Passing Through Time: Reflections on The End of the World and Monique Jenkinson’s “Instrument”

By Katie Gaydos

The Mayan calendar predicts that the world is set to end on Dec 21st. While I don’t actually believe that the world as we know it will suddenly evaporate into thin air anytime soon, I do think that the completion of the Mayan long count calendar (and the era it signifies) invites us to consider the metaphorical endings and beginnings in our own lives and art. Allow us to indulge (for a moment at least) the idea that the world really is about to end. Imagine, as artists (and people for that matter), what it would mean for everything to fall away. Without funding, support, hype, dance studios, reputation, theater spaces, or any physical record of anything that came before, what are we left with? Staring into the abyss of a dead past and an unknown future the question becomes, what remains? What sustains? What is more resilient than the extrinsic forces that frame us? At the end of the world, the end of the year, or even just the end of a performance, what are we left with?

photo by michelle bliouxPosing more questions than providing answers, Monique Jenkinson’s “Instrument” (recently at CounterPULSE) presents the body as a complex and enduring vessel for both our collective and personal histories. Using her year-long fellowship at the de Young Museum and its current exhibition on Rudolf Nureyev as a jumping off point, Jenkinson’s “Instrument” takes the audience through a journey of non- linear vignettes ranging from the execution of traditional ballet technique exercises (unapologetically rough around the edges) to the theatrical embodiment of Rudolf Nureyev and other artistic figures of the 60s and 70s.

Collaborating with choreographers Amy Seiwert, Chris Black and Miguel Gutierrez (who all created movement on Jenkinson), Jenkinson acts as a vessel for their work. By reshaping, reworking and reordering their choreography it becomes impossible to know which movements originate (and to what extent) from Seiwert, Black or Gutierrez. It is in this unknowing that the problematic nature of artist as vessel is revealed. How can we embody the work of another artist? How do we begin to accurately or authentically represent the past in the present moment?

Jenkinson explores the question/tension of authentic embodiment by taking on the roles of various artists. Often, Jenkinson channels Rudolf Nureyev. Other times she represents a more general dancer identity clad in typical (almost stereotypical) ballet gear (black leotard, black tights and black legwarmers).

Jenkinson reads an old love letter to Nureyev while assuming the identity of one of Nureyev’s past lovers. Later she embodies the voices and demeanors of her own past ballet teachers as she recounts the history of their influence. While shifting back and forth between different artist identities, a fiery Jenkinson— whether struggling to take her tights off or speaking frankly and openly to the audience— always remains at the forefront of “Instrument”. Often though, as I found myself asking, “Are we witnessing Jenkinson or Jenkinson as Nureyev?” the line between Jenkinson and Nureyev becomes intentionally blurred.

At one part Jenkinson repeatedly pronounces “I” followed by “Ya” (“Ya” means “I” in Russian). She exclaims “I, Ya” again and again, taking on different tones and voices (seemingly channeling Nureyev at times) with varying length between syllables, until “I” and “Ya” become so intermingled that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the “I” and “Ya.” Jenkinson blurs her own identity (signified by I) with the identity of Nureyev (signified by Ya) and suggests that a level of complex ambiguity, or perhaps confusion, is inherent in representation. What is most interesting about “Instrument” is that Jenkinson manages to encompass the tension, and perhaps possible futility of authentic embodiment into her representation of Nureyev. By incorporating the challenges of representation into her very representations of other artists she not only illuminates the challenges inherent in embodiment but also, in a sense, overcomes them.

photo by michelle blioux2

Likewise, instead of ignoring the struggle inherent in executing ballet technique Jenkinson illuminates it. In the beginning she does a simple pirouette exercise around the stage. She executes pirouettes again and again, falling out of some and wobbling through others. After awhile it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter whether she “nails” her pirouettes or falls out of them. Whether or not Jenkinson is good at ballet becomes irrelevant. Rather, Jenkinson’s decision to continue for the sake of continuing becomes the focus and it becomes clear that putting one’s self through the process, however hard or futile it may be, can be more valuable and timeless than the finished product.

Hopping to remain balanced in a balletic passé position, Jenkinson explains the meaning of passé as both to pass through and as belonging to the past. She indirectly raises the question as to whether the passé itself (and the ballet framework from which it originates from) is now but a thing of the past. How can we appropriately bring the past into the present moment? Throughout “Instrument” Jenkinson repeatedly calls to question how effective the body is as a vessel/tool/instrument for recording and re-calling history. As a classical art form conceived far in the past, how does ballet remain relevant? Jenkinson’s determined struggle to remain balanced in an almost impossible position suggests that the precarious passé (and the past it represents), for whatever reason, is worth struggling for.

How do we recall and honor the past without usurping its place? Will the past—with its threat of being outdated—always haunt the present? What does it mean to be truly contemporary? Perhaps there will always be more questions than answers. I’m starting to believe though, that in the end—of a performance, the year or even the world—there will always be reassuring hope in the face of futility in so far as we can find joy in the struggle.

Pictured: Monique Jenkinson, photos by Michelle Blioux