Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 50 / 14 December 2017
 

Monique faux real

Dance


Monique Jenkinson in her solo piece Instrument. (Photo: Michelle Blioux)
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"Look at her: she has ardor!" She really does. This is perhaps the finest performance I've seen all year, by any artist in any medium. We're talking about the performance artist Monique Jenkinson, also known as the drag artist Fauxnique, Miss Trannyshack 2003, and one of the most thoughtful, intelligent modern dancers in town, who's on show right now in her astonishing solo Instrument, which opened last weekend at the hole-in-the-wall theater Counterpulse and runs through this weekend. I recommend it with all my heart.

Jenkinson is quoting one of the teachers who taught her ballet as a child, in one of the many tiny episodes that make up her current one-woman show. It may not be for everybody – it touched all my touchstones and reduced me to tears;  but my touchstones are embedded in my very odd life, and I can't say how it will work for others. I have asked around, though, and every dancer I've talked to has been impressed by the power of her performance.

She doesn't do anything unnecessary – in Counterpulse's white box of a space, the only color is her pale Caucasian skin, the many layers of black tights (which she's constantly stripping away, down to bare breasts at one point), and her red hair. Though everything she does is concrete and specific, and some of it is very awkward, it's the resonance of it all that hurried away my soul.

Instrument is a show with an idea – I'd paraphrase it as, "Dance is one of those things you do in order to find out why you do it." The show has a format like a cabaret act's. One little number succeeds another, each one showing a different facet of a dancer's life, with maximum contrast of mood and tempo in the sequence, but a profound through-line that holds it all together. Some numbers are monologues, most are dances, each one having its own costume and obeying its own aesthetic rules with rigor, but with absolute control of the tone in the pacing, so that an hour and more go by without ever releasing you from her kind and tender care. This is entertainment in its most literal sense – she holds your attention all evening and never offers anything that is not worthy.

Jenkinson has been artist-in-residence at the de Young Museum for the past year. She has used her time there to study the de Young's ongoing exhibit of the relics of Rudolf Nureyev – his costumes, the videos of performances, papers. Rudolf Nureyev, a Life in Dance runs well into next year. Instrument is a meditation on how she herself, a Gen X American, identifies with a cold-war defector (Nureyev "leapt to freedom" in 1961, before the Cuban missile crisis) who, by the time she actually saw him perform – in 1990, when she was 19 – was decades beyond his sell-by date, a nightmare to look at. "Why are you doing this?" she had to ask. "Why are you doing this to us?" Pregnant pause. "He was dying. I didn't understand then. I understand now."

Many of the numbers are post-modern in affect—the bare-breasted bit is a phantasmagoric distortion of the Shades scene from the classic ballet La Bayadere. Its tone is completely ambiguous, and there is no hint of prurience.

 

Monique Jenkinson in Instrument.
(Photo: Michelle Blioux)

Old school

But the bulk of the episodes are schooling exercises, many of them recognizable by any dancer, and many of them going back through many generations of teachers. There's pirouette practice, en dehors and en dedans. There are the exercises for the face, which mimic the terrifying expressions of Hiroshige's samurai (and would doubtless come in handy for a drag queen's more tragic moments). There's the endless series of tendus "in the eight directions," to which she counts in Russian, "Ras, dva, tri, chteri," as her first Eastern European teachers (back in a suburb of Denver) did, and of course as Nureyev himself did when he was trying to catch up after a very late start in the boondocks of Central Asia. There's the exquisite series of 60-odd feminine poses ("head is like scent of violets over left shoulder"), counted off 1-42 (once she reaches 42, which is her own age, she continues like Jack Benny to number each succeeding one "42.") Many of these exercises go back hundreds of years. It's a sign of her modesty and devotion to her art that she shows us these exercises with the most valuable corrections her teachers gave her ("Let me see you move from your breast-bones! Thank you! I feel I know you so much better now!") And in the face of much scorn of ballet from performance theorists, it's wonderful to see Jenkinson show such gratitude to the teachers who showed her how to begin to develop her own talent.

It's fitting that Instrument closes with a reverence – the classic last exercise of a ballet class, in which you practice the art of thanking your audience, without whom there would have been no point to all this.

 






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