Jennifer Monson is a critically acclaimed and well established New York choreographer. Her work has been seen in Europe, Latin America and Australia. She has won a National Endowment for the Arts Choreographer's Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a Bessie Award. But she's nervous about bringing her latest piece, The Glint, to Houston.
It's no wonder. Monson is an improvisational choreographer, and dance improvisation has a bad rap, especially here in Houston where big, beautiful ballet rules the scene. When you say "improv," even fans of the most avant-garde modern dance cringe. The image that comes to mind is of untrained dancers rolling around on top of each other like some sort of giant feel-good mutating marshmallow. The image that comes to mind is dance for the performers instead of dance for the audience.
But that is not Jennifer Monson's kind of improv. "Everybody thinks they can do it, so you have a lot of people doing it badly," she says. "It's easy to be lazy with improv, but I'm really rigorous with everything."
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You won't see Monson in a dance exploring all the things her elbows can do, or a contact improv piece where dancers are buffeted around like popcorn kernels in a microwavable bag. For Monson, improvisation is really about composition and performance. "I'm constantly developing structure, but I'm doing it on the spot," she explains. "The audience is able to see me make a choice."
In fact, The Glint revels in the contrast between structure and its absence. With Monson, fellow dancer Chrysa Parkinson and violinist Guy Yarden all improvising, the piece is different every time it's performed. But it's always set against a backdrop of whimsical art by installationist Nicole Eisenman and a quartet of dancers doing Balkan-inspired line dances in unison -- a wall of bodies constantly linked by their arms, even when they're rolling on the floor. "They're my safety mechanism," Monson says of the ensemble. They help create The Glint's tension between freedom and control, chaos and order.
Monson's style of moving is just as rigorous as her thought on improvisation and choreography. She's known for raw, visceral, barreling high-speed tumbles. "I was not a traditional ballet body, so I overcompensated by trying to be really strong and physical," she says. Unlike most improvisers, she embraces her own dance vocabulary and doesn't feel the need to always dance differently than she has before. "To find the new thing, you have to go into your patterns more and more, and suddenly you're doing something totally new," she says. "That's my theory at the moment." And for Jennifer Monson, in the moment is the only place to be.
Jennifer Monson & Company perform The Glint Friday and Saturday, October 8 and 9, at 8 p.m. at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. $17; $10, students; $9, members. Call (713)228-0914 for reservations. A special premiere performance and dinner is scheduled for Thursday, October 7, at 7 p.m. Call Lisa Haymes at (713)223-8346.