Last week I met with Jana Prager, Artistic Director of Jana Prager Dance Theatre, to talk about her upcoming work, Femme. Having grown up in Long Island and around New York City, Jana moved to London in 2014 to pursue her MFA in Choreography at University of Roehampton. We chatted about her enjoyment of cooking, baking muffins, and crafting.
|Dancers Emily Robinson and Emily Neighbour in rehearsal for Femme|
MP: Why did you pick feminity/gender as a discussion point?
JP: I have always been really interested in [feminity] and it's funny because until I was 23 I was in severe denial about my femininity. I had a really warped idea of what feminism was. But I realised, wait a minute, this is everything that I believe in... I've never been a typical woman, I come from a long line of atypical women.. But now I believe, we need to talk about feminism in our art, rather than just dancing around it.
MP: How has the project helped you redefine your views on beauty?
JP: I felt really cheated because my cast happens to be beautiful, they are stunning women! They knew from the beginning that there was going to be a topless section of this dance. In our first rehearsal of that section, I decided OK I am going to stand in solidarity with them and I am going to do this entire rehearsal with them topless. I have massive body image issues, but I was like I need to do this. If I'm going to stand by my choreography and stand by asking my dancers to be vulnerable in front of an audience, I have do this with them. So I walked around a room for three hours with all these other women completely topless, and it was the most empowering moment in my life. We've talked about how much better we feel about ourselves and how we realise that it's just a human body. And it's these bodies that have kept us alive for such a long time.
MP: As a woman, what personal barriers have you had to overcome?
JP: It's funny, I know there are definitely things in my life, but most of the [barriers] I remember are from when I was a child, because I was such a tom boy. That was like a really big thing for me. I was a huge tom boy.
But I think one of the biggest barriers for me is people not taking me seriously beyond my perceptive sexual value. Living in New York and going into the City frequently, you get catcalled a lot. It's not a barrier like "no you won't get that a job" or "no you won't get into university". But it's really people not taking me seriously. It's constant, obnoxious and verbal.
MP: What methods did you use when choreographing?
JP: It's so funny, I was talking to my dancers, I was like I am so afraid for the day when I need to explain my choreographic process to someone. Because it is so random! A lot of the time honestly the way it works is I will set something and just tell them "this person does that, and that and that, and your cue to exit is when this happens" and I have no idea what it's going to look like. And then I say OK show me that so I know if it sucks or not and then we'll move on. It's almost entirely verbal.
MP: Did you use any text or similar stimulus?
JP: Yes, there's this one section that I thought was really paramount, which was about taking up space and how much space women are allowed to occupy- physically, mentally, verbally, theoretically. I love slam poetry, and there's this piece called Shrinking Women by Lily Myers, which we all watched together. The poem states that not only are we supposed to sit with our legs closed on the tube with our bags on our laps, men can sit with their legs spread and no one asks a question. We are told to be quiet when we are young girls, because no one likes a loud girl. Aside from that, even physically we are told how much space our bodies should take up. My waist should take up less space and my breasts are supposed to take up all the space in the world. We really talked about that- about how much space we are allowed and how much space we "deserve".
MP: The female body is a complicated performance space, how did you approach this with your dancers?
JP: For one example, when we started choreographing the topless section, we didn't immediately go topless, but we went bra-less. So if anything felt uncomfortable for the larger chested girls we would alter the choreography. So it was a very interesting negotiation of your own body and it's visibility. For me, while the breasts are sexualised within our society, they're not actually sexual objects. They are secondary sexual characteristics, which puts them in the same category as men's facial hair. There are non-Western countries in Africa for example, where tribes call Western men babies because they are so obsessed with breasts. And they really are these enormous lumps of fat on our chests that are completely human. They are just mammary glands, that's all they are, but I have to hide them.
MP: I suppose you wanted to protect your dancers within the process and performance?
I really wanted to make sure the dancers were stripped of any sexualisation. And that they weren't going to be seen as sexual objects in the piece. I have been really protective- I'm very maternal! I wanted them to know from day one that I was willing to do whatever I could to protect them emotionally in this performance. It's been a really wonderful experience of give and take. My philosophy is that the dancers should accommodate the dance work as much as the dance should accommodate the dancers. Being a performer is such a vulnerable place to be, you know, trusting the choreographer to make something you believe in, to take care of your bodies, and to take care of you emotionally, especially when you're asked to perform topless.
MP: What will you take away with you from this experience?
MP: Where will you take Femme next?
JP: I have every intention of recreating Femme again. It's just where? On who? How? Maybe someone will give me some money to make it?! I am heartbroken to leave these girls! But I would love to bring it back to New York- I am going to be applying with it [to festivals/residencies/etc]. I want nothing more than to work on this piece again.