“MMMM”: jess pretty on dance, work, and the necessity of joy

This Thursday Harper Joy Theater will open its sixth annual dance concert, "MMMM". With three brand new pieces choreographed by dance faculty Peter de Grasse, Renée Archibald, and guest artist jess pretty, "MMMM" focuses on the constructions and complexities of sensation and pleasure. In the interview below, New York-based dancer and poet jess pretty generously provides reflections and insight regarding her craft: how it began, why it evolved, and how she'll proceed forward. 


aq. How and where did you get started with dance?

jp. I started dancing in middle school in dance team in sixth grade because I had recently moved to California…I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, it was just something I was interested in and I always felt this soul connection to—which sounds cliche but I just felt just like oh, this is something that I really want to do.…every dance team that I was on we trained at a studio…We got training, we got ballet, we got jazz, and we were doing disciplined codified training. It wasn’t half-ass, it wasn’t recreational. It was very like, you’re going to be in rehearsal three days a week, three to five…I was able to kind of build a strong foundation in addition to what my social dance life was already like…I was in Boston for college and…I got into grad school and built there [my] teaching practice because we had to teach as part of our funding…We all were teaching there and like building that practice and really sharpening our artistic voices, and I was the youngest one there…and still performing, still dancing and choreographing and making a lot of work and like writing…I was like oh, there’s so many other things that I need to like pull into like my work and my research and that’s where all that started.

And yeah, going to school in such a white area is like—because I’d only lived in diverse places growing up—was like shit this feels different here, what is this? And so I just researched it…Ferguson was happening, and it was like really fresh..and there were people around me who weren’t reacting…me and my friends of color were all like what the fuck? …We were like no this is a state of emergency and so it requires you to look at your craft different—like why do I go into this studio? Why am I at school making this, getting this degree? Like we’re dying on the street, why the fuck am I here? And it was like this…deep depression because I didn’t want to do anything, but like I didn’t want to not do anything, and so like where, what is in my practice, what’s the richness? What do I need out of it? And so then it really became a spiritual experience where I was like: I need to find pleasure and find joy.

“Like we’re dying on the street, why the fuck am I here?…And so then it really became a spiritual experience where I was like: I need to find pleasure and find joy.”

I need to work through and with this pain and depression …Grappling with my experience as a marginalized body…Pulling all that  [critical theory] in and saying oh this is a different kind of system that I’m working in, so then how I approach teaching my class, how I approach walking in the studio was all really fucking different, right? And I think that’s something that I still try and teach to people; there are so many different stakes applied to what we’re doing. Even just waking up, walking into a room, being here is a lot…I think people take that for granted.

aq. What’s the relationship between your poetry and your dance work?jp. It is like, oh words are so beautiful.
    …I’m working on this solo right now called dream[e]scapes, and there’s the first iteration I did last year, but really it’s an everyday practice. I would get to the studio and write these different poems and these different stories and really heartbreaking life experiences: love stories and things that would come to me from encounters with friends.

…It just feels like they’re all happening side-by-side in terms of the relationship between poetry and dance…My writing practice is what gets me into the mood for my movement practice. Like, I can walk into the studio and just move, but if I’m really making work I want to bring all of me into the room, well what I have available that day, and a lot of times it’s like let me write, let me figure out where the fuck I am today head-wise, and then from there I can figure out what else I need to do.

…I think that I really like to talk about dreams a lot and just speak in this like lustful, romantic language, and I own that… It’s all just here like in me. Even, you know, with this project that I’m making here, I have them everyday walk into rehearsal and they write down dreams they had and if they don’t have a specific dream…I have them just make up a story…It’s a big part of world-building and kind of like these different ways of imagining ourselves, our existence, our spaces that we’re in, our relationships with people.

aq. How do you describe ‘pleasure’ and ‘sensation’ on their own? How is that informing this piece and your work?

jp.  …Because I’m looking through a lens of surviving and survival methods, it’s like, I don’t want to just survive, you know? That’s actually kind of bullshit and that’s what I’ve been fed as a black woman, especially in this generation. Which, I think is why millennial’s are finally being super political now because they’re starting to see the shit end of the stick, that we (black people) have always had….I think that was something where I was like oh I want to locate pleasure and like talk about desire and longing…I can read a book [and be] in another world…and so how do I build that myself?… what kind of physicality would that take? What kind of like set and design would that take? What lighting does that take? What kind of like relationship to the audience does that take? how do I bring them into the world with me so they don’t walk in and they’re like what the fuck am I looking at? But how are they like oh, where is this? And how do I guide them along also so that they know this world is a different thing than the one they came in from?

“I mean, I think that people don’t talk about pleasure enough, they don’t talk about desire enough, they don’t think they’re deserving of pleasure because of the masochistic society we live in and like work, work, work, work, work.”

…So recently I’ve been working a lot with these curtains; like, I use shower curtains… I was thinking about perception and manipulating the audience’s perception of what my body looked like through these different curtains and how it’s kinda muffled…So that was like ‘I’m in there but it’s also like a dream’ idea of fantasy and beauty and moving around the curtains, but then it also looks like slaughterhouse, and it’s really horror movie-ish, and I’m really kind of attached to themes and scenes of death especially how death and loss get placed onto the black body and the connection to the hunt and animals and all of these things that are perceived of us before we even leave the house.

…And so this piece in particular is really personal because it is a solo that I’ve been doing and working on, and I’m continuing to work on. One day I got the thought of what is it like if I try and set this solo on people [student cast members] and what does it mean to set a solo when a lot of it is improv, score-based, and how to then pull this language that is deep in the bundles of my little heart out to like these four people that I don’t know and how to just be like ‘yeah pleasure, and desire, and fucking’. You know, like hey fear and loss and longing and relationships and dreams and nightmares and you know the white gaze and like, g-a-z-e not g-a-y-s, but like how are people then like looking at us and processing us? And how much of their history was actually processing us versus what we’re giving to them? So that is something that I really am always on a quest for in this work and something that the dancers step into more and more with each run of the work.

…I mean, I think that people don’t talk about pleasure enough, they don’t talk about desire enough, they don’t think they’re deserving of pleasure because of like the masochistic society we live in and like work, work, work, work, work. It’s like yeah, that’s great, but if you’re not doing what you love, and getting what you need, and finding your desire, then you’re just shards of glass walking around. Like fuck what happened? You can’t have a full cup, literally, like it’s broken, you’re just like leaking out, you don’t even take time to fix it.

aq. How do you know what’s next? What makes you think, like, ‘I’m gonna pick this up and bring this with me?’

jp. …I think a great deal has to deal with interest. And what lingers in a process. There are still questions I have at the end of the work that I want to keep pulling out I take them in my suitcase with me to the next thing. A lot of these ideas will also present themselves to me. Like the curtains, and the blue light…I think that a lot of what’s beautiful about this is trying to keep myself open enough and grounded enough to be ready for when they do. Like have space for them to present themselves to me because there’s a lot of things that, you know, like a gut feeling or idea that happens to people, and I think that that’s the universe letting us know when she’s ready for us to do whatever is next, but you have to be ready to receive that. …And like what does it mean to be ready and stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.

…I dance for a lot of really fun and amazing people [professional dancers] who leave a lot of room in their practices for self-exploration, and I’m constantly looking at myself and my surroundings and these people that I’m with, and it’s really great to have that opportunity because One: you don’t get that time a lot during the day. And Two: it’s just hard to do—to look at yourself and be like shit, I can’t avoid this anymore, I’m presented with it. You’re like okay, great, first thing we’re gonna do is just improv for forty minutes straight and go! (snaps) Forty fucking minutes!? What am I gonna do for forty fucking minutes? And then you just like, you gotta go through it, you can’t go around it, you know. And in these times I’m able to be presented with what I’m working on in myself and that leads me to what I’m working on in my research.

So, all that to say, I’m still working on this work. These dancers have taught me so much about the possibilities of this thing. I’ll be debuting this work in April in the city, so I’m excited to see how it grows over the next few months. The work is never done.

jess pretty’s work, “dreamescapes”, will premiere in its new iteration on Thursday as a part of  HJT’s “MMMM”, playing November 14 –  November 16 @ 8 PM, and November 16 – November 17 @ 2 PM. Buy your tickets online HERE or at hjt Box Office open 12 – 4 PM; M – F (509) 527-5180.