On June 16th, San Francisco’s Margaret Jenkins Dance Company will premiere perhaps its most ambitious work yet, “Global Moves.” An indoor/outdoor site-specific work moving between more than a dozen “stations” at the Presidio Theater, with its view across the Presidio National Park, “Global Moves” extends its horizons far beyond the Pacific Ocean. For nearly two years, Jenkins has been working with India’s Tanusree Shankar Dance Company, China’s Cross Move Lab, and dancers emeritus from Israel’s Kolben Dance Company. She has collaborated with these dancers separately since 2006, but this is the first work to draw the creators from all four countries together. (Although the Kolben dancers will appear via video, the dancers from China and India will appear live with Jenkins’ six-member troupe.)
“Global Moves” launches the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company towards its 50th anniversary, in 2023. For five decades, Jenkins has been an essential presence in the San Francisco dance ecology—as its first teacher of Cunningham-based technique (she was one of the first teachers Merce Cunningham chose for his New York studio, in the 1960s); as the choreographer of more than 80 works; and as the founder, in 2004, of Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange, which became a national program that has nurtured more than 150 artists.
We spoke with Jenkins for the deep background on her childhood in San Francisco raised by politically risk-taking parents, her years in New York performing with Twyla Tharp and training with Cunningham, and her commitment to sustaining artistic dialogue.
Where did you grow up in San Francisco?
I grew up in the Haight Ashbury before it became Cole Valley, before it became gentrified, and it really was, you know, a very working class area of the city.
And what did your parents do? Were they connected to the arts?
My mother was a poet and a professor of Shakespeare primarily; she taught Shakespeare at Laney and Merritt colleges in Oakland. And my father was a labor organizer. My mother had nothing but education and degrees; my father dropped out of school when he was in about the fifth grade and soon after started hopping freight trains. Going across America organizing the mill and smelter Workers Union. He ended up, in San Francisco, very involved in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. And he started the California Labor School in the late ’40s and early ’50s, where he taught progressive thinking in relationship to what was called “the Negro experience” then. And there were classes in history of the Jewish people, a history of Judaism in the history of the labor movement. It was very much considered a left-progressive center of thinking. And when the McCarthy committee decided to do its thing, which I’m sure you know about in this country, my parents were members of the Communist Party, up until the Khrushchev report came out on Stalin. My mother was the head of the intellectual section of the party. My father was head of the labor section. My gosh, that was very much a part of our lives. We were four children, and I’m the middle. My older sister in some ways took more of the brunt, because she understood what was going on.
I was wondering: how much were you aware?
I knew they were doing things they cared about. And I also knew they were being persecuted. And, you know, it was 1957 that was really the worst. I was born in 1942. So I was old enough to know that something was not okay. My parents did a very interesting thing, which is they did not tell us that they were in the party, so that we could never be put in a position to have to lie. We were often followed home by the FBI. Oh, my God. The FBI would ask, “Are your parents members of the Communist Party?” And we all got very good at not answering, because we didn’t know. But there were many times in our home where we would go to the basement and hide when [the FBI] came to the door to question them.
Both my parents appeared before the McCarran committees and did not answer questions, or took the Fifth. There’s a wonderful article, actually, in the “San Francisco Chronicle” from back in the mid-50s, of my mother. She was very elegant. She came with a red hat and a red suit and red boots. My parents were very different in the way that they moved through the world. My mother refused to sign a loyalty oath, so she wasn’t able to teach for a long time. The California Labor School was shut down during the McCarthy period. So my father got a job as a longshoreman, unloading docks.
He was an incredibly good fundraiser for the things that he cared about. And it became very clear to the different people running for office in San Francisco, whether it was, you know, [Supervisor George] Moscone or [Mayor Joseph] Alioto, that if they hired Dave Jenkins, they could probably get the labor contingent behind them. So he then started to shift away from being a longshoreman, which was very hard on his body, to really being a political consultant. And he was, you know, very well known in those worlds and good friends with those people, and they were very much a part of our lives.
But equally a part of our lives were artists—[famed singer and actor] Paul Robeson, who would come to our house and play piano with my brother, because Robeson was part of the Party and my parents were friends. So I had this life that was incredibly rich in terms of culture, because my mother was very involved in literature and was a poet; my father loved opera and theater and museums. I’d have times when I would be in London, and I’d call him and say, “I’m at the Tate,” and he’d say, “Well, go downstairs, make a right, go to the end of the corridor, and you’ll see my favorite painting.”
You’re a fifth generation San Franciscan?
On my mother’s side. My mother’s great-great-great-grandparents came in the Gold Rush, as many German Jews did. The lineage on that side is through the German Jewish connection and connected to many German Jews in San Francisco. For instance, [deceased billionaire philanthropist] Warren Hellman’s my third cousin, and Warren and I used to laugh about how in our family half became billionaires and half became struggling artists. My father’s family was born in Odessa, so that’s made it all the more poignant, as it has for many Russian Jews, what’s happening in Ukraine. So I’m half Russian Jew and half German Jew.
How did you find your connection to dance?
There was a progressive dance school called Peters Wright School of Dance, holding classes with [former Martha Graham company member] Judy Job. Because it was a progressive school, my parents felt comfortable. In those days, you were very careful about where you sent your kids, in that you made sure that the people surrounding your children were going to support you as parents and there weren’t going to be political conflicts. So we were sent to a school where they felt sure that the people there were concerned about integration and about race relations and about peace. And I went, really, because my older sister had begun to study and I wanted to be like her. As the years went on, for me dance really became a kind of refuge. You know, what was going on in my home was very volatile. My parents, of course, were very involved in protecting us but also protecting themselves and trying to find ways to make money because they weren’t able to do the things that they had been trained to do. My mother sold encyclopedias and toilet paper door to door while she was waiting to find out how she was going to continue to work.
What was the training like at the Peters Wright School of Dance?
They kind of gave a ballet class, which I think, you know, was not really their specialty. Judy Job had just come back from New York, where she studied with José [Limon] and Martha [Graham]. So that was the kind of modern dance that was taught. When I was eleven, they invited Charles Weidman to come to the school to set [his famous work] “Lynchtown.” We’re talking the late ’40s, early ’50s, right. My grandmother was kind of concerned that I was quiet. But she thought perhaps the quiet was really depression. And I think she was probably right. You know, it was the way I was dealing with everything that was going on. Dancing was really a place where I could be quiet, where I could pursue my own feelings, I could find out if I had any. My grandmother had heard of Virginia Tanner and the Children’s Dance Theater in Salt Lake City, which was famous for their ability to teach children creative work. So my grandmother sent my sister and me there to study for a summer to help free me. And it did.
Some time away.
And with people who were creatively sensitive, and I was very much encouraged to continue dancing.
What happened in Salt Lake City was I met people who were dancing in José Limon’s company and with Doris Humphrey, and my eyes were expanded about what the world of dance and its vocabulary might include. I was just twelve, but when I came back to San Francisco I knew that I wanted to keep exploring as best as I could.
Then tell me about going to New York. When did that happen? How did you make that big decision?
Well, in my senior year, a woman whose name is Pauline de Groot, from Holland— she’s probably about three years older than me—came here with her family. Her parents were exchange professors at Stanford. And she came to study at the Welland Lathrop and Anna Halprin studio, which was a prominent studio on Union Street. We became very good friends. And Pauline said, “You know, you really should go to Connecticut College.” Before Durham, North Carolina, that was where the American Dance Festival was happening. And that’s where Merce and Trisha and all experimental dance was happening. And she encouraged me to go there for the summer.
In the interim, I was encouraged to go audition for Juilliard. So I went, at 17. And at first I was not accepted. I got a letter saying basically, “Don’t question this. You can’t question our judgment.” I thought, “I’m gonna question your judgment.” So I was already in New York and I was shocked that I didn’t get in, which was only my naivete, nothing else, because I was one of the better dancers in my little world here. When I went to New York, I was competing with the High School of the Performing Arts dancers. They were already super; I mean, they were going to become mature artists. Technically they had extraordinary training. And I didn’t have that. And it was a very important wake-up call. And I went to the administration and said, “You know, I’ve come to New York, I’m not going home.”
They said, “Well, lose some weight, get some more technique.” And so I went to Connecticut. Pauline said that at the beginning of each session— and this is still true of the summer gatherings— all the choreographers working there during the summer have an audition. They all sit in their chairs, and you go through your paces for them, and they choose who they want to work with during the summer. I said, “Pauline, I can’t go to that, I don’t have that kind of technique.” She was already about to dance with José [Limon]. She dragged me there, being a good friend, and said, “What do you have to lose?” And so I auditioned and then I went back to my room thinking, you know, forget about it. And Pauline said, “Aren’t you gonna go look at the pieces of paper that they put up on the bulletin board about who people have chosen?” Jack Moore had asked me to work with him, and I was shocked. Jack taught at Juilliard. So by my working with him that summer—he was an extraordinary man and a very sweet man and a very broad-thinking man about what dancers could look like.
And he got you into Juilliard? Wow.
I went to Juilliard for a year. Many, many things about it were exceptional. To study with Louis Horst and to study with José and Martha and many of her disciples and to be able to study music at this extraordinary institution was all pretty breathtaking. At the same time, their notion, at the time anyway—we’re talking 1960—it was very particular about what dance was and what composition was, and the name Merce Cunningham had never entered there.
This was just as he was beginning to present work.
It was quite a long time before Juilliard ever hired anybody who taught Cunningham technique. Decades. And you know, I was young, but it was clear that something wasn’t quite gelling. I was too young and really inexperienced to know what it was, but it didn’t quite feel right. And I think I didn’t feel right to them, either. You know, I wasn’t fitting into some mold: height, size, the compositional experiments I was doing. And so it seemed clear to me that I needed to find a better place for myself. So I transferred to UCLA. The notion was to stay in school.
So you continued to study dance at UCLA?
Oh, yes. They had an incredible department. It was on fire, because the Judson movement was happening and the famous class with Robert Dunn had just taken place in New York, and one of the teachers at UCLA had just come back from that course. She was on fire about what is dance and what is form and what is content. It was an amazing year. Walking in, it became clear to me pretty quickly that I had found a place that was going to allow me to do more fully what I was needing to investigate. I had to do ballet and modern and composition, but experimental work and notions about composition and content and form were being thrown into a pot in a very different way. So I felt quite free. And then my second year of being there, Merce Cunningham came to teach a six-week workshop.
I had just barely heard of him, because you know, it wasn’t something that people were talking about yet. You know, he was kind of a whisper. He arrived with, you know, Viola Farber and Carolyn Brown and Steve Paxton, Remy Charlip. The whole first company in a way; well, not first, but close to it. This was 1961 or ’62. [Ed. note: Cunningham launched his company in 1953] It was at that time that my mind and my heart and my body found a place. My body all of a sudden was being asked to do very demanding, rigorous things, but it felt right. And the way in which we were allowed to experiment with form and content in the compositional classes was extraordinary. And then I got to go see his work. And, you know, I was really extremely moved. When that summer was over, I got on a Greyhound bus and I followed him back to New York for a while.
I called my parents, and they said, “Exactly how are you going to support yourself? Have you finished your degree?” They said, “Listen, we get it. We want you to follow your dream. But we’re worried about your not having work and not having some frame, because it was hard for you when you were there at Juilliard.” So they said, “Go back. Try one more year. And then if you really still want to leave, we’ll figure out a way to help you.” So I went back.
The next residency was with Gus Solomons, Jr. He came, and at the end of that residency—he likes to make sure that I say he didn’t encourage me to leave school—he said, “If you leave, I’d love for you to be my partner.” Oh, my God. And so I left.
I had work, so it was okay with my parents for me to be in New York. I was dancing with Gus. And I could continue to study with Merce and take his classes. In those days, there were maybe twelve of us, you know, on 14th Street. And Merce went away on tour with people in his company. Those of us who were left behind didn’t want to study with anybody else. We just wanted to keep studying the technique. So we taught it to each other while he was away. And it was my turn to teach that week. I looked in the back of class and Merce was there. He had come back early from tour. He was going to take class, and I went up to Gus and I said, “I’m sorry, you teach.” And he said, “I’m not gonna teach, girl.”
So I taught, and I taught all week, and most of the students came back all week. At the end of the week, Merce came up to me, and he said, “How would you feel about starting a studio for me for when I’m away?” Oh, wow. And that’s how that happened. Now, it wasn’t just me. It was June Finch and Viola Farber, who was soon leaving the company. But it was a way for him then to keep his technique alive when he was out of town.
Then during one of those workshops when he was back he taught his work “Summerspace.”
Right. And that’s the Cunningham work that you set on Cullberg Ballet. How did that happen?
I was sitting in the corner, kind of notating—trying to figure out how would you notate Merce’s work. I was one of those people who loved Labanotation. I love symbols. And it came easily to me. Then I was realizing, well, Labanotation is really based on a musical grid. And obviously Merce’s work is not based on music, so it became very hard to figure out how to do it. I came up with all my own system, and Merce came over to me one day, and he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m just trying to figure out how to notate your work.” And he said, “Well, show it to me when you’re done.” I was 23 or something. I worked for hours and days and made this huge binder, which I presented to him. And he was very touched. He actually included some of this in the book “Changes.” The middle pages are all my notation.
So he just thanked me and that was it. Then I was dancing with Twyla [Tharp] at that time . . .
Right. I’m curious how that happened.
Well, Twyla took Merce’s class. She was part of that group who studied Merce’s technique with us when he went away. And she just came up to me one day. She said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Nothing.” And, I mean, I was still dancing with Gus somewhat but, you know, nobody had a company. So she said, “Well, let’s play.” So that was 1965. Then she added Sara Rudner, and it was just the three of us for about three years. We had our first tour to Europe in 1967, we were in Paris performing. You know, it was kind of those tours where we stayed in people’s attics. But we were young, it didn’t matter.
And Merce called me in Paris, and he said, “Do you want to try out your notation?” So I packed up and went to Sweden.
And it was complicated to leave Twyla at that point. But I think I intuited that it was a very important thing to do. I just thought, “This will be an extraordinary experience.” And it was.
So Merce had a rule, as he still does. Well, he obviously isn’t alive now, but he still encourages the people of the [Cunningham] Trust that if a company is going to be granted rights for one of his works, that company needs to study his technique for a while before they can learn the work. So I taught the Cullberg Ballet technique classes for a while. Then I started teaching the work. It was only the second time that Merce had given his work to a ballet company; the first time was New York City Ballet. I think the reason Merce let Cullberg do it was that Nicholas Ek was in his company; Nicholas Ek and Mats Ek were the sons of Birgit Cullberg. Nicholas had danced with Merce, and then he decided to go home. I think Merce knew that it would be safe to give Birgit “Summerspace” because Nicholas could do his part. And he was right. So I stayed and taught the work. And then they asked me to make a work for them, which I did.
So you were thinking of yourself as a choreographer at that point.
Yes. I made a piece called “Forcefield.”
And after that was when you began to think, “Maybe I want to have a choreography career”?
Not yet. To be perfectly honest, I thought, “Maybe now I’m so necessary to Merce that he will take me in his company.”
I wondered about that! You’re so honest about that. I mean, it’s a delicate question—I appreciate that you’re so honest about it. I thought there must have been part of you that had that dream?
Absolutely. Well, I have two formulations about why Merce never took me [into the company] but one of them is, I think, that I was invaluable to him in the teaching capacity and setting his work. I started teaching his works around the world. Which, of course, was amazing for me—I continued to travel the world setting his work up until 1976, even though I moved here [to San Francisco] in 1970. But the other possible reason, you know, is that I was very tall. And now, having been a choreographer myself for decades, I think about why I take someone from an audition and why I don’t, and I realize, it’s so tricky. You know, what sparks your interest: sometimes it’s technique and a unique way of using the body; sometimes, like with these wonderful creatures, it’s that they’re so different from each other, which I love. It’s always kind of been my modus operandi, having people who are very different in size and age and all kinds of aspects. I think Merce was moving more towards having people more like one another at that time. But, you know, it’s all my speculation.
Personally, I think it’s because he selfishly wanted to use you to teach, because if you have someone who can do that, that is precious, that does not come along every day.
And it was a special friendship to have, you know, that I wouldn’t have had if I were in the company. Not that one experience is better or not. It’s just very different. Anyway, John [Cage] and Merce came over to inspect the work, as of course they should. And I came back; I continued in New York working with Viola Farber. Then Merce asked me to go to the southwest of France to teach “Summerspace” to a company there. Eventually Brigitte Lefevre played Carolyn Brown’s role there. Then she became the Minister of Culture, then the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. And the dancers all came to San Francisco to continue working on the part. So they came to my Bryant Street studio and . . .
Wait, how did you decide to come back to San Francisco?
Well, I was in New York, and I was dancing with Viola and I had gone to teach Merce’s work to the Boston Ballet. We were heading towards 1969 and I met my husband, who happily I’m still with and . . .
Yes, it sounds like you two have an amazing partnership.
It really has been great. He’s retired now, but he was a criminal defense attorney. We’ve been together 55 years. And now he paints all day long. He found this other part of his brain. So he was from New York, and he wanted to get out of New York. And I really wanted to be with him. I was done dancing in other people’s companies. Not that it wasn’t wonderful. I just I knew that I wanted to make my own work. I had made a work for Douglas Dunn and June Finch that got performed in New York and I made a work for some dancers in Staten Island. And I was just beginning to sow those oats.
I had my own studio in New York, my own loft, where I taught not hundreds, but certainly 75 to 100 students that would come and go. And it just seemed I needed to take the risk, and Al wanted to move to the Bay Area. But the Bay Area at that time was still kind of the sleepy provincial town. I said, “I’m not so sure I’ll be happy there, because I love the energy, the amount of activity, in New York.” So we had a deal, he had to take the bar out here. He had been working as a public defender in New York, with the Legal Aid Society.
I started teaching at different places all over the Bay Area: Sausalito, a studio in Berkeley, a small little studio at Mills [College], just “I’m here, here’s what I do, Cunningham-based technique.” And there was a huge appetite for it. My first studio was on Rose Street, which is where Zuni restaurant was, although Zuni didn’t exist then. Then, you know, as often happens, they wanted to do something else with that space. I moved to Bryant Street and 18th, where I had a studio for about seven years. That was my first real big enterprise, so to speak. I knocked down walls. I made it into a small performance space, like Dance Theatre Workshop in New York. That’s when the French company wrote me and said, “We would like to keep working on what you started with us. Can we come out and continue working with you?” So they came out and stayed. I think it was about five weeks of my working, and I got translators, of course, and everything that I needed to do that. So that relationship with Merce was continuing. I brought him out here to teach workshops. He’d come to teach, and he’d leave with three or four members of my company: I mean, the usual thing that happens, you know. He’d see this wonderful dancer, that wonderful dancer, and offer them a real job.
I can see how you also learned how to work internationally, the way that you’re working now with the dancers from Shankar Dance Company and Kolben Dance Company and Cross Move Lab.
Yes. It was the beginning of really loving what being in other cultures provoked in me.
So then starting your own company here, what was that like? Did it feel permanent right away? As in, “Yes, I’m going to have a company here in San Francisco for fifty years”?
It grew organically from teaching. I had a lot of students. And I started loving the variety of, you know, people coming to take class with me, who had had a lot of training but wanted to study Cunningham technique, and people who had been dancing in college but didn’t quite know what they wanted to do with it when they got out. I would ask ten or twelve people, “Do you want to play and be in work?” Not “Do you want to be in my company?” I made work starting in 1971 that got performed at Berkeley Art Museum and the Bryant Street studio, because it was a nice black box that I had kind of made, with light bulbs and tin cans and people sitting on the floor, but it was great. And then it became clear, as it does to many people when they start, that if you don’t have a next project or a next project, those dancers are going to leave. And I started to feel the frustration of losing people. I thought, “Well, let’s see if there’s some way that I could raise some minimal funds, and we’ll work together on a regular basis. And if I get more than 10 cents, you’ll be the first person to get it.” And I realized that I was going to have to become a not-for-profit, if I wanted to ask funders to give me money.
I think it’s important to say, because it’s a truth in those years that starting in 1973 probably up until the early ’90s there weren’t a tremendous number of people at work here. So it was a handful of us who thought it would be interesting to see what we could do here. That handful grew. But when you were applying for monies, getting some support wasn’t terribly complicated. As the quantity and also the quality of work grew, more dancers came. And some of that started really because my classes were popular and people thought, “Oh, I can move here. I could take serious Cunningham modern dance.” But then other people arrived, like in 1976 ODC arrived in their bus. And they offered another way of looking, not training so much, but just what can the dance ecology here offer? They had a magazine, they had composition classes, they were doing kind of critical thinking about ”What is dance?” And more people came. The competition makes it complicated for money; it didn’t make it complicated in terms of wanting to stay here because then you have the energy, right? You had people with whom you could bounce off ideas, you weren’t just in your own little bubble.
Then I moved to the Mission Street studio, on Mission and 15th, that also had a wonderful performance space. That was right at the point that ODC had their space on Shotwell. They had bought it. [ODC founder] Brenda [Way] and I were friends, and we said, “You know, I’m not sure it makes sense for two major modern dance organizations to have performing spaces and curriculum two blocks away from each other in a small town.” So I bought into that building.
Right, which actually didn’t register for me until recent weeks when I looked at that history. I don’t think of you really associated with ODC history. But there you were.
Yeah. That history really is that Brenda was a friend. I started the New Performance Gallery, which is what it was called prior to “ODC Theater.” I ran the curriculum, and Brenda ran the presenting series. She worked downstairs, I worked upstairs, in the one building. Then at the two-and-a-half hour mark, we would change places, and presenters would come and see our work. We were always very generous with sharing who we had coming to see us.
I started to get very involved in the performing series. It was a great partnership for almost twelve years. Then I think one of the things that happened was that funding started to shift, so now a lot of people are applying for monies, and we’re also looking at the period of the NEA controversy, with Jesse Helms, and monies are shifting because of all that kind of fascist concern. It was horrible. I saw the writing on the wall, that the kind of monies I had been getting I wasn’t going to keep getting. I started to think, with my board and people who advise me, that the best use of the limited resources I had was to make new work. And I think Brenda really wanted to build her empire. Brenda’s brilliant at that. And she built it. My heart is in being with people making a project. That’s where my energies felt that they were best used. So I sold my one-half interest back to Brenda. With that I was able to move forward with just concentrating on evening-length works. I had been touring a lot. Then the touring program went belly up. Keeping repertory alive didn’t make sense at that point. I wasn’t able to keep lots of dancers. So the shift was a really exciting one for me. It’s a corny metaphor, but when you close the door, other ones open you didn’t know were being shut.
Right. I have a kind of related question. I relate to your decisions about how your heart is in your work. But you have also spent a lot of time creating and running the Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange [CHIME] program and serving on boards: you help a lot of other dancemakers. Why is that important to you? How do you fit that in?
Well, you know, about seventeen years ago now I started CHIME, and I think that one of the things that happened for me is I started to realize that so many of us in the Bay Area at that point had no time to dialogue with each other and were so busy trying to keep everything afloat. I was watching people’s work, thinking, “What is preventing them from getting it to the stage in [a state] of true readiness?” Of course, that was my evaluation, that things weren’t ready and they were being shared. So I started to ask my peers and I gathered different groups, think tanks of people around, and I said, “Would you be interested in having some kind of program where people could really be in mentorship with someone else, be in dialogue with each other about making work and living as an artist in this country?” There was such an excitement about it that I then applied for monies and was able to get them to start it. But I think my interest is creating a community of makers. When I make work, I gather [actor] Rinde [Eckert], [poet] Michael [Palmer], [composer] Paul [Dresher], these dancers.
Right, I think your model is really pretty distinct, to have worked with the same group of people so deeply, so long.
I think it is. You know, we have our very separate lives. But we also are a community. With lots of arranged marriages in there between us. But I come in here and I understand why I’m in the world, because of the nature of the dialogue; for the creation, I think, of beauty. To create things where you ask people to look with their eyes and bring their whole self into attention. It’s what gives me the capacity to navigate the things that aren’t working in our world, not just our country.
With CHIME, people were dialoguing. People knew of each other’s work. And so now there’s been over 120 different artists that have moved through CHIME. Now, they’re not all still making dances, but they’re living their lives with that information. I deeply believe that it informs how they parent, how they partner, how they cook, how they architect, whatever they go on to do in their lives. Yeah. Both of my parents were absolutely committed to making the world a better place. That was their life. That’s what they did 24/7. And at a great expense to family, sometimes a great expense to themselves. The walls were full of people taking care of each other. So I feel like I came by it, so to speak, honestly.
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