the artist and The Humans.

By Michael Workman

This interview was conducted prior to Jennings’ “Lessons in Human Development as Captured in the Movement of Whales and Horses,” performed March 2016 at Links Hall, which the article references throughout.

When did you move to Chicago and what brought you here? Had you always grown up dancing, is this something that was always your goal?
Yeah, I grew up dancing. I went to school and did dance class every day. The last 2–3 years of high school was dance every night and on weekends I did competition stuff. I was born in Des Moines, Iowa with my twin sister where I lived until February 2001, when I moved to Chicago with two friends in musical theater, two young men whom I was with in a show in Des Moines. There were open classes happening all over the city and I went to every open studio that I could find, and went to these open community classes that Columbia had open, and I started going to classes at Hamlin [Park Theater] even before I started dancing with Chicago Moving Company. I didn’t have any money for school, couldn’t afford a plane ticket, or to go to college in Arizona and I was just waiting tables there, so I moved here because I could do the same thing here and have access to all that stuff. There were no dance classes in Des Moines besides the opera gig that I did — because the ballet company that I was with — I was really into ballet when I moved here — that ballet company went defunct in like ’98 or ’99, so it was just kind of building.

So you were drawn by the culture and to learn more about the art you were interested in.
Yes. I met one of my best friends, Brian Robert-Hinckle, we were in a circus together, and we ended up living in the same area together. I was in Rogers Park and he was off of Granville, and we did this circus in Aurora, the Walter Peyton Roundhouse, and we got paid this great chunk of money every weekend for like 4 or 5 months, we got paid rehearsals and we became tight friends. He was in school at Columbia and he introduced me to all these people and we have always worked together and still make work with the group I’m in with Rachel Bunting, The Humans. He was going to be a part of this but the scheduling didn’t work. And that’s how it evolved, just through creating relationships with people; I moved here knowing no one. The two people I moved here with ended up moving away.

That must have been isolating.
It was and it wasn’t. They went to go do Summerstock and they ended up not coming back, and I was just like “Oh, all right.” It was before 9/11, so there were jobs and I ended up getting hired on part time, doing temp work, and I had a job within 4 months, a solid job, so I didn’t have to temp anymore. I waited tables for about 6 months then quit that, but they let me come and go as I wanted, so I’d go take class in the morning, come in the afternoon, stay ’til 7, go to class, come back.

How did you come up with the idea for the program you’re working on now?
I’d been a part of other people’s processes from beginning to end in supporting their research, being a large part of their research and I did a piece I think in 2007 combining voice and movement, part of the Field Works at the old Links Hall. That was my first solo thing, looking at sound, movement and improvisation —

That’s interesting, there’s this shift that happened for you, somewhere in all of this, between ballet and improvisation?
Yes. There was this huge shift. In 2002, Brian Robert-Hinckle and I went to this festival — I mean, growing up, I did ballet, jazz, I had this dream of one day doing Stomp — I was a percussionist also, so that translated for me — in 2002 we went to Bates, where I did this Body Percussion class, and another, Body Harmonics, where every afternoon we did Mind-Body Centering and then into Thai massage — so looking at the energetic body and the cellular body. Growing up, I was always into science too, and always thought there was something else going on. Yes, ballet is great, movement is great but somewhat taught me meditation when I was growing up, and every night I would mediatate and think to myself, “There’s something else going on.” Whatever that means. So, at the Bates Dance Festival I got more into this whole other world of movement that’s possible in improvisation.

How would you categorize it? As a kind of spirituality or as a kind of visualization technique?
I think it was very grounding for me, and I was this person in space — spiritual? I don’t know. Maybe. I know my spirit changed, there was something that I wasn’t going to let go of easily. Maybe that has to do with spirit? I think improvisation came in early on — I remember one specific day growing up where my dance teacher said to me, “Oh, you can come and practice.” And I remember thinking, “Okay, what the hell do I do standing here all by myself?” and just playing around with really simple things, and then realized, “Oh! I can create something by myself,” and I think I came back to that at Bates and I worked with a Japanese choreographer there where the energy really became solidified and he performance of emotions — because growing up, I didn’t really like the competition part because it was all so much fake and contrived emotions people were conveying. It wasn’t at the level it is now in performance, but this Japanese choreographer was so slow in building up, from the inside, and he would give a direction and say, “No, that’s not you.” So I began asking, where does the performance come from, I think, which was improvisation.

Who was the choreographer?
He was actually an engineer, he wasn’t a performer. He built robotics, Fukurow Ishikawa. And then there was another, Kosei Sakamoto was the artist in residence there at the time — two Japanese men — so Bates was a really big shift. Then I came back here, did the massage studies, did yoga — that was my first big experience with a yoga class every day for 3 weeks. I drove a car there and I couldn’t actually lay down al the way, extend my right leg, for the entire time there — I think it was from having to press down and hold the gas pedal driving that distance from here to there, or maybe an in jury to my foot from the year before. So then I came back here, met a bunch of teachers including — Kathleen Hermesdorf was at Bates that year and we all went and did a workshop with her in San Francisco in 2003. She talked a lot about energy and was working with the elements and dance in creating improvisation — and then I came back here and thought, “I want to know more about this.” And that’s present in the work I do now, it definitely is; I went to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and learned about Chinese Theory and Chi Gong, which Kathleen usually incorporates. Then I met Rachel Bunting and she introduced me to teaching actors by having me come teach anatomy to her class and then I said “Whoa, this is really great, they’re so unlike dancers and I can really use what I know in a really simple way to get people into thinking about how they move, people who don’t move. So then I met [former Chicago Moving Company Artistic Director Elizabeth] “Nana” Shineflug, and we had a lot of similar ways of moving and she went, “Okay, come take classes with me,” and then I met K.J. Holmes in 2007. In those intervening years, I performed a lot, did a lot of DIY stuff, and then started a duet with Rachel that we did a few years, with multiple years of research work in-between with lots of works-in-progress performances. Specific to improvisation aside from that, Ayako Kato and I would do short improvisations and research, I would do yearly workshops with K.J., I think I missed a year in ’09 or ’10; I’d go to Movement Research or she’d come here. And the last 3 years I’ve been at Bearnstow in Mt. Vernon, Maine, which is where most of the research for this has taken place.

In 2011, someone gave me a bunch of these cassette tapes — actually Daniel Guidara, the Tai-chi teacher at Hamlin Park. I got a car and it had a tape player, and he was all, “Ahh! I have a bunch of tapes for you.” So he gave me all these tapes and I picked one up and it was Whale Nation. I was like, “Hmm!” I was driving home to Iowa, and I put it in, and I was like, “Whoaaaa! Amazing!” I listened to it for probably 2 months straight, that was all that was in my car. If anyone got in, I was like, “Ummm, I’ve been listening to a book on tape.” Anyway, it’s really amazing, it talks about whales — I think it was made in 1987 or something — Heathcoat Williams is the publisher (editor’s note: Heathcoat is actually the poet-author of the book); I’m not sure if it’s a book or it may just have been a book on tape. So, that was a huge thing. Then my friend Jeff Giza and I were going to do this improvisation that was in this attic in Pilsen, just go and he was going to play drums and I was going to dance, cool, awesome and then, the day of the performance, he says “Oh my God, I can’t get into my space to get my drums.” I was like, “Okay, we’re performing tonight.” Here’s the practice of improvisation: I was like “Okay, don’t worry about it.” And he was like, “But I still want to come and watch you.” And I was like, “Don’t worry about it!” And…I had an idea! So…I went and taught my yoga class in the morning and was all, “Okay, okay, okay.” And, for some reason, while I was home with my dad, I asked him, “Can you put this on digital in case something happens to it?” So then I had a digital copy of the file, and I blew it into iTunes, spliced it out, frantically ran around my apartment and just grabbed stuff…I mean not frantically, very mindfully. Ha! I just ran around, grabbed these objects, set up the space, and edited these little objects within the hour, I mean, it was like 15 minutes from within the hour of book on tape, and did a performance. Maybe a 15…18, 20 minute performance?

Jennings dancing in Tsukasa Taiko’s “Reduction,” at the MCA Chicago with Melody Takata and Ayako Kato. Image courtesy the MCA Chicago and Ken Carl

So this recording is someone talking about whales.
No, right. It’s about the history of whales and the industrialization of the world, built on the back of whales and the world, beauty products and —

Lamp oil…
— lamp oil, and the astronauts going into space, all of the moving parts that come from the sperm whale oil; medicines and most every major city made for import/export were built for whaling communities…so, islands, all this history is huge. So that was inspiring in many ways, and that was in 2012 and I let it lay, went and worked on other people’s work, but still listened to my book on tape on whales, and would get all hooked in and be like, “Oh, what does that really mean? How the world is now?”

So were you thinking about that, about the history of industrialization as you started to move toward making this piece?
I don’t even know what that means, how to think about industrialization in terms of how you build a structure in improvisation, and the relationship between everybody in the space and how the whale moves through the oceans and there’s this whole other thing they don’t know about that’s affecting how they migrate or…now, I’ve watched every documentary there is on whales…and there’s a new one, because all the fish are being wiped out over here and shifting the ecosystem of the ocean, then the whales don’t have anything to feed on and then they have to go migrate to go and find food, so there’s that large-scale shift.

It sounds like you basically became a marine zoologist.
I don’t know…ha! Yeah, and working with musicians, and writers and water is the holders of emotions…so, while I was working with K.J. at Bearnstow, the first year I went there, she was like, “Just bring a seed,” and I was like, “I’ve got whales and I’ve been reading this,” and there’s a huge lake that most often in the morning, but usually 3 times a day, we would go get in the lake. After class, wander down, get in the lake. And it’s a glacial lake, so it’s colder. I did a lot of processing from my personal life there, I did a lot of writing and singing and walking in the forest and it was this huge, enchanted, magical thing. And then I did a solo. I was processing relationships, it was in 2012, I think I had come then from doing a lot of performance and teaching and that was my time to actual unpack, away from all that, time you don’t have for yourself. Yeah, unpack, relationships, getting to know myself again, being outside of relationships, or in relationships, or being around people that I know. And working with some of the people I do for so many years, I mean, I work with my best friend. What do I want to do with that outside of supporting another person’s work, what are my interests? I need to take a little time for that. And then, if I do that, then I can do this other thing, or this, and I was working with Ayako a lot for the piece I did for that.

It sounds like maybe you were going through some relationship difficulties at the time.
Yeah. Nothing I want to talk about. Positive, I mean. I find all relationships positive, whether they’re negative at the time or not, ha ha! But yeah, I have a lot fo writing from then that I go back to, but that’s part of the work also is me, it’s part of this — which I talk about a lot — it’s taking something really, really personal and how do you go into it, looking at performance — I talk about this with my students all the time that there is that — eww, it’s not ready to show yet, it’s something for you and not something that’s ready to show yet, the personal has to expand out into the universal.

Right. So you’re combining a lot of thing. Symbology, such as with the water of the subconscious you referenced earlier, this zoology — 
Yes, and the developmental movement patterns, I was looking at that, from Body-Mind centering, thinking about the body from it in utero stages, of humans, how we start out suspended in water with no sense of time and space, we don’t sense gravity; we sense gravity through another person’s body. And through another person’s sense of gravity that’s carrying you through space and then, looking at that in different ways and looking at the development of the chakra system and development of that into emotions and energy, and layering that through — as we sense gravity, the two main chakras that are open when we’re born is the root which deals with earth and the crown which deals with — I mean, I babies have a different sense of connection that builds through the spine — so then, as we start to come into relationship with gravity, we start to build up to standing, and the chakras do the same thing. It’s in that first 7 years — we develop our bodies at the same time we develop relationship and emotion and how we perceive ourselves in the world. As we develop and find our movement patterns, how we either relate to space or people, how we were treated once we’re born, the environment we develop in constitutes how the chakras are formed.

And there’s an order to that that determines the movement?
Yes. Well, it’s the chicken or the egg. If someone’s screaming at you, you’re either going to scream and yell at the back or retreat and just implode in on yourself, which then automatically affects your movement patterning. You can get into the psychotherapy and all of that but I’m more interested in experiencing it, really getting into all of that but having a place of play. So that’s sort of my focus, not getting into the specifics of balance and imbalance, but being able to play with that. Not even thinking about the chakras, but going into movement, developmental movement and improvising with that jumping-off point and then, the Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen — that’s who K.J.’s teacher was — her Body-Mind Centering separates the physical body into different parts, so I’ve been combining the BMC work into the chakra work. So I’ve got this and then I’ve got the horse, so I feel like what I’m doing now is the groundwork into “How do I relay all this information to people, and then how do I create with it?” So it’s about having specificity which, working with horses you need to have extreme specificity…

Can you explain a little for readers how the horse aspect of this production comes into play?
So, I’m looking at two different nervous systems. Whales have this bigger emotional center, the hypothalamus, so looking at this holder of emotion, in this huge animal, floating in water, they live in pods — a.k.a. herds — I’ve been relating that to the organ systems and fat and floating, and then looking at the horse’s nervous systems, these sort of super-anxious, high-tone and, since they’re a prey animal, they’re usually on-guard and very sensitive. I did that research with Rachel [Bunting], so that’s where that aspect of the research comes from too, I guess. I was really enamoured — my brother-in-law’s father, he bred horses — he has one horse now, he kind of sold them. But I would go there, I went there a few times and he has mares, which are supposed to live in a herd — there’s a place in Michigan where they let them live in a herd, but they’re still captive — so I would watch the mares and their foals. An even just being invited in, at one time I think he had six mares and their babies , which is kind of a lot. And the moms will get super pushy with you if they don’t want you near, so like looking at how they care about their young.

Precious Jennings, image courtesy the artist.

Why did you want to move from just looking at the whales?
Oh! That was from at Bearnstow also, the stuff that I did with Rachel was there. And the place I went in Michigan, I went there for a leadership conference on mindful practices, all the admin team I was with went to this horse place and did this leadership course. In it, we had all these tasks to do, we met the herd, went up to pet them and blah blah blah and then they were like, “Okay, in groups of 5, you can’t touch the horse, but you have to go and try and get it to come from the back to the front of the field and go through this obstacle field, and they would take away, “Okay, you can’t touch. Oay, now you can touch. Now you can’t use the begging, pretend you’re giving them a treat. You can’t use sound or yell or talk to the horse. So it was about a half hour, so we had to call upon rhythm and moving and getting close to the horse and moving, then going far away. It was almost impossible. Most everybody got their horse up but then they were totally not interested and totally just wanted to eat the grass. And then we all sit in a circle and talk about it — it’s a husband and wife that own the place — and then literally not 3 minutes into talking the horses come in, stick their head in like, “Hey guys, how you doing?” It was amazing, they’re totally social animals, they want relationships but if the relationship isn’t more interesting than what they’re eating, or if it’s just what they want to do because they eat lots of food, they’re very big animals, then they’re not going to be engaged. So, it’s like what do you have to offer them? It’s a trust issue. So the horse ideas came into my work at Bearnstow in 2014 and I stayed for a week after just to work on stuff and they have 2 horses there and I would take them for walks to get grass. A quarter mile up the road, there was a field of clovers they liked and I woud walk up there with them and build trust and, at first, he wouldn’t walk with me. Then, one day, he started to push me off the road and I was like, “Seriously, he’s going to push me into the ditch.” So I’d push him back and he was like, “Hm. Okay.” So we’d walk and he’d get closer and closer and he would come up to me and say hello for a little bit, or he would push the other horse and they’d have this little archetypal relationship. He’d push the other horse to me, and be like “You. You go play with her,” and he was the alpha. So that sort of spurred my relationship with the horses. And now I’m here.

Right! And so, in that confluence of research and investigation into different systems, where do you feel as though the project is now?
Now it’s in this place where I’m trying to make work that’s accessible and non-judgmental and not just for dancers, looking at the relationship of everyone who is creating the world of this performance and not only just the performers, there’s this whole thing out here called an audience that you’re asking to engage with you. Because that’s what performance is, which is like how you get a horse to be interested in you; and also, it’s just like letting go of that and really honing into the relationship, especially with improvisation. You aren’t just playing to the audience, at the same time you have to create in-depth relationships with the musicians, with whoever else may be in the space. I’m working with people I’ve never worked with before, or whom I even knew before this, which is what I knew going into this residency when I called all my old friends and they were like, “No, it doesn’t work with my schedule.” And another thing had spurred this was doing the Three on Three program here a few years ago, and that was with a close group of friends that I’d been performing with a few years, and two musicians. And I was giving them very little to go on, just “stay in solo and see what happens,” and then another friend was projecting images and I got pulled in and thought, “I want to look into this.” I was sort of going off the work with horses then.

How do you see all this coming together?
We’re setting up a working body and working mind. The performance comes in the practice, so what you’re seeing is a polished practice. Hopefully the audience, like my performers, will learn more about themselves, looking at the capacity we have to be in a relationship to each other, the world, to the group and no one way of sensing it is right or wrong — and to have fun. That’s been my motto for the residency, it to play. Everything is in play, and I want the audience to experience that joy, or sadness, or fright. That’s what we’re getting into now, finding this place of earth together. We’ve chosen one chakra to be together in and then everybody else is choosing another persona chakra to work within. You can kind of stereotype each chakra — the heart has to do with compassion, for instance, and then you get into how would you describe that in theater and acting terms, that would be: “I take care of myself and that’s the only person I’m concerned with,” or: “Oh, let me take care of you, can I help you?” So, playing with that. Am I directing people within that? No, they’re doing it themselves. I’m giving them a means and a structure to do it within. I’ll lead them through something and it can be different everyday — their emotional and personal lives change every day so we always come into the room with a new mind and body — but it’s also this question of can they drop into a specific place, which I am asking them to do. I am asking them to choose a specific place to work within, and then you can toy with it. It can be sort of like a melting pot where nobody knows what to do, so they all roll around on the floor ha haaaa! Unless that’s it, and it can totally happen unless it has meaning, and sometimes you unpack shit you didn’t know you had; we’re creating this work in this space, and I know we’re going to look at it in a completely different way.