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Tucson Weekly Entrancing Dance

Multi-Media Dance Theater Comes To Town With The Margaret Jenkins Dance Co.

By Margaret Regan

APRIL 12, 1999:  A GRANDFATHER FLIES to his death from a moving train in the old country, and a family perishes almost en masse in a car crash in the new.

These two singular events, retold by descendants and repeatedly reconfigured by shifting memory, are the linchpins for Breathe Normally, a multi-media dance/theatre work coming to Centennial Hall this Saturday night. A brand-new evening length piece by modern dance choreographer Margaret Jenkins, Breathe Normally interprets the family memories of Jenkins' friend and collaborator, actress Olympia Dukakis, and projects them onto the stage through video, spoken word, dance movement and music.

The piece premiered just three weeks ago in Chicago and braved the New York critics in a week-long run at the Joyce Theater that ended Tuesday, April 6. Anna Kisselgoff, the tough New York Times dance writer, described the dancing as "clean in its angular shapes, spiraling torsos and swinging arms." And she lauded its combination of dance and drama, calling the work "compelling theatre" with a "polished mix of speech and movement."

Two actors join five dancers onstage for the work, which is even less "dance-y" than Jenkins' other dance-theater works of recent years. Jenkins herself, who has returned to the stage for the first time in seven years to perform in Breathe Normally, was unavailable for an interview during the intensive Joyce run. But she sent along a comment about the new work, saying that the human body, as it grows older, "shifts, matures, experiences loss and gains knowledge," and lends itself to both a "linear story and a charged physical environment." Jenkins is now in her 50s, and her other performers range in age from 32 to 72. Actor Jerry Hiken, the 72-year-old, plays both the elderly grandfather and the elderly Everyman.

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company celebrates its 25th anniversary with this tour. The troupe is based in San Francisco, but Jenkins developed her dance aesthetic in the fertile New York dance world of the 1960s. She studied at the Juilliard School of Music with José Limón and Martha Graham, and danced with such luminaries as Viola Farber and Twyla Tharp. In those days in New York, the new forms of modern dance were working themselves out in whatever alternative spaces were available, and the movement took its name--Judson Church--from its most frequent venue. Jenkins danced every week for 10 years at the city's Dance Theater Workshop, and later joined modern great Merce Cunningham. For a 12-year stretch she taught in Cunningham's school and assisted him in restaging his works.

When she started her own company in the 1970s in San Francisco, another crucible for modern dance, she won the typical grant awards--a Guggenheim, two Isadora Duncans, and so on. She's always been known for her collaborations, allowing her dancers a strong voice in shaping the pieces, and in recent years she's moved further into multi-media work in conjunction with other artists. She met Dukakis in 1995, when she choreographed the chorus for a theatre production of Hecuba in which Dukakis was acting.

The encounter between the two women was pivotal in several ways for Breathe Normally. The pair had long conversations about the second half of women's lives ("It was wonderful talking with an older woman about what she was investigating at this time of her life," Jenkins told Rita Felciano of the San Francisco Bay Guardian); and Dukakis told the tale of her family tragedies. The play also gave Jenkins the opportunity to observe actors' working methods, which she found quite distinct from dancers'. In Breathe Normally, she constructed a piece that meshed the methods of each, and explored the dual themes of memory and aging.

Author Rinde Eckert wrote the text, based on Dukakis' memories, and Dukakis' voice and image are on the projected videos. Tom Bonauro designed the elaborate set; Jay Cloidt composed the music. Ellie Klopp, the company associate artistic director, directs.


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