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New U. of I. dancer-choreographer focusing on environmental works


Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Monson dancing
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Jennifer Monson, who came to Illinois from New York in January to join the U. of I. dance faculty, is a new breed of performance artist whose choreography and dance research are informed by environmental issues. Monson was recruited to the Illinois campus through an innovative, interdisciplinary program initiated by the university’s Environmental Council.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — You won’t find Jennifer Monson on “Dancing With the Stars.” However, the dancer-choreographer hailed by The New York Times as among that city’s “downtown dance stars” has been testing the waters, reaching out and building new audiences in communities outside the mainstream dance world.

After gaining wide acclaim with her multi-year, multi-continental “Bird Brain” project based on the migration pattern of ducks, geese, osprey and gray whales, Monson has herself migrated to a new environment. This past January, she joined the dance faculty at the University of Illinois. At the U. of I. she has found her latest research focus: the extensive underground water system that serves dozens of prairie communities in 15 Central Illinois counties and stretches diagonally across the state from west central Illinois to western Indiana.

Monson describes her style of dancing and dance-making as both experimental and experiential, and said it is based more and more on “large phenomena that are in some ways mysterious or unknowable.” A new breed of performance artist whose choreography and dance research are informed by environmental issues, she was recruited to the Illinois campus through an innovative, interdisciplinary program initiated by the university’s Environmental Council.

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Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Student dancers practice moves from the first phase of Jennifer Monson’s “Mahomet Aquifer Project.” The three-part piece will be presented in a lower-level hallway and other underground spaces as part of the “Reimagining the Proscenium” concerts Nov. 13-15 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

“One of their strategies for bringing environmental issues more to the forefront at the university was this idea of the cluster hire,” said Monson, the first new faculty member brought in under the program. “The idea is to hire professors in history, geography, natural resources, religion, philosophy and the arts. I am just amazed that they had the foresight to include arts in the discussion and this way of looking at things.”

Results of the first phase of Monson’s “Mahomet Aquifer Project” will be debuted in a series of performances Nov. 13-15 at the U. of I.’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The program, “Reimagining the Proscenium,” will be staged in non-traditional dance spaces throughout the center. Along with Monson’s three-part MAP suite, the program will include works by dance faculty members Jan Erkert, Sara Hook, Kirstie Simson and John Toenjes.

For Monson’s piece, audience members will be invited in small groups to descend to a lower level of the center, a space typically reserved for production, rehearsals and instruction. Moving first through a hallway, then to the center’s “green room” for guests artists, and finally to a rehearsal room, audiences will observe a total of 17 student dancers performing choreographed and improvisational dances. A sound score responding to both the site and the dancing has been created by New York-based composer James Lo.

Of the unusual underground performance space that metaphorically echoes the aquifer, Monson said, “it’s evocative of a certain kind of space and a certain relationship to space. These spaces are workspaces for all the performing-arts departments as well as for the campus’s Facilities and Services unit. They accommodate a vast flow of activity – production, rehearsal, design. They are working creative spaces.”

Monson hopes to roll out the final phase of the aquifer project by 2010 with what she calls IMAP – Interdisciplinary Mobile Architecture and Performance. As she envisions it, IMAP would be a collaboration involving architects and staff from the Illinois State Water Survey, the U. of I.’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, as well as others.

“At the moment, it’s going to be (on) a flatbed truck converted to biodiesel – not ethanol, but a ‘grease car’ ” that would run on recycled cooking oil, or a similar product. The multipurpose mobile unit will travel to communities located on the perimeter of the Mahomet aquifer and will function as a field research station, performance and exhibition space, and a classroom. After its Illinois tour, Monson hopes to take IMAP to New York City, where it might be used to bring attention to water-related issues there.

Before making the decision to relocate to Illinois, Monson prepared for her transition from “the wilds of the city” by doing what comes natural to her: studying her potential new habitat.

“Like New York City, Central Illinois is an overly managed environment that has been powerfully affected by human action and commerce,” she said. “Unlike New York City, it has wide-open, flat spaces that have supported its extremely successful agricultural economy.

“Keeping my ears out for pressing environmental issues, I was alerted to the opposition to ethanol plants because of their large consumption of water, which bears the risk of a potentially irreversible draw-down of water levels. The Mahomet aquifer is one of the largest groundwater resources in the state and its presence allows for the rich agricultural success of this region. As we continue to increase our demand for water on all fronts – agricultural, industrial and residential, the aquifer is threatened.”

As she studied the ancient water source, Monson said she became fascinated by the aquifer and determined to focus her next research project on it. She started her work by connecting with H. Allen Wehrmann, the head of the Water Survey; and with Donna Cox, who is an NCSA senior research scientist and a visualization artist.

Together with her collaborators, Monson said she has been “investigating the multiple influences, forces and flows on the aquifer, including geography, history, hydrology, geology and environmental economic studies.”

“What excites me the most about these kinds of projects is getting to meet people like Al Wehrmann. People love to talk about what they know well, and they love it when people are interested. They are informed and ask questions.

Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

U. of I. dance professor Jennifer Monson.

“That’s where I find the collaborative link between art and science. Both artists and scientists are very interested and engaged in exploring the unknown in some way. Although the outcomes are quite different, I’m attracted to the similarities in creative thought process and problem solving.”

Audiences expecting to see dances in which the performers obviously imitate the natural forces considered may need to readjust their mindsets. Monson said the work is not representative or literal.

“That’s always a problem with ‘Bird Brain.’ People ask, ‘Where are the birds?’ ”
Or, she said, they may interpret dancers’ movements as specific behaviors, such as whales mating.

“I’m working much more from the systems in the body and how they affect physicality. I engage the imaginative state of the body to express or evoke something that contains a multiplicity of meanings,” she said. “So with most abstract work or new dance work, the audience brings themselves into ways of understanding the dance through their own kinetic, sensory experience of the material.”

With the aquifer project, Monson synthesized what she learned through her research, and began extrapolating that knowledge to systems of the body.

“So I look at the fluid systems – the blood, the lymph, the cellular, interstitial, cerebral spinal fluids and the structural elements of the skeleton … the three-dimensionality of the muscular system,” she said. “Sometimes I work metaphorically … imagistically.”

And while some may suspect that Monson may have activist motives in mind when creating dance inspired by environmental issues, she noted that this is not the case.

“I don’t have a political agenda with these projects,” she said. “I’m just interested in exposing the questions and having people relate to the system through a different way of knowing – through the body, through kinetic intelligence and an embodied perspective.”

Her motivation, she said, is to introduce people to “the breadth of what dance can be, and its perspective of the world.”

“I think of dance as a way of reaching out and touching the world in a quite literal way.”