Getting to Know Jessica Muise

by Sarah Friswell

Last year I met Jessica Muise when Shannon and I were performing at Luminarium Dance's 24 Hour ChoreoFest. I was thrilled when she was interested in being interviewed. Sarah Friswell took some time to chat with her about the start of her company, Intimations Dance, and their current work. Enjoy! Oh, and if you Jessica be sure to ask what her favorite sea animal is because now I'm curious! -Nicole

photo by Stan Csezniuk
SF: I read about Intimations Dance on your website and that you are a fairly new company (2012). What are the biggest challenges you've faced in starting up?

JM: Time. All of the companies members (including myself) work full time or are in graduate school in various fields, mostly art and education. Scheduling can be a challenge. We can only rehearse for two to four hours a week. This year, we have been creating a lot of new work, so we have self-imposed an additional layer of artistic challenge to this scarcity of time.

Funding. We’ve been lucky in year one to support our operations at break-even. It helps that our costumes come from our closets and we’ve received stipends for some of the work we’ve produced this year. Fundraising will be one of our priorities in 2014.

Administration. Finding time to balance managing the website, social media, performance applications with the time needed to be creative, experiment, create and rehearse pieces is a big challenge for me as an artistic director.

SF: Have you been working with current company members for a long time before starting the company?

JM: I met most of my dancers since I moved back to Boston from New York City in 2010. After choreographing a piece for the community non-profit OnStage Dance Company in 2011, I asked several dancers I performed with if they’d like to join my company (which felt like just an idea at the time). I’ve also known one of my dancers for over 10 years, and others I’ve met more recently through Boston Dance Alliance’s website and Open Call Audition.

In January of 2012, we participated in National Choreography Month (Nachmo), what I would call our first “unofficial” piece we created and performed in a studio. In the summer of 2012, we continued to create works in progress and host classes in studios around Brookline and Cambridge. We discussed possible performance opportunities as a company, but never applied to any of them. Looking back, I don’t think I was ready to show my work to a live audience.

For January 2013, I asked an even larger group of dancers I had since met in the Boston dance community to participate in National Choreography Month Boston, which was our first ‘official’ performance at Green Street Studios. After creating and performing 6 new pieces this year at 12 shows in the Greater Boston area, we’re finding new ways of moving together heading into year three, kicking the season off again with Nachmo 2014.

photo by Ryan Carollo
SF: Could you talk a little more about the collaborative nature of creating your pieces? Monkeyhouse works in a very collaborative way and I'm interested to see how you take that on.

JM: My collaborative approach to choreography is based on honoring who is in the room. Everyone in the company has different backgrounds, training, strengths and movement, energy and creativity to offer and their contributions are central to any piece we perform.

We start with a concept inspired by something emergent in our lives, a collection of shared experiences we can explore and unpack together. We talk, we write; randomizing groups of words to inform new phrases, or draw shapes and feelings on paper. We’ll spend time moving across the room as individuals, pairs, groups through various structured improvisation exercises. Exploring the content/story/theme in a variety of ways works to open up mind-body connections to create a sense of embodiment within a new piece.

Then I’ll teach a phrase or two I’ve created inspired by our exploratory work to establish core vocabulary. The core phrases become iterative, and everyone participates in generating a bunch of additional related phrases. Dancers work alone or in groups with words, drawings and the core phrase as layers of inspiration. I may ask for something as simple as 6 movements, one in every direction. I will suggest changes in plane or pathway or more specific instructions like inserting four walks or a greeting. We show these phrases to each other to offer feedback and discuss feelings/reactions as viewers and participants.

Once we have some set phrases to play with, I become the conductor, watching how the notes and instruments sound together by experimenting with different spacing, timing, and dynamics. Often the structure emerges from watching theses phrases together. We also try different music choices and see how our phrases are influenced by different songs or sounds. At some point, we  decide it is ready, often shortly before we’re set to perform the work. Sometimes we get audience feedback, often we ask for it. We then continue to work on the piece for future performances by restaging, tweaking or total transformation, or scratch it and move on.

SF: Can you tell me a little bit more about your outdoor work? I'm fascinated by the photographs of your company in the water. Are all of your outdoor works site specific or works that you modified to be able to perform outdoors?

photo by Stan Czesniuk
JM: These photos are by Stan Czesniuk, taken at Walden Pond in Concord, MA, where I’ve swam every summer for over 10 years. For this shoot, we took existing pieces, some previously performed outdoors, and modified them to engage directly with Walden’s environment. One of those pieces was “At the Water’s Edge” we had performed in the foundation ruin of the Old Manse in Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA for Global Water Dances in June 2013. It was exciting to perform this particular piece literally in water. We have also performed outside in a field for National Dance Day and on a snowy lawn for dance anywhere in 2013.

I’ve also explored site specific work in the past as a visual artist and independent choreographer, mostly in the woods and mostly exploring environmental themes. As a permaculture teacher and designer, I am fascinated by nature’s design, patterns and structure of leaves for example, and the movements of bugs, birds, water, the wind. Much of our work is inspired by observations of nature outside of us and connecting to the same patterns within our own mind-body-spirit. When boiled down, the way insects determine home and location through movement does not feel so much different than our search for home and where we are when we dance.

What is exciting about outdoor work is that it asks us to think about what space dance occupies in our lives; where does it happen? when does it happen? who watches? Site specific work is something we hope to focus on more in the coming year.

SF: You mentioned that anyone looking to own a studio should go to
photo by Stan Czesniuk
dancestudioowner.com. Do you have any other advice for people looking to start a studio or their own dance company? Maybe any advice you wished you had?

JM: Dance Studio Owner is based in New Hampshire, and is a great local resource and tool that I’ve connected as an affiliate. They support dance studio owners with a platform and tools to better manage their operations. Affiliate relationships are one way we’ve sought income and support for the company, although we’ve found is not a common opportunity for dance companies. Opening a studio is a small dream I’ve had for a number of years, but isn’t something happening yet, so I am grateful to those folks in our community who make their space available for rehearsals.

Based on the work I have been doing, this is the advice I wish I had two years ago:

  • Produce your own show, or a performance opportunity for the community. It is a risk but it is worth it. I’ve shared my own experiences producing shows independently here.
  • Always apply to performance opportunities and grants, whether or not you think you’ll get a ‘yes’.
  • Take the time to clarify your mission and goals, and frequently evaluate and change them as they shift.
  • Don’t make work in a vacuum. Invite choreographers you respect to rehearsals or to watch rehearsal videos for feedback. Also ask your friends and family to share their thoughts on your work. This is necessary and valuable feedback that I have not sought out enough. When you’re ‘in the work’, it can be hard to see outside of it.

SF: Can you give us a little preview of what we are in for in your upcoming performance for National Choreography Month?

JM: We are working on a new piece expanding on phrases and ideas explored in our recent piece “Tether” along with new ideas inspired by National Choreography Month’s daily tasks. We are excited to be performing alongside 24 other choreographers and companies taking on the challenge of creating new work in one month in our community on Friday February 7th and Saturday February 8th at 8:00pm at Green Street Studios. Tickets are only $10 and are available from Brown Paper Tickets.

SF: What question do you wish I had asked you?

JM: What is my favorite (sea) animal?

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