Jamuna Chiarini on ‘The Kitchen Sink’: My process story

Hi there. My name is Jamuna Chiarini. I am a writer here at ArtsWatch and a dancer, choreographer, producer, and arts administrator. Did I leave anything out? Oh yes, I am also a stay-at-home mom, chauffeur, cook, chief pot washer, therapist, motivational speaker, etc., etc. My work as a dancer/choreographer and writer is as a freelancer, which means that all of my creative work is mixed in with everything else in my life, which makes it all kind of messy on a daily basis. This is what I want my art to reflect, my real life. I want my art to meet me where I am, in this very moment in time, not a fantasy of what I wish my life looked like.

I didn’t get to this “everything is one” zen moment alone, mind you. The last five years involved a lot of kicking and screaming and crying on my part, coaching from my mentor and dance teacher Linda K. Johnson, support from friends and family, a lot of watching and writing about dance, watching other people dance around me and seeing how they adapt, and thinking about the form, along with some plain old personal growth/investigation.

The Kitchen Sink choreographed by Jamuna Chiarini. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

The Kitchen Sink choreographed by Jamuna Chiarini. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

When I first got to Portland I was really frustrated because I couldn’t find like-minded dancers and choreographers to work with or take classes to from. I moved here five years ago from New Jersey (for the record I am from Berkeley, CA). My training was in ballet, Graham, Horton and Limón technique, all pretty traditional, which I didn’t see represented here (except for choreographer Josie Moseley who wasn’t making work anymore). This sent me into a panic as I really felt like I was coming to the end of this career that had never really flourished. I had had so many deeply bitter dance teachers in the past who were forced to stop dancing because of their age and injury, and this idea/image was alway looming over me.

To top it off, I was also in a lot of pain. Every time I danced I hurt from head to toe the next day. It was a really confusing and frustrating experience that I put off dealing with for a long time. It got to the point where I wasn’t dancing or moving at all, just a lot of sitting and feeling really really sad.

If I wasn’t going to dance what else was I supposed to do with my life? I really had no other identity outside of being a dancer. This is what I’ve spent the last 30 years doing, dancing every day.

I want to talk a little about my new dance, The Kitchen Sink, and I decided to use the form I impose on the dancers I preview in my DanceWatch column. So, I interviewed myself.

What prompted you to make this dance?

It turns out that I had a Femoral Acetabular Impingement. That means that there was a bone spur on the head of my femur that tore into my labrum. The labrum acts like a rubber seal or gasket that helps hold the ball of the head of the femur, securely in the hip socket. You can imagine how unstable the pelvis gets when the labrum isn’t working and how that causes a lot of pain and throws things out of whack throughout the whole body.

Last May I had elective, arthroscopic surgery on my right hip to fix the impingement. My surgery took place at OHSU’s waterfront location on the 12th floor by the amazing Dr. Andrea Herzka. (I highly recommend her.) It involved repairing a 180-degree labral tear with cotton sutures and 8-10 screws (they are made of a sugar composition and dissolve after about a year), cutting out and cleaning up the shredded cartilage in my hip socket, and reshaping the head of my femur so that it fit better in my hip.

Post-op was two weeks of non-weight bearing movement on my leg. I also had to lie with my leg in a machine that bent and straightened my leg for six hours every day, six weeks of walking with crutches, and six months of physical therapy. My first dance class was early last November. I just recently started feeling like my right leg was equal in strength to the other one. I can feel it when I walk up stairs and I have to push harder with my surgeried leg because it’s not as strong.

It was during this early recovery period, fueled by Oxycodone, ambition, boredom and the realization that just because my leg wasn’t working didn’t mean I had to stop dancing, I just had to adapt, that I wrote a project grant proposal to the Regional Arts and Culture Council to make a dance about just that. Thankfully, I received the grant and was able to make a dance.

What is the piece about?

It isn’t about anything specifically, but it is simultaneously about everything.

It is partially a response to the changes in my body, and a response to all of the dances that I have seen and written about over the past five years in Portland, and about my life and life in general. It’s all in there in some abstract way. I am the dance, so the dance is everything that I think, see, do, feel and want.

It is also about finding dance/movement anew for myself and asking myself “what can I do with what is available to me functionally in my body.” And on top of all of that, I’m investigating my curiosities around what is interesting to me visually, somatically, energetically, relationally, architecturally. Being given a grant to fund time in the studio to investigate what the dance is to me at this point in my life, has been priceless.

How did you go about making it?

I started by inviting my dancer friend Celine Bouly to work with me in the studio a couple of days a week. That was a huge first step. Revealing myself and my vulnerabilities and insecurities to another colleague was scary. It helped that Celine and I already knew each other—we had danced together in Bay Area choreographer Randee Paurfve’s piece So I Married Abraham Lincoln… when she brought it here to Portland about five years ago. So Celine knew me. We also take dance classes together on a regular basis. I also really trusted her voice and her experience as a dancer and an educator. Being familiar with the way each of us moved was half the battle. Celine is also open to pretty much anything, which is great.

We began rehearsals sitting in chairs. I had written different movement prompts on slips of paper that I folded and put in an envelope. We each picked one but kept it a secret from the other. It turned out to be a hilarious exercise that broke the ice for me.

Things I wrote on the slips of paper:
Have a conversation with the chair
Steal the other chair
Become obsessive about the different spots on the other person’s clothing
Try to get the other person’s attention
Move the chair to a new spot
While staying seated in the chair, move like you have strings attached to different parts of your body
Feel uncomfortable in the chair
Be curious about the space around the other person
Say yes to everything
Act crazy/unhinged/bugs on the body
Sensually explore the chair
Pretend you are a queen
Address the audience with your eyes

From these moments we began to explore other ideas. We spent a lot of time looking at paintings of women sitting in chairs. We experimented with sitting across from one another in chairs looking into each other’s eyes like Marina Abramovic did in The artist is present. I was really curious about what that experience was like for them. How she could sit for so long in one position and why people were so emotionally moved from looking into her eyes. People cried. What did the experience bring up for people, what happened?

And then it became about dealing with intimacy and familiarity and proximity and stillness. This also seemed like a very Butoh moment. I had just started working with Portland Butoh artist Meshi Chavez, and I was really intrigued by the quietude and stillness in his work. The stillness part was really hard for me. It took a lot of disciple to not try to fill the space with lots of movement, to be quiet and to accept and acknowledge that stillness was as valid as rapid, quick-fire technical movement.

From there we moved the chairs around the room, closer to each other, farther apart, in different parts of the room. Then I started seeing the architecture in the room and the chairs and us as part of that architecture. Shapes, moving shapes in the room. This led me to dig deeper into relationships between things, objects, people and how you place things tells different stories without you intentionally calling people’s attention to them.

This was a huge jumping off point. I didn’t want to create a dance that was closely linked to music or a personal story or some emotional expression or was an expression of my virtuosity, so it took me a while to locate the thing that would allow me to find something new. So as soon as I started thinking of us as objects relating to the room and each other in the room, the floodgates opened.

Also as my body healed, the movement evolved out of the chairs to standing, shifting weight, walking, running, and falling. Being able to run in this piece was huge for me. I hadn’t been able to run since high school because my hip muscles would get pulled every time and I would end up limping until they healed.

It was mostly about staying the course. Going back to the studio week after week, even if I had no new ideas or I felt uncomfortable. Just slogging through all the stuff, the ego, the insecurities, the expectations, the fears, and finally uncovering something that was interesting.

It has also been about sifting. The more complex the world gets, the simpler I want my life. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Why does it need to impress or be beautiful or tell a story or be pretty or anything? Lots of self-reflection, investigation, reading, watching different dancers and choreographers and trying to land on that thing—that thing that created this dance.

Note: You can see The Kitchen Sink as part of Epoch, a shared concert with Samuel Hobbs at BodyVox Dance Center tonight at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm.

Comments are closed.