Passion, Discovery, Process—An evening with Jordan Daniels

In a rehearsal for Eleanor, Jordan Daniel’s warms up with the five dancers who embody his choreography. He directs the movement with phrases like,

“Let your spine echo throughout the body.” “Search for pleasure.” “Start from the floor and find your connective through line.”

Tonight, Daniels has opened up his rehearsal process in a nueBOX Work In Progress Sharing. He has particularly asked us to observe how he interacts with his dancers. One observer used a phrase that particularly resonates, “loving creator.” Throughout the work Daniels maintained a tender, respectful, encouraging, and strong creative presence. It struck me how easily the five dancers leaned into his direction, building seamlessly on the foundation with their own elements and voices.

Following the group dialogue, and another round of rehearsal, Daniels graciously sat down to yet another conversation with me about his creative process, new research, and how he sees his career evolving.

Photo by Jenny Gerena

Ada McCartney: “Vibrant” is the word that kept coming to mind tonight. It sounds like it was important to you to set up the working dynamic that you need to explore this new phase of creation, tell me about that.

Jordan Daniels: One of the dancers’ first homework assignments was bring in one fact about Eleanor Roosevelt. They forgot. Then the next week, they came in with one fact that she was known to have lesbian affairs, or close female friendships. I really wanted to play with how much is their right to know, with how much they need to know. I was wondering, can I just move the dancers and let them know that there is purpose behind it. I shared with them the Work In Progress Showing blurb about Eleanor Roosevelt’s exceptionalism and personal betterment through her life. That’s all the information they had beforehand. Tonight, in the rehearsal sharing is the first time that we’ve ever talked about my creator intentions. These dancers are young, and I did that to be able to keep a little bit to myself. If I had a peer in the room I’d want them to ask those questions. I really wanted to bring younger people to this project. It was important to me that they almost felt uncomfortable asking those deeper questions early on… It comes from a place of my own sensitivity on my own part… I felt these dancers were trainable, or physically capable to take an idea to the extreme. I wanted dancers who aren’t burned out, yet. I wanted able, intelligent bodies. Watching their preconceived notions about how each other dances/approaches the work is interesting and amplified in this dense room. It brings another layer to the process.

AM: You’re performing a new solo work the same evening that this choreographed work will premier. Tell me about the connections between Instinctually Human and Eleanor. Is there one?

JD: Eleanor is something new. It’s the work of a choreographer. Instinctually Human is solo work spanning the past few years.

Installment 3 is the end of three years of what I want to call therapy… Although, I think that’s a little condescending to the idea of therapy. I haven’t studied enough psychology to make a call like that. It’s catharsis. It started with my first commission on Instinct Dance Corps. When I started this Installment One I was partying a lot, trying drugs, drinking a lot. I wanted to learn about my people. I had been at a dance studio for so long, and I told people, “I’m a Dancer. This is who I am. It’s what I do.” Then, I got a job back here at home and I got a job and I was happy, and still skinny, dancing every day, going out at night, exploring life. I was happy. And I thought to myself: THIS is research. There’s a reason I keep going into these huge spaces, and I feel more alive than I ever fucking did in school. I decided that everything is going to be through this lens of, “What is it to see art?” What is it to take what you did in that space, what was the context around it? What is the context around seeing it, doing it, and how to I push it into movement. There’s been a lot of failure in the synthesis. It’s the crossover from my eyes to actual artwork. It’s about people, being in proximity, me, you, the vibrations in the room. How they’re moving you, moving me, moving us, together.

Installment 1, Millennial Persuasion. It explored Why do large groups of people want to happen. I was getting into festivals, I went to Electric Forest. I was starting to understand that Millennials want to be on top of each other. Even if we don’t know why. We want to be in each other’s faces. Even if we’re not connected. Large spaces, full of people. What does that mean?

Installment 2, My Eyes Are Open: How do I sit in these large spaces. Why do I want to be in these large spaces? I was dealing a lot with what is it to be so aware and taking drugs to take away that awareness. What is it to cope with feeling aware. What happened in that research was that I became even more aware. It magnified it. It was how do I distract from being conscious.

This third section is a transition into professional work. I’m going to make clear aesthetic choices. I want the Jordan Daniels Dance name attached to something specific. I don’t want my best ideas and research to be on children anymore. I want it to be on able bodies and adult minds. Doing it on myself for this third installment I see as the retirement of my solo career. My solo work gets the most attention. I get a lot of comments like, “Oh, I love your solo work.” As opposed to group work. This is the Shebang. Into solo-career retirement.

AM: What feelings come along with the notion of retiring your solo career? Are you feeling any pressure on the work that will end this chapter of your life?

JD: I don’t feel any pressure. I make this work in performance. Every time there’s a gig I said, “I’m going to make this section.” I layered in work. I’ve gone back to projections that were made quickly and made them better. It’s all sensory work. The section I did first is the opening, and it’s stayed the opening almost exactly as is. It’s solidified the most. The fireworks sections I’ve only done once, and as I think to myself how that moment is going to go, there’s no movement, just feeling space. It’s going to be very sensory. Then in other sections there’s a combination of sensory and tactile. Memory is getting more complex as I get older. Shape-making comes naturally to me, remembering shapes is easy. What isn’t easy is letting sensation bring you to the exact shapes. My goal with my own dancing is to let sense move me. The more you solidify something, or repeat it rote, the less it feels like it was. I hate that. I’m trying to really let the feeling, or essence stay what it is, and to live in that space. I’m going to fuck up. Something is going to be weird. that’s OK. It’s necessary for it to be how I’m feeling. Its’ about me. I probably shouldn’t make a piece about me, but I did. And, how can I truthfully make a piece about me if

I’m not giving the audience what I am exactly in the moment. It’s not me if it’s six months in the past me.

Installment Three seems very much like a close the door, goodbye. Eleanor feels like where I’m going. In terms of sequence of my life, Installment Three is the end of a chapter.

Photo by Jenny Gerena

AM: You mentioned once that you have an engineer brain in an artist body. How does that engineer brain inform your work as a choreographer in this next phase of your career?

JD: We often think engineer equals mechanical. I have the part of self that is very engineer: my thinking. I think I like working on other people way more. I really like picking, grabbing, spending time one thing for a very long time, but not being the one going through the emotional trauma over and over. I’m just watching. It reminds me of testing code. I did a code, it didn’t work, I did another code. It’s a back and forth. Creating is very low stakes for me. To me, creating physicality is easy. I’m more self-conscious about the words coming out of my mouth, or how someone stared at me. Coming in here and shaping is very comforting. Comforting in the sense that it must stay like this, in the process. The giggles that happen in these rehearsals make me almost glitch. Then, restart. It’s interesting because I also value that my dancers feel they have the space to get it out early in the process …

Eleanor is going to be what I think is my next long research project. What we show on March 17 th is by no means final. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of what it will become. I want to research Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m going to look at Albert Speer, an architect and the “good Nazi.” The last character right now is Darwin, but it might become Obama. I’m conflicted. I’m by no means wanting to imply that he’s my person to grab onto. With this term of exceptionalism and one in a thousand when you look at the events that led up to Obama becoming who he is, it’s special. It’s a purposeful alignment, and so many things happened to make it and because of it. It’s a dive into anthropology. Why things are the way they are, people are who they are. The context. I want to stay away from good or bad. These lines, steps, context. It all made an exceptional person, but are they good or bad? Who the fuck cares. I don’t think it’s fair to humans to simplify. There’s a lot more complexity about who they are than if they’re good or bad. And good or bad changes over the years, with perspective. Someone said, “History is only good to the winners.” This idea of “what if.” What if we saw it differently? What in society tells us what’s good or bad. Our moral compass comes from those who have money, who are safe, who are eating.

Isn’t exceptionalism a gross word? But so interesting. I loved learning about Eleanor Roosevelt because she was not blind to who she was or the world that she lived in. She was an original member of the first American delegation to attend the UN, and she was the first chair person for the important Commission on Human Rights developed at the UN. This commission has grown into the policing agency for humanitarian violations all over the world.. It was the early 1950’s.

Someone asked her if she’d be the first female president, and she laughed at them essentially saying, “I’ve done a lot for women, but I can’t do that.” She knew why she wouldn’t get the job. She was the first extremely rich second wave feminist. She wasn’t scared of talking to poor people. When it came to meet with cultural and feminist leaders she went to all levels. There’s an incredible picture of her in a Puerto Rico slum … She’s holding the hand of a very poor person, in the mud. In this white dress. And she insisted that they take a picture … She knew what the importance of watching someone so powerful and rich in that space, like that meant. How it would change the space, and how she moved through the world. And, who knows what her intentions were. To me, though, it seems important.

AM: What’s next? How do you see Eleanor shaping your career moving forward?

JD: I like positioning myself in a place where I feel comfortable speaking and creating work about white people. Because I’m a white person. What Eleanor is doing for me is giving me more context and meaning and being ok with who I am. When people hear “exceptionalism” I guarantee the response is, “Who cares? Why does the world need more stories about rich, exceptional people?” And I agree, I don’t intend to glamorize rich or white people. On the other side of that coin, I grew up middle class and white. I live in a brown city, and I don’t’ feel like my voice even belongs here. What can I make, what’s appropriate? Eleanor is a vehicle for me to talk about issues that I’m allowed to talk about. Where am I in a year? It’s a fucking loaded question. Don’t you think? It’s loaded in the sense that a long time ago I realized that my dreams need the potential to be actualized, or I’ll be really let down. I’m doing things that I have control over. Like when you’re young you’re with a friend and like, we should make this, but then it never happens and you’re sad. I don’t even go up to bat at a project unless I know it’s actualized.

I want to have a fall and spring evening, and I want to start creating a group of humans who are passionate, not flighty, and interested in becoming better by working with me. I’m taking this Permanent Artist in Residence position at [nueBOX], which is putting a lot of work on my plate and understanding that it is giving me the skills to transition out of solo movement. I took this residency to feel free to make art. I’m honored to be here, honored that my art is good enough. It makes me realize that in this point, my art is good enough. I’m thinking about how to get better, how to grow, how to keep making art. I like that [nueBOX] values thinking more than doing. Sometimes, I make art because someone wants it. I want someone to have my art, more than I want anyone to like it. It’s like when your mom makes you meatloaf, “You need this. Eat it.” Someone wants to come to my show, to come to a work in progress sharing, and that’s enough to keep making, to keep getting better. I’d like to re-conceive how a nonprofit dance company is looked at financially and economically. I know that there’s a shift in business model that is currently happening, and I’d like to be ahead of that curve. I’d like to present an idea, actualized, before it happens to me. I’m interested in making sure that money comes along with time spent in the studio. For me and the people I work with. I’m deciding what I am, how I want to situate myself in the world.

Ada McCartney serves as the Education Director of Laughing Pig Theatre. She also works as a Teaching Artist with Childsplay, and at Arizona School for the Arts. Ada is a multidisciplinary creator, teaching artist and yoga practitioner passionate about uplifting her community through engagement with the arts.

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