This spring (May 31–June 2), at the Live Arts Studio, we (the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe) are launching our new performing arts program, Jumpstart, which showcases the work of six new (to us) artists from the region. Choreographer and dancer Jessica Morgan is bringing her solo Dress and Disappearance—a dance inspired by ghosts, light, and a dress. We caught up to Jessica and asked her some questions about her life and work.
Live Arts: Why is your show titled Dress and Disappearance?
Jessica Morgan: Dress and Disappearance came largely from the dress, which is what inspired a large part of the world within the piece. To me the condition and quality of the dress represents the ephemeral surface of the feminine and contrasts with its darker depths, which can only be partially concealed. Trying to hide and expose these things at once during the piece is what drives it. I have had this dress for a long time in storage and in a sense it finally revealed its purpose to me.
LA: Where did you grow up?
JM: I grew up in New York City in Greenwich Village and later, Teaneck, New Jersey. Greenwich Village was a raw and vibrant place at the time, filled with musicians, break dancers, and bohemians. I was fortunate enough to go to a public school that strongly emphasized and encouraged artistic impulses. I am sure it shaped my interest in dance and art. Even though New York City was not considered the safest place at that time, I loved it there. Ironically, when I moved to the suburbs later, it was so quiet I was terrified!
LA: How did your interest grow in choreography?
JM: I had a great modern dance teacher in high school, Joanne Koob Brown, who had danced for such people as David Gordon. She exposed us to improvisation and the basics of composition. We even had a choreography workshop and did showings of the work we made. Boy did that fuel my fire for makings dances. It has continued since. RoseAnne Spradlin, a New York based choreographer has mentored me on and off since she was my advisor during Fresh Tracks in 2005. She is brilliant. She has provided me with a lot of feedback over the years and has been tremendously helpful to me. Her work has also been an inspiration to me as well as the work of Susan Rethorst and Luciana Achugar, who has also mentored me. Their work to me is so deeply, utterly female and that is something that has interested me again and again.
LA: What was your experience at SUNY Purchase like?
JM: SUNY Purchase was a very competitive and conservative school. [Jessica graduated in 2000.] It was not something I really realized until after I got there. It wasn’t the most supportive atmosphere and they definitely had their own agenda in terms of what direction they wanted you to go in. Believe or not they wanted me to pursue ballet! I cut off my hair and started wearing baggy dance pants instead of tights and they got the hint that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in, which did not please them. What I did love there was my composition teacher Tarin Chaplin, who has since passed away. I don’t know how she snuck under the radar and got hired there but she was just what we needed. She supported us, pushed us to challenge ourselves and take whatever chances we saw fit. She didn’t try to mold us, but allowed us to discover who we were as artists. She even took us up to her house in Vermont to make site specific work on her farm.
LA: You’ve made both group and solo work. What attracts you to doing both, and how does you approach differ?
JM: I find solos very difficult, which is why I have only made one before this. I find I spend a lot of time in the beginning lying on the floor and wondering what the hell am I doing with my studio time. It’s different when you have a group of dancers there and you know you can’t ask them to come and just lie on the floor with you. I feel I have to come very prepared with material and ideas so no one’s time is wasted. I do find it easier to work with multiple bodies and feed off their dynamics and relationships. But I have learned a lot with this solo, mostly about quality of movement, rather than just movement itself. To me, solos always have this undertone of vulnerability. There is really nowhere to hide onstage alone. So I can’t help but find that becomes part of what solos are and their quality. With time I am learning to enjoy this feeling.
LA: How do you like to spend the last 15 minutes before performing?
JM: I still get very nervous, even after all these years. I usually just keep going through the movements of the piece and I pace around like a crazy person. I am great at pacing. And since I had a cold during a show this last October I am paranoid about my nose running onstage so I blow my nose a lot. A LOT.
Jumpstart, May 31 – June 2, 7pm. Live Arts Studio, 919 North Fifth Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19123. Onsite Parking. Tickets: $15 General Admission, $12 Student and 25-and-under. Featured artists: Jamarr Hall, Sahar Javedani, Jessica Morgan, The Brothers Beffa (Justin Rose and Scott Sheppard), The Naked Stark (Katherine Kiefer Stark, Megan Stern, and Barbara Tait), and Ilse Zoerb.