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Dancing with Wings: The Exploratory Environmental Work of Jennifer Monson

Review by Kathleen Glynn for The Dance Journal
Informance: Jennifer Monson

On Saturday, January 31st, Jennifer Monson presented “Informance” as part of Philadelphia Dance Projects 2009 at the Performance Garage.  The choreographer is full of questions  and wonder concerning the natural world in which we live, how we inhabit the earth as humans, and how other living creatures, animals specifically, move, interact, and migrate.  The dancing pioneer of the natural world is an experimental choreographer who relies mostly on improvisation and contact improvisation in contested landscapes.

“Informance” consisted of Monson speaking thoroughly to the audience about her projects and her overall mission, sharing a video which documented such travels, and  performing a bit of improvisational dancing herself.  BIRD BRAIN, spanning from 2000-2004, followed the migratory path of gray whales, ospreys, ducks and geese starting in Baha, CA all the way to Mexico.  This project embraced the theme of migration and navigation.  Last night Monson spoke about navigation and the manners in which humans journey; we move through and around the natural earth, we move in a cycle through our entire lives, we move collectively as a cycle of generations, and of course we move physically as a reaction to the surrounding world and its many happenings.  Monson asked the audience to close their eyes and instinctively turn towards the north; the exercise pushed the audience to take an external approach to the performance space and the general atmosphere.  In 2007, Monson launched a year long project, iMAP/Ridgewood Reservoir which studied an abandoned reservoir between Brooklyn and Queens and today she is working on Mahomet Aquifer Project in Illinois.

The movement executed by Monson and her three dancers, shown by video, appeared very organic, explorative, and huge, engulfing the various spaces they entered.  Monson explained that the use of improvisation allows the group to naturally adapt to the various elements of the space, including the texture of the ground, the limited or boundless amount of space, wind, water, rocks and more.  The dancers move on beaches, in shrubbery, on city streets, and in fields.  Seeing Monson and her three dancers perform outside a typical, closed-in, stuffy performance space is a refreshing parallel to the pioneers of modern dance, especially Isadora Duncan. Dancing so freely in these spaces is meant to grab peoples’ attention, to make them ponder and take a moment to reflect on the world’s environmental issues.  Monson’s work is a true and direct result of uniting humans and nature.  By exposing people to such unique projects and using nature as her stage, Monson hopes to change general perceptions.

The improvisational movement Jennifer Monson shared in person was also very organic, yet full of dynamics and moments of stillness.  She molded the space into a quiet, sacred area through such pure dancing.  Monson also sporadically included her own breathing and sound to capture certain animals, such as the gray whale.  Some movements clearly represented certain animals which have inspired Monson, and other movements seemed to ambiguously portray natural and environmental characteristics.  After dancing, Monson spoke about her relationship to nature as an exploratory dancer.  Beginning with her BIRD BRAIN project, the environmentalist choreographer felt hesitant and reluctant to completely let go in such fragile spaces.  However, with time the dancers developed a further curiosity within the natural spaces, they have ventured to push themselves to adapt more deeply to the environment.

Jennifer Monson’s “Informance” was a refreshing presentation of something completely different within the dance world.  Her work is something meant to be shared and exposed in order to involve so many more in environmental issues.  Monson has truly approached dance as a tool to connect and to change the beautiful world in which we live.

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