An Interview with Jody Oberfelder
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT, PHOTOS BY PAULA COURT
Jody Oberfelder is a dancer and choreographer in New York City. Her upcoming work, Madame Ovary, is the final installation of a seven-year body-centric multimedia exploration. Madame Ovary examines the role biology and anatomy play in defining identity through a humanistic and thoughtful lens. Here, Jody describes her choreographic approach to the topic, as well as her personal experience dancing in the work at the age of 62.
Madame Ovary will be presented at The Flea Theater May 15-19. For more information, visit www.jodyoberfelder.com.
Can you tell me a little about you and your dance history?
It’s interesting – we grow up in this time of dance history. I can remember my first dance history teacher espousing the periods of the development of classical ballet, the rebellion of one idiom into the next idiom. The longer you live, you experience different generations of dance history swirling around you, and you’re in the middle of this, always trying to note who you are as an artist.
My training has always been one I reacted to and rebelled against. I’ve never been an easy one to fit into a mold. For me, going to SUNY Purchase was a challenge because there were the basic techniques that profoundly shaped dance history. In my time, it was Limón, Cunningham and Graham. Somehow, I had to figure out which camp I was in. I had the Graham body – muscular and taut. But from day one I liked to make things up. Even as a child, in my imagination I would pretend I was a horse in the vacant lot next door where I grew up in Detroit.
I’m at a point in my career where I realize I’ve had my own thing going. I’ve been shaped by experience – not just dance class but shaped by life. I’ve also been shaped by figuring out which language is appropriate for which piece. Sometimes the piece calls for film, for example, or, in my current piece, I’m singing rock songs and have written a lot of lyrics. I haven’t done that since I quit dance for awhile and sang in a band. My early works were pure physical works; I let that muscular and strong energy come through me. Then I started to develop choreography with other dancers who liked to be upside down, slide into the floor, and be wild, and then that became a style.
I guess a choreographer is always trying to define their voice. It’s a reflection of making stuff; I find my voice in the making of things. When you write a grant, you have to put it in writing and try to find language for the thing you are about to invent. I always find that to be an interesting challenge. Very often, that process helps me to formulate what I’m about to choreograph.
How would you generally describe your work to someone unfamiliar with it?
I make art out of ideas. I really like when I have a concept and I uncover whatever is going to grow out of that seed. When you think of conceptual art in the visual art field, it’s very different than something that’s going to become tangible in the body. I can see subject matter – be it person, place, thing, body part, relationship. I tap where my life is, where my emotions are, and where my intellect is. I ask: What am I curious about? That’s the starting place to jump from.
If I were to describe what you’re going to see in performance, it would be made with the audience in mind. I do care about who is on the receiving end. I think about that in making choices, whether it’s which way the dancers are facing, how close we get to the audience, if we’re in the audience, if we’re in conversation with the audience. I’ve recently developed a series of conversational pieces where we talked to people and sourced that material choreographically. That’s where I’m going next after I finish my current project.
If I were to describe what you see, I would say you see passionate dance. You see dance that is embodied. You don’t often see dance for dance’s sake. I call abstraction “pure” dance, where you distill an idea. It could just be walking or rolling. It can be just about the action. But I feel like it has to be embodied or it doesn’t mean anything.
I’m not really into blank dance. I’m into dance where I actually see individuals and what they are thinking, feeling and sensing while they are dancing. It’s the only way I’m moved as an audience member. I work hard to come into rehearsal with a way to develop material so that the dancers are empowered and are part of the work collaboratively. I do a lot of homework outside, but it’s not making up phrases alone. I often develop my material with the people who are in the room. For me, who is in the room is as important as the idea.
Can you tell me about your upcoming performance, Madame Ovary, and how the piece came about? I understand its part of a seven-year body trilogy?
The first piece was Throb. I had the dancers wear heart monitors as they danced. The piece was about how driven relationships are and how the heart speeds up or slows down. It was the precursor of the immersive piece I made, 4 Chambers, which was an installation set up in four rooms. Sometimes during the piece, the dancers performed with the audience members, engaging them in tactile sensation. There was a section where the audience wore heart monitors. Sometimes the dancers put the audience’s hands on their hearts, which were pounding from the aerobic movement, and other times they put their hands on the audience’s hearts, which were slower from being sedentary. We performed the piece 86 times in total, and there was only an audience of 12 at a time plus the six performers. It was very intimate.
When that piece closed, I thought about how the heart is stimulated by the gut and the brain, so next I did a piece about the brain. The dancers represented the activity of the brain. I utilized lots of film and optical illusions. We also did an installation at NY Live Arts for that piece as well where we led the audience through different rooms. The audience put their heads in these globes with openings that had different interiors and scents. We also gave the audience massages and had them all onstage and stay stationary while the dancers enacted the brain’s activity around them. It was a very cinematic environment.
Then the title Madame Ovary came to me as I was thinking about the gut and genitals as the next subject matter. I remembered reading Madame Bovary when I was younger, how she wanted to live like a man but couldn’t, so she went berserk and killed herself. In Madame Ovary, I’m referencing the story, but it’s not literal. There are two kinds of music being used. First there’s Missy Mazzoli’s heart wrenching and emotional landscape music, which is representative of what a character like Madame Bovary went through. That music is offset by who we are now. Are we defined by our bodies or not? This is what the piece has developed into: A wry twisting of the binary to play with the idea that we are all people. Some of this is hard to say in dance. That’s where the songs come in. Some of them are like rap or slam poetry.
I like the humor in the title. If anyone comes expecting a serious piece about Madame Bovary, they are going to be surprised. I’m trying to make something where the audience can insert themselves into the work.
What is your work process like?
It’s a give and take, sharing information and having discussions. One day we went out for coffee after the rehearsal and talked about how it had been going so far. I try to listen to what the performers want to say in the work. There’s a bass player, Elizabeth Hart, who I met while performing at MOMA in the Judson Church exhibition. We really clicked. She told me she doesn’t like being called a female musician – why not just musician? I also have a non-binary performer in this piece. We’re celebrating the body as it is – come as you are.
My processes start with being curious and attempting to uncover and discover in the studio with the people I’m working with. I let them pipe up but, at a certain point, I have to find the form the piece is taking. If someone is having difficulty with their part, there’s probably an awkwardness in the sequence, or maybe the material isn’t right. I get feedback visually and sonically. Hopefully all the ideas in the work that we talked about in the beginning have blossomed and grown. The notes I wrote down from the time we got coffee became a template to make sure that the spirits of the dancers are embedded in the piece.
What’s your experience dancing in your own work at your current age of 62?
It’s the first time I’ve danced in a group work in 10 years. It’s been hard to go back and forth from being outside of the work to being in my body. But I’m always going to be a dancer. I’m the oldest person in the work, and the second oldest person is 41. The lighting designer, who has worked with me for more than 20 years, said to me, “You dance you.”
If I don’t jump, I feel that upwardness. Jumping is hard. I don’t have the power in my feet I used to. But why am I talking about what I don’t have?
I have age and experience. I’m loving being in a community of people moving with me. Dancers don’t know how good they have it. I’ve been lonely not dancing. Dancers get to sweat and release, while I’m in the audience crumpling up my program. It’s so nice to be in this molten state of being alive dancing. And one can always dance standing still. Everything I’m doing is manageable.
Looking at your larger body of work, are there certain themes or issues that feel important to you to keep tackling or addressing?
I’m all about people and humanity. I’m interested in relationships to life. I would say my pieces are working with the different stratifications of life, how one aspect of life offsets another. My dances have always been about human power and an intrinsic belief that dance is the medium of human beings.
What do you hope audiences take away from Madame Ovary?
I hope everybody feels who they are and what their feelings are about their body, positive or negative. I hope they feel empowered. I’ve got a body, so do you. Live in your body. Gender is huge right now. So much has changed since I started this piece three years ago – the #metoo movement, the trans movement has moved ahead. It was tempting to invite these voices into the room, but I’m also the artist I am who has been living this life, all along a tomboy and feminist, and here we are in this time. I enjoy trying to incorporate a younger generation into my vision of celebrating the body. It’s about owning who you are. I want people to feel emboldened.
Any other thoughts?
It’s imperative that we make work not just for each other but to spread the gospel of dance. It’s important to get people who have maybe never been to a dance show, and engage them in this language which is so profound. Everybody has a body, so why don’t we have huge audiences? Why don’t we grab some friends and be responsible for broadening who sets eyes on our work?
It’s also stimulating to have conversations with colleagues and friends. Get the conversation large so we can feel our way into a larger art community. It’s so great that museums are showing more dance. It allows us to question: What is dance? When is something art? I want to be curious and provoked. I think it’s important we broaden who is the community and make it our business to bring outsiders in to see dance, as well as engage intellectually with each other.
For more information, visit www.jodyoberfelder.com.