Pauline Jennings is a contemporary dance choreographer based in Jericho, Vermont. Like all creatives in the performing arts, she faced profound challenges during the pandemic, being unable to perform publicly and separated from collaborators. In addition, she lost a critical component of her creative process during the shutdown: connection to others. She shifted by creating the Quarantine Dance Project, a collaborative set of 40 improv pieces/ 400 images exploring her relationship to space within her own home.
Here is her story.
Curiosity, coupled with a sincere desire for connection, fuel my work. Whether it be for stage, screen, or installation, I want to learn more about how humans – myself included – connect or fail to connect in meaningful ways. My work is highly collaborative, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with the most generous, talented, and inspiring artists who help urge me forward. I am also inspired by the audience and try to create works that invite active participation and play in order to facilitate connection and learning. To do this, I often incorporate game-like systems whereby audience members can spontaneously co-create with the performers and form cooperative or competitive alliances. I love witnessing what teams of collaborators and audience can collectively uncover and build when presented with strategically considered ingredients. I also design responsive systems within the choreography to allow dancers more autonomy while performing. If working with video, I focus on creating immersive installations and dynamic spaces. Cultivating a sense of discovery, evolution, wonder, and adventure further propels my practice as the work invites all participants to take part in a journey.
While my work focuses on connection, I have always been a bit awkward and shy, and find social events rather stressful – I’m definitely not as good at connecting as I’d like to be! My artistic practice compels me to challenge my comfort zones through collaboration and audience-interactive performance. When presenting interactive work, I am routinely gifted with the opportunity to witness humans effectively communicating, connecting, and forming respectful relationships in real-time and often without the use of words. Presenting interactive works in other countries has enabled me to experience touching and memorable exchanges with strangers despite language barriers. Utilizing responsive frameworks within a dance also deepens the level of trust and connection required between performers.
Personally speaking, I am profoundly grateful that my family and I have remained healthy this past year. I know far too many friends who have suffered from Covid or have lost loved ones to the virus. I have been immensely fortunate to teach and work remotely while also spending significantly more time than with my two young children.
Professionally, the pandemic has offered both losses and gains. Like other movement artists, it became impossible to create or train effectively during the pandemic. Before the lockdown, I had been developing a duet with my movement partner, Joshua Lacourse. We kept delaying the premiere date and working to find Covid-safe solutions, but in the end, it became logistically impossible to press forward. Like many other dancers and dance-makers, the grief felt surrounding such isolation from collaborators and audiences was and still is genuine. That said, our work throughout the pandemic dramatically informed my Zoom-based teaching practice and has caused my ideas regarding art and performance to evolve in ways I’m sure I can’t fully comprehend yet. Our co-choreographic practice shifted from working in person with space and movement to working remotely with ideas and words. We took the trust and vulnerability we had nurtured through our movement practice and applied it to articulating dreams, fears, and goals. I’ll admit that this was not easy for me – I’d sooner perform for 1,000 strangers than share my ideas behind the performance with one. However, I grew to highly value and enjoy the process as it was one rooted in patience, acceptance, and trust.
While planning and writing were rewarding endeavors, I still very much missed having a physical outlet for creativity, skill development, and performance. In May 2020, I reached out to a dear friend and colleague in Cleveland, Alyssa Lee Wilmot (@groupA), to see if she’d be interested in co-creating an Instagram series based on one-word challenges. From there, The Quarantine Dance Project (#theqdp) was born. The self-portrait series, relying exclusively on our phones for imaging, was a response to sheltering-in-place as artists, remote workers, and humans existing individually and collectively within a global pandemic. We began each set in the series by taking turns declaring one word that would serve as the shared thematic prompt. These one-word prompts pushed me to not only hone my craft of communicating via shapes, but to experience my home differently – it suddenly became a site to discover and unpack. I began noticing the way shadows fell across random spaces and how various objects and messes were ripe with symbolism. I tuned into how my posture changed in various rooms or at different times throughout the day. I also found myself processing news through the lens of the weekly challenges. Once we each had photos taken, we would exchange them and begin the exciting work of co-creating our weekly/biweekly 10-image set. Sometimes these sets wound up feeling like call-and-response duets, other times like meandering poems, and still others a conversation between shapes, light, and surroundings. The QDP has challenged my ideas about private/public, what constitutes dance, and how I view my own body. However, the most positive result of this project has been the opportunity to collaborate with Alyssa. Now a year into the project, The QDP recently concluded after 40 sets (400 images!) on May 24.
Thank you, Pauline, for sharing your work and your story. May you keep dancing, connecting, and exploring.
You can find more of Pauline’s work on her website