Asking Questions, Dancing Answers

Risa Jaroslow & Dancers in “At Your Service” . Photo by Robbie Sweeny

The score of Risa Jaroslow’s Resist/Surrender, a piece which explored masculinity and premiered in New York in 2006, was based on recorded interviews with New York City firefighters, corporate lawyers, gay teens, senior adults, counselors to men who batter, and participants in an all-male poker game. The piece, which was revived at ODC Theater in 2015, included both professional dancers and non-trained movers. Similarly, Jaroslow’s new work, At Your Service, which premieres at ODC Theater at the end of February, includes non-trained performers and its text and score are based on a series of interviews carried through by Jaroslow throughout a year of creative process.

A few years ago, Jaroslow attended a concert by composer, vocalist and electronic musician Amy X Neuburg and immediately became a fan. Friend and composer Paul Dresher introduced the two, who decided to collaborate on At Your Service. For the piece, Neuburg, who will perform live on stage, created a combination of sculptured sound, musical gestures and backgrounds, and several songs performed with and without the dancers’ voices. “One such song (“Superdupe Dude Man”) is a round sung by the dancers, about how our needs are and are not served within intimate relationships,” Neuburg, reached out via email, explained. “It tells a story in which one half of a couple wants to offer emotional support, and the other half rejects this in favor of help around the house.” Another song deals with the struggle between serving one’s art and taking care of one’s family, and another (“Do you see me?”) brings to light how the very dancers viewers are witnessing one evening might be serving them canapés at a catered event the next day.

On Jaroslow’s website a motto summarizes her practice: “Asking questions, dancing answers.” In the year of preparation of her piece, Jaroslow reached out to people who work in the service industry to get a better grasp of the following questions: How do we serve? How are we served? Who serves whom, and where do the lines blur? “I think those are questions that are relevant to many parts of our lives — to our personal relationships, our intimate relationships, our work, how we see ourselves in the world,” offered Jaroslow when we met. “How do you serve something bigger than yourself? I think we live in a time where a lot of work is undervalued and why not put some light on that?”

Neuburg joined Jaroslow in interviewing several workers: “Risa’s visions for engaging the community and addressing social issues have been realized in a surprisingly effective way. I really admire her boldness and inclusivity.” Some of the conversations brought up gender disparities. Jaroslow recalled talking with firefighter and performer Anita Paratley about their respective mothers. “We both had mothers who were kind of frustrated in their lives. They were women who wound up serving more than they were served and they were struggling. Actually there’s a whole chunk of the piece that really kind of addresses that: women as servers.”

From the recorded conversations with interviewees, Jaroslow drafted a script that will be spoken out by six of them,whose work spans a wide range of services. There is a math teacher in a public Oakland high school, a hospice nurse, a woman who served in the Navy, a nurse midwife, a San Francisco firefighter and a consultant to social justice nonprofits. The piece also includes 13 dancers, 5 of which belong to a core group. During the creative process, the dancers shared their stories, one of which details the experience of working as a customer support in a tech store. “Is there a dancer around that hasn’t worked as a waiter?” Jaroslow questioned. “We shared some of our own experiences and we also got into the question of our relationship to each other as artists and performers. Are we serving the audience? Are they serving us? Are the dancers serving the choreographer? What’s the responsibility of the choreographer to dancers?”

Dancer Scott Marlowe, who has been working with Jaroslow for several years, explained how the collaborative process developed organically over the past year: “As dancers, we have developed an internal culture that gives permission to constantly direct and push each other to find more authenticity, more vigorous physicality, and a deeper understanding of what we are creating,” Marlowe commented. “When we are stuck, we ask each other for help. When something doesn’t feel quite right, we address it and collectively find a solution. Each artist in the room is so committed to this process and this piece because each artist is heard and supported at all times. It has been an experience of not only serving the work, but of serving each other along the way.”

At the end of our conversation, Risa looked at the notes that I had been scribbling down. We had been talking about words, text, written content and how they help structure the piece. But I shouldn’t be fooled, she reminded me: “What I really am always the most interested in is the movement and the dancing. The text has to serve the dancing. It’s the heart and soul of the piece.”