j e l l o: a new series: An interview by Jane Jerardi

j e l l o: a new series

an interview with Jessica Cornish, Carla Gruby and Tuli Bera

by Jane Jerardi

cover image: Nancy Nagisa Oda. photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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On a Monday evening in late January, nearly 100 people crowded into Links Hall’s white studio space – sitting between seats, on cushions, and inching into the sides of the theater space. In a stylish jumpsuit with seemingly boundless energy, Jessica Cornish greeted us and then, casually popped up between the 12 artists’ acts to share personalized introductions. The evening progressed at a pleasant clip. Just a week or so after the inauguration of a new president and all-too-different regime in the White House, it felt like something different was happening in Chicago and the dance scene.

It felt good to be around other people in real life in a space together. Something like community was being made – something that I haven’t experienced as of yet in the Chicago dance scene. In the world of j e l l o, dance had a fuzzy definition – in a good way. There were artists new to sharing their work, and those with more experience. There was an experimental sound piece. A solo of African-contemporary movement in which the performer barely left the ground until the very end, standing distinctly upright. Two poignant and personal songs. A tap piece to something like techno. A piece about resisting the new order through ice skating. Contemporary dance (what’s that exactly anyway?), vernacular forms, something theater-ish, performance art, the not-so-easy to define. All on the same evening. The energy in the room was one of conversation, a casual exchange, over drinks, but in a theater space with lights (props to the Links Hall technical director that evening!). It felt like a refreshing idea of how to present dance in Chicago was coming into being.

When we gathered in the bar, Jessica approached us and asked us to sign up to curate a j e l – l o in the future – except those of us listening to her don’t even know what j e l l o is exactly. A couple weeks later, another installment appears. And, via email, we hear that Jessica will relocate away from Chicago in just a couple weeks to San Diego. What would happen to this new series? Not to fear! Carla Gruby and Tuli Bera are taking over the reigns. Another event is already scheduled for March 20, curated by Aaliyah Leonard.

I caught up with Jessica, Carla and Tuli individually via email to find out about j e l l o and their plans for the future. Below is an edited version of the conversation but I reimagined it as if we were all in the room together…

 Jane Jerardi: What was the impetus for j e l l o?  Were you addressing what you perceived as a need in the community? 

Jessica Cornish: The impetus for j e l l o comes from a few things. A couple years ago, I did an internship with the Chicago Dancemakers Forum (CDF). At that time, CDF was hosting a series of ‘community meetings’ asking Chicago dance artists about their needs, their struggles. Although I never made it to any of the actual meetings, it was my job to read all the notes and organize them. So I learned a lot about the needs of the community and I certainly got a lot of information from different artists that way.

Personally I have struggled with the fact that there isn’t a PLACE, or a regular series dedicated to experimental dance in Chicago.

And, often, when I do show my own projects, I fail to get documentation of my work. I’m often too shy to record my own work, or the venue does video documentation, or I can’t afford it, or they take forever to hand it over. With j e l l o, it’s a priority to offer this as a service. I provided documentation to the 12 artists in the first edition within two days following the show.

I had a dancer tell me recently that they were afraid of curating because they want to be seen as a dancer, not a curator. The artists that most blow me away are the ones who do it all – they curate, administrate, teach, and make fierce work. It’s a lot to ask for, but j e l l o is a system that allows artists to have a short period experiencing curating, but not having to commit to the curatorial role long-term. If we all do a little for each other – like organizing opportunities to share our work – there will be more opportunities. And, we won’t be over-burdened and still be able to focus on our own practice.

Carla Gruby: When Jessica initiated j e l l o, she included Tuli and I right away in her process. Jessica has been a great advocate for young artists in Chicago, and I can really relate to her spontaneity. She’s given me a lot of hope to thrive in Chicago. With j e l l o, she has given us the perfect opportunity to take the reigns to shape the kind of venue what we want for dance.

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Carla Gruby. photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Jane: j e l l o feels quite different than other series in the city – it’s not about a particular company or artist, it doesn’t come out of a jury or competition process (for a showcase), and it seems to want to embrace a lot of different forms/styles and people and maybe even cross over what some might even perceive to be ‘dance’? How is it different? Do you feel it’s espousing a different value system than the dominant values in the Chicago scene?

Jessica: Our culture right now is really supportive of individual expression. In dance, this is translating to artists who might be more rooted in a specific dance style, but are pushing the boundaries of that form to better express themselves. The result I think is a more common ground between forms. Because the experimental dance scene in Chicago is a little limited, I have been so inspired and moved by dance artists working in other forms. So j e l l o is a place where dancers can meet from different communities.

I relate dance to religion. There are so many denominations. The difference between Chicago and New York is that Chicago is much smaller, so each denomination has many fewer members, which means it’s more difficult to build infrastructure. So maybe if we join teams more, more can happen.

It’s also been a way to challenge myself. j e l l o has really helped me to see the value in all dance. Art can serve so many different purposes. One is not more important than the other. When I was younger, I had to be really defensive about what I believed to be dance. The result made me very much against more traditional ideas of dance. And now I feel really free from all of that.

I especially want to build something that isn’t exclusive. You know, I love exclusivity. Chicago already has exclusive opportunities, or at least competitive ones: grants and residencies like the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Links Hall’s LinkUP residencies, DCASE grants, High Concept Laborarory residencies, etc… But, there needs to be something that is not exclusive, to help artists get to the place where they can achieve these more competitive grants and residencies. But, Chicago also needs to bring dance artists together more. There is a time to be exclusive and a time be inclusive.

Tuli Bera: It’s important that we involve the dance community as much as possible. It’s important for new artists, like myself, as a way to get immersed into the Chicago Arts community as much as possible. I want it to be all-inclusive – which I know will be difficult since you simply cannot satisfy every artist’s needs. This is why j e l l o needs to be a community effort. I want j e l l o to become more than just a monthly series. It should just pop up out of no-where in different venues, with different dance “scenes”, all ages…

Jane: What would make something j e l l o vs. not? Are you looking to other models to shape this?

Jessica: I’m more interested in making new models and not being afraid if they completely fail. There is no other city like Chicago and so, I think the best model is one tailored specifically to Chicago.

Sustainability is also important to me. How can a dance series be structured to not all fall onto one person? Nothing makes me more happy then focusing on my own art practice so, I don’t want to run a series full-time. j e l l o offers a model that shares the load and responsibility so it becomes a community effort.

Jane: Carla and Tuli – What attracted you to getting involved in j e l l o?

Tuli: I could really see the opportunities j e l l o would provide to both new and seasoned Chicago artists. I moved to Chicago less than a year ago and was terrified to even begin to think about showing work. I had so many ideas, but I had a really hard time to muster the courage to get into any space and work. In creating j e l l o, Jessica provided this platform for me to show SOMETHING even if I wasn’t sure about it. In other words, j e l l o created a safe space for me to show my work, meet other artists, and just know that I put something out there.

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Jenn Freeman. photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Carla: For me what’s most exciting about j e l l o is the opportunity for communities to merge and learn how to help each other out. It’s an outlet for the community to grow as a whole. It feels like there are many small pockets of communities all around the city, but not many places for people to converge – maybe that’s something j e l l o can offer.

Like Tuli, I moved here about a year ago, and have been feeling really isolated, pretty much lost within the dance community. I was having so much anxiety about auditions and classes and things that I withdrew from everything dance-related for about six months. I took the time to think about what I want my practice to look like, and what I’m looking for here in the city. I haven’t quite found it yet. I’ve noticed that performance art and dance aren’t quite merged here in a way that I was expecting – I’m not even sure what I mean by that, but I want to find out…

Jane: What is your hope for j e l l o – for the artists who participate and for audiences?

Tuli: I want j e l l o to be associated with a place where people can come for inspiration. Young artists can meet more seasoned artists to see what IS possible. Seasoned artists can see what the new generation is like and learn from them as well.

Carla: j e l l o feels like a time where artists can create the spaces they are looking for. We want to give artists resources and confidence: it can – just through this platform –give artists experience, connections, materials that they need to further themselves into their specific practices.

Jessica: The hope for j e l l o is to push the belief that success for other artists is the success of the entire community, which will lead to individual artists’ own success too. How can we help each other succeed? j e l l o is generative. The hope is that it inspires dance artists to facilitate more opportunities for each other. (Not that they aren’t already, but more is even better!)

Jane: It feels important that j e l l o is artist-instigated and run? Is that true?

Jessica: Yes. Especially in the current political climate and the unknown future, I think it’s important that we take things into our own hands and become independent and sustainable.

Tuli: All I want to do right now is learn from others. Especially now, it is so so so important to learn from one another, to hear everyone’s stories and to accept them. That is what j e l l o is providing. For people to see an artist they may have never before seen/heard of and just be there for them/support them. Its not an exclusive group, anyone can sign up and we will do our best to accommodate everyone!

Carla: YES! We want to learn from each other and help each other! This is a scary time in the world – lots of unpredictable things happening. It’s crucial to know that we can be there for each other, and find platforms for our work – to keep expressing.

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Christine Shallenberg & audience. photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Jane: How does curation relate to your own creative and performing/choreography process?

Jessica: I have been using the word ‘curate,’ but really, I don’t think that’s appropriate. Curating is an incredible art form in itself – one which I don’t think I have the skills for. The words hosting and producing seem more accurate. I am an improviser by nature. I love improvising because it is terrifying, the stakes are high, and it forces you to trust something outside of yourself. I improvise with cooking, making, dancing, performing… And so, for j e l l o I also improvise. I just say yes yes yes! I met Keyierra Collins in the Links Hall office and asked if she was a dancer and then invited her to be a part of the show. Half of the artists that I have invited I didn’t know, had never met, and had never seen their work. It was very intuitive.

I am incredibly insecure about being an improviser in Chicago. There aren’t THAT many dance artists focused on improvisation and so, I often feel really pressured to design and craft as much as I can. So I’m learning how to embrace a combination of the two. It’s also important to feel free to not be consistent. The first j e l l o had 12 artists, was kind of like a big party and I unexpectedly ended up being an MC between each piece. The second j e l l o only had four artists, and I printed programs, so that I didn’t have to introduce each artists. The second edition felt a bit more serious and more focused on the artists who were showing. That felt really good, but the first one was also really fun. So it’s nice to let each event in the series be its own thing, each time.

Carla: I mainly want to learn more about navigating administrative aspects and leadership in the arts. It was something that I never saw myself doing; I’ve always just wanted to dance alone in the prairies and have that be enough. I remember asking my mentor in college if I could get by my whole life without applying to anything! I was only half-joking, but I so badly wanted the answer to be yes. Writings, submissions, videos, resumes, even just responding to emails have always scared the crap out of me. I am really challenging myself to become more confident with all of that. And for me, that’s another place in my life that j e l l o fits in. I want to be in consistent practice and discussion with people about movement and the arts. I’m hoping that others do too, and that we can create accessible spaces to do just that.

Jane: Jessica, now that you’re leaving, what are your hopes for the Chicago dance / performance scene?

Jessica: There are so many incredible artists in the dance scene in Chicago. When I moved here, I only knew of Hubbard Street Dance Company. It is kind of what Chicago is known for. But there is an incredible wealth of dance artists in all stages and forms here and my hope is that Chicago becomes known for Hubbard Street but also for all of these other artists working in the field here.

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The next j e l l o event will take place on Monday, March 20th 2017 @ 7:30pm at Links Hall $10

Reserve your tickets here

For more information on j e l l o and to find out about upcoming editions of the series, visit: https://jello.dance or  https://www.facebook.com/jellodanceseries/ 

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Jane Jerardi is a Guest Editor for PRJ.