Cloud Dance Festival was holding its first “best of” Parade last weekend at People Show Studios, and Bella Figura took the opportunity to interview some of the festival’s up-and-coming dancers and choreographers. We start with the delightful Jenni Wren, Artistic Director of Slanjayvah Danza, whose Blind Passion – Live Cut with Phil Sanger left the audience stunned. Interview conducted by Laura Cappelle of Bella Figura.
Can you tell me about your dance background?
My parents were always very artistic – my mom was a singer, and my dad was a musician. They always let me do what I said I wanted to do. I grew up in a very small village, but I did ballet, for a short while, and other things. The only one I kept going with was rollerskating – I became a member of the Scottish Squad, and I competed nationally. I stopped when I was 14, but I was a pre-silver medallist.
Then I became a teenager, and there were no facilities for dance in my school. At 19 though I started doing one class a week at Scottish Dance Theatre. After two years, Janet Smith [the artistic director of the company] asked me why I wasn’t training – I just didn’t think dance was a career you could have. So I started my training just when I turned 23. I did a year at Scottish Contemporary Dance School, and then a three-year degree at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, before moving on to a graduate traineeship with Attic Dance.
The people that influenced me most were Yael Flexer (Bedlam Dance) and Janet Smith. I found it difficult to find dance that inspired me though – I just had a lot of things to say, and I decided to make my own work. As a kid I was always choreographing for rollerskating, and it made sense for me, against everybody’s advice not to start a company right after college. My first professional work was for the Certamen de Madrid. It reached the semi-finals, and from there we did a small tour in Spain, with four other pieces. I came back to the UK because of the funding situation, and since returning, I have had five funding awards here, including some from the Arts Council England. We are currently in residence in an art space in Leeds called Seven, and they support us a lot.
Where does the name of your company come from?
It’s Celtic/Scottish for “Cheers to your health, to your life”. I used Danza because there is a lot of Spanish influence in my work – I have a lot of friends there, and I started the company with Spanish girls. I’ve been there so often that I feel like I have origins there now.
What was the thinking behind Blind Passion – Live Cut?
It was premiered last July, and it has been a turning point for me. It is the first time I have made a choreography about how I feel. Many people think it is about a relationship, and in a sense it is – it’s about my relationship with what Phil [Sanger, dancer and choreographer] and I feel passionate about. That includes the body, the naked form of the body, the mechanical forms of the body – I do massages, and quite often I find myself looking at it inside out, looking at the muscles, the patterns. The body as a work of art in itself is incredible.
My other passion is communication, and Phil and I have been friends for a long time, we communicate very well, and I wanted that to come across. The third important thing was contact – we actually structured the work through contact improvisation. If you can do contact well, you should be able to do it with your eyes closed, and that’s where the blindfolds came in.
We did the film version first, and then we developed it into a longer piece that was suitable for small venues, with minimal costumes. We end up in skin-coloured underwear, and that way, with the lightning design, it is possible to see how the body is moving, muscularly and sculpturally. Phil is leaving for a company, but I will continue performing the piece with someone else.
What are your inspirations?
On a personal level, my mom. She has always allowed me to be completely individual, and she has supported me in everything I’ve wanted to do. She believes in personal growth, personal and professional development, she inspires me to be determined. The body-mind connection is another important thing.
What’s next for you after the festival?
We are doing a new piece called Crazy Joanna, based on a Spanish film, Juana la Loca. The film was about a Spanish Queen tormented by her husband, who went crazy in love with him, while he abused her emotionally. She died very lonely. It went on for us to the theme of domestic abuse, and it now follows the journey of three women, of a woman living three life cycles. It goes from the Medieval times in Spain through to Buenos Aires in the 1920s and the present time, and follows a recurring pattern, with three dance styles, including Spanish and Tango influences. This work will premiere in Leeds in May, and it is a collaboration with my film maker Aurora Fearnley and the artist David Cobley. We will use one of his paintings, Into the Light, for the production.
How do you incorporate the Argentine tango in your work?
My interpretation of tango has always been a part of my work. Phil and I went to Buenos Aires for five weeks of intensive training last year – it was hard, the dissociation particularly. We will use it more in Crazy Joanna, as I’m working with a contemporary dancer that has tango experience for this piece.
Any Christmas wishes for your company?
A break. We need to prepare for what is coming up, and we have worked so much lately.
» See video snippets of Blind Passion and other works on Slanjayvah Danza’s website. Slanjayvah Danza is currently in Residence at Seven Artspace, in Leeds. The company will also perform at Resolution! 2010.
Many thanks to Chantal Guevara for making these interviews possible.