Owning the Abject: A Conversation with Monique Jenkinson

Monique Jenkinson in “Delicate Material”. Photo by Yvonne Portra

Bay Area dance artist Monique Jenkinson intertwines contemporary dance and drag performance to explore the construction of femininity and question gender issues. In her cabaret shows as Fauxnique, her drag alter ego, a stagehand may casually walk onto the stage and hand her a new costume, while she remains in character. In the same way that postmodern dance makers used transparency to point at the porous boundaries between art and life, Jenkinson exposes the construction of performance within her work.

In her current research for Delicate Material, a piece that will premiere at ODC in 2017, Jenkinson continues to weave drag and contemporary performance to investigate the representations of femininity. She will be sharing parts of her research at ODC this coming Sunday during Theater Unplugged. Jenkinson and I sat down last week to talk about her work.

Marie Tollon: For a while, you made a differentiation about performing as Monique Jenkinson and performing as Fauxnique. Can you talk about that and where you are at now?

Monique Jenkinson: Before I was interested in making a distinction between Monique and Fauxnique but my thinking on that has changed a bit. Now Monique and Fauxnique intersect. Whenever I am performing, it’s Fauxnique, not as a full on persona but as an aesthetic that enters into everything I do. Instrument (2012) had little drag in it but still had some sense of drag. You could see the traces of it in the way I dealt with transformation through costumes.

In this new work, I am taking my practice of drag as Fauxnique and pulling it apart, using the luxury of the context of contemporary dance to dig deeper. In the context of drag performance, when I am performing as part of a line up of other drag performers or when I am doing my cabaret show, it is a specific prescribed framework that is different from contemporary dance. The physical space is different, so is the willingness of the audience to engage in a different way. You are performing for people who are standing up in a bar, drinking, coming and going. [The performance] needs to be short, sharp, poppy, and has to be accessible in a certain way.

MT: Are there creative rules that you abide by, and if so, which ones?

MJ: I have rules for different contexts. For example, there is a certain technique and rigor to how I do the drag face. There are all these elements that lead to feminizing a face if you are a man, that if you put on your lady face, makes you look like a drag queen.

I love to take rules that we have for classical dance –you must point your feet- and make other rules where I apply this kind of rigor. Limitations imposed by costumes are very generative to me. That’s why in the piece I made for RAWdance [Double Exposure] we started with tying them together.

MT: I am thinking of the physical limitation of performing contemporary movements with your panties at your ankles in “Am I Square?” Some of these limitations can be viewed as symbolic?

MJ: I am interested and open to the interpretation of my work. But a lot of it gets read as: “You are a woman who has been held back by all this femininity!” And it’s not about that so much for me. Yes, I am interested in the ways that the performance of gender can hold us back or move us forward but my work is not a statement about how held back women are. At this point nobody has to wear pencil skirts and pantyhose, unless maybe you work for a specific airline!

For me it is about play. I am trying to get at a deeper critique that includes empowerment. In certain parts of Delicate Material, I am working with the abject. It is about transformation and how ugly I can make my body. I performed an excerpt at FRESH Festival, and although the process of making this piece came from a lot of anger and feminist rage, at the end I felt this kind of elation, I felt like this powerful witch! There is something powerful in owning the abject.

MT: Is this the direction the piece is going toward?

MJ: I think so, but there are also parts where I am dealing with very slow transitions, from the ‘neutral/no-to-spectacle’ body to the ‘spectacular/drag queen’ body. It might be research that does not end up in the piece, but I am looking at what happens if you take 5 minutes to go from one pose to the next. I am also steeped in somatic work. If I apply that thinking, can I track or perform the cellular changes that happen when my being goes from neutral body to spectacular body?

MT: You have shared that Cindy Sherman is one of the many visual artists whose work has been influential. Sherman’s most recent photographs deal with women and aging. In Delicate Material, you explore what it must be like to be Lolita’s mom. Is there a reference to aging as well?

MJ: When I first started to make this piece, I was listening to music, and in particular to Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Mélody Nelson, which is Gainsbourg’s take on Lolita. I am using a couple of songs from the album as research in the piece. Again this is research that may not end up in the piece. It is interesting that both Lolita and Gainsbourg’s song are classic masterpieces, both about disturbing stories, and both by men.

I was reading an essay by Rebecca Solnit where she referred to Esquire Magazine’s list of 50 books that every man should read. Lolita is always on it. In her essay, Solnit questioned [those choices]. What it is being a man versus a woman reading Lolita? Why is the culture so steeped in it? It is a fine work and I would never want to silence it but I started to think about the works that we love and cherish and why they are considered as masterpieces. I want to interrogate it. Right now, if I had lived in the fifties, I would be the age of Lolita’s mom.

According to the story behind Gainsbourg’s album, he basically says that he had to kill his Lolita character [Mélody] before she got old. And Nabokov kills off Lolita’s mom quite early in his story, as I recall. When you just think about this, and why, it is disturbing. Especially as a woman. Again, of course, I say all of this knowing that both works are genius explorations of ideas, of darkness and the antihero/villain. There is something about both masterpieces that is both attractive and that I hate. I really wanted to open myself up to interrogating my relationship to these works and other works that bring up ambivalence or discomfort. And for me, these works bring up my relationship to misogyny and male power and violence in the culture and male cultural clout. It is actually difficult, risky, and often a really bad idea to make work in relationship to a well-worn masterwork. I in no way want this to be the Lolita piece or the Gainsbourg piece, but have to kind of work out this idea of putting my body in the space with these stories. Like, what if I refuse to die? What if I take my aging female body and don’t put on shimmer tights that smooth it all out? What if I put scotch tape around my ass and make it look gross and weird and make Serge Gainsbourg’s work be present with the reality of that?

It is about aging, and it is also about transformation, which as a drag performer, is always present. I can make my body look glossy and gorgeous for you. I can also make it look ugly. What is ugly? A lot of performers in the drag and burlesque world are looking at what it means to perform and own and define their beauty. “No to spectacle” can be such a puritanical refusal of beauty. Drag allowed me to indulge in beauty and the artifice of beauty. I am coming from a lineage of drag performers who were already doing that. Artists like Leigh Bowery were pushing the porous boundary between beautiful and ugly.

I am interested in why there is this prescriptive thing around aging out of performing, and retiring. Instrument was about that to. In the piece, I tell the story of how I saw Nureyev perform in 1990. He was dying and performing in The King and I. He couldn’t sing, it was bad. Yet, he was still doing it. In Instrument I talk about how I understand why. You just want to keep going.