This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 6th of October 2018. It is a warm interview that covers so much of Jane’s, work. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
This interviews was an absulute pleasure, and if time allowed we would have been able to chat for hours and hours.
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The interview started by asking when did dance start…
Jane Desmond: Well, one part of that question is when did I decided to be a dancer as a profession versus taking dance lessons, which I started as a young person. I don't know if I was 8 or 10 at that age. I both started taking music lessons and dance lessons. And at the time what was available in my Washington DC area was ballet lessons, which I took basically through high school from those early years. But it became clear to me one summer - I was doing a similar program at the Washington Valley School. It's probably when I was around 13 or so and I realised, ‘Oh, I'm going to college.’ My father was a college professor, there was no question that I was going to go to college and I, I understood that that was an either or choice. And I think also at that time, I thought ballet seemed very prescriptive, I guess, to my 13-year-old view. So I continued dancing but you know, sort of turned away from the notion of attempting a ballet career early in my teens. Then when I got to Brown University and wanted to continue to dance but they didn't actually have advanced enough ballet for me. So I luckily encountered modern dance and that was a mental explosion, I realised dancing is really about time and space and energy and you can think of dancing and that's when I began choreographing as well. So that was another turning point…
Andrew: That's interesting, that turning point it’s quite interesting, because a lot of people who I guess come out of more of a ballet background or training regime, discover modern dance or contemporary dance in it. It reveals something new and a lot of people talk about that being like a light switch turned on or -3:45
Jane Desmond: Yes, it makes a lot of sense to me, and there was suffering systems, them pointing their toes, what's wrong with these people? Once I began to get a little experience in the forums, I was fortunate to have a wonderful teacher at Brown, Julie Sternberg, whose sister was Carolyn Adams in the Paul Taylor Company. She gave us tremendous opportunities and encouraged me to explore choreography. Another number of my peers from that time also went on in pursuit of professional modern dance careers.
But there was another turning point in college, and that was when I was a junior. I had decided to put together my own major which was a possibility at Brown at that time; it was a very exciting time to be at Brown.
I was going to do the aesthetics of dance for philosophy and dance and I had an electronic music composition teacher; I was in the electronic music studio working, and I said: ‘gee, I’m thinking of doing this…’ and he said: ‘Jane, why don't you just be a dancer, why don’t you just dance?’ And I thought about that. I realized dancing was something I needed to do. If I wanted to do it professionally, I needed to do it younger, and so I had passions for composition and all sorts of other things - philosophy could still be there. So I remember that conversation at a Karlheinz Stockhausen concert that our class had gone to, and it's funny now being a professor you think of those conversations you have and you wonder, if this will be the one that someone will really take so much from?
Andrew: Such a pragmatic decision in many ways to decide that, if I'm going to dance I've got to do it now.
Jane Desmond: Yeah, it is. I guess it was also I was trying to decide if I would do dance analogy because I’m very taken with music, ethnography, ethnology and world music.
And that sort of stunned me with my ignorance of the rest of the world. I've never forgot that impact. So I was kind of looking at UCLA’s program and I was looking at Sarah Lawrence. I decided I wanted to try and be a dancer and a choreographer, and that that was another one of those turning points: ‘Okay, I'm going to try and do this.’
Andrew: And what was that period of time? Were you practicing as a dancer and choreographer? Talk a little bit about that period of your life…
Jane Desmond: Yeah, so I guess I started out at Sarah Lawrence from ’73 to ’75. I did my MFA there and there's a very tiny program of six people in it. The lead professor was Bessie Schoenberg, and that was be the last class that she was going to teach there. So that was an extraordinary opportunity to study composition with her.
By the time I got to Sarah Lawrence, I already had this drive that I wanted to make dances, and of course I wanted to dance, but even more than that, it wasn't my dream to join someone else's company. It was my dream to work and to be able to think about making work. So Sarah Lawrence was a great joy during that time. I was very, very fortunate to be there.
Andrew: Amazing, and what was the transition into kind of academia and that process - because you've had this career after dancing, which has been in so many different areas of research ideas, that whole space. So what was that process?
Jane Desmond: That was a long and hard one. When I finished at MFA, I was very fortunate I got a job with the theatre faculty at Cornell. So that was my first job! And in some ways, it was a marvelous fit, because I, I realised that I really liked the intellectual setting of being at a major university, but I wanted to be a dancer. And there are also downsides to that. As you know, at least in the US, a lot of times the arts are bottom of the ladder in respectability, funding and possibility in the US Academy. So it has had its pros and cons. But I worked there for about five years, and would produce work with wonderful local musicians and videographers, and then did so and quit a job to do a little freelancing in New York, and then realised I actually sort of missed the I missed a university setting, I missed those other conversations that I have.
And then I was fortunate to get a job teaching in the dance program at Duke, which I did for about 10 years. So it was in my mid 30s, like for someone people, your body starts to fall a part, I had to make a decision. I want to continue to make dances. If I couldn't make the model my own body did I want to see if there was anything else that could be possibly as engaging as dance and I couldn’t. I couldn't think of very many things. And I know this has got to be the same for many, many people gone through this. What else can engage your heart and your head, your brain, your body, your expressive self, your politics in the way that dancing can?
So first I looked at films, I thought: ‘Oh, well, I liked you know, collaborating with videographers, I like editing video maybe I'd like to make film…’ and as I investigated that I discovered film theory which gave me a language for talking about dance in a way I didn't have before. And in the end, I decided to couldn't have that freedom in the studio. If my body was no longer able to give me that freedom in the studio. I would try, I would try to find an equal passion and that led me to American Studies.
Andrew: Amazing. And with things from dance that I guess supported the new journey? I mean, they seem they seem so different in many ways, or two different specific areas.
Jane Desmond: Yeah, you know, we always have that stereotype - good dancers can't think and thinkers can’t dance.
You know, so many people have totally this proof that this is the legacy and it was, was very unusual to enter a Ph. D. program at Yale and be having been a choreographer, and coming back to academic study
I guess, for me, at that point, I was 35. It was just thrilling. I mean I knew that I didn't know so many things. And that's that sort of ignorance and in some ways, was quite freeing. Being able to explore a lot of things: theory and literary criticism in comparative literature, in art, history, all sorts of things that I knew I was not an expert in.
So it was a really, really thrilling time to be there. But I also felt that when I was there, I had to make a bargain with myself that I would not dance. I would not go to the local studio; I would not meet up with local choreographers and would almost pretend that I had never been a dancer. I could not have done that program in a sense with one hand behind my back and still have my heart and studio. So I kind of had to go cold turkey then. I did my coursework there, and then return to my job at doing and integrated that academic work into new courses that they let me develop. I was very fortunate. So I could teach dance and critical theory in the morning and choreography in the afternoon, and spend my evenings in the library. So that transition time actually took about a decade. And a lot of that was not just the training, a lot of it was the emotional transition of beginning to see myself as a scholar, and no longer as a performer. 13:32
Andrew: But also a scholar that thinks through their body or thinks through, I guess, that background in dance as well. And that embodied practice-
Jane Desmond: It’s imperative here; absolutely imperative and I know many people at that time Susan Foster and Ann Cooper Albright - several of us in our 30s were making this transition into academia in some ways and trying to figure out what an advanced studies might look like in that cultural studies landscape. And most of us came from the studio, and I think that informed a lot of our early theorization, but even more than that, I thought about this with your questions you asked. I think that it has is it continues to shape everything I do. And in some ways, it's a weird thing. People say: ‘well, you're damn scholar, but why are you writing about taxidermy?’
But for me, the question began to be refraining porn or broadly about how does embodiment matter in the world, and eventually across the species barrier on that, but this, this notion of digging, and nobody being in the social a social world is, is one that are deeply embedded in dance for me, and that is just never going away.
Andrew: Well, so much of your work has kind of used, I guess, some of those principles of dance and embodiment in understanding both society individuals, different types of performance across into animal species, human species is, you know, across the across the board. What is it about, I guess, dance that allows for that if somebody's not a dancer, how do you explain what those tools are, or those experiences that you can then bring to those more theoretical spaces?
Jane Desmond: I think as dancers, we develop the capacity to see in great detail. And, you know, we might have the skill of laban notation as a sort of technical rendering of movement or as choreographers or dancers, we might simply be able to see the differences in a walk or the differences in people position themselves in space in Italy, versus in Azerbaijan, and so on. And so those tools, which we take off the stage, are ones that most people don't, don't have. We don't have a lot of training for how to look carefully at how bodies are mobilised in space. We have it in dance, but we don't have it in say sociology or comparative literature and so forth, and I think those I think that ability to see and articulate relation ability at the embodied level of practice is a crucial skill, and one that we as dancers bring to whatever it is as we're going to investigate whatever the phenomena maybe. And certainly I teach grad students, grad seminars in performance studies and we're looking at not only you know, on the stage, we're looking at the practices of everyday life, that is something I tried to make available to them.
Andrew: Can you give some examples, I guess, within your work, or within the things that you've explored or examined where that dance aspect is, is very present?
Jane Desmond: Yes, I think give two quick examples. One is from the first book, now, staging tourism from Waikiki to SeaWorld that I began to write about the staging of animal performance. I could have written about the ethics about it, I could have written about the institutionalization of it. But I wanted to look at the specific choreography between the whale movement in these whale shows and the trainers - and how they are. What if I look at this as the choreography of a duet? Why do species duet? What are the ideologies that are then literalised in the choreography of these cross animal and human duets? So that that in some ways, was a very obvious way to go to deconstruct their construction of what I saw as a species duet, and then to use that to ask, what is the cultural work that this particular framing of a physical relationship implies. And more recently now, and I'm sort of skipping over, you know, work that I that I wrote, especially about dancing, but in my current work now, and I'm looking at the practice of Veterinary Medicine. And one of the questions I am trying to figure out how to frame - this research question is, what is the role of touch? What is the role of positioning in a physical exam when you're doing an exam on a dog, or maybe a snake who's not staying still? And how do you understand the interior of another beings body through your touch, almost like a partnering there. So that's a very current example. And again, sort of skipping over some of the more explicitly obviously dance parts to say, wow, what if I looked at this is partnering? What can that reveal to me about this practice of medicine?
Andrew: Some of those parts where you have skipped over were I guess, an interest in dance, gender and sexuality, and you've written that, you know, about dance history considering the history of sexuality, Why is it important in dance to consider the role of sexuality?
Jane Desmond: I was thinking back to when I did the book ‘Dancing and Desires’, this morning and I thought it was a conversation that we should be having nationally, and there were a few people sort of exploring it in one on one types of articles, but there was no sort of central clearing to say what is the role of sexuality in a variety of dance practices? How can we understand that? How can that drive dance studies forward? So my goal there, even though I wasn't reading a lot about sexuality and dance, per se, it was to make a commitment to create the conditions for that conversation and I think as we look now, and we look at, you know, this wonderful new book that came out by Clare Croft, Queer Dance, thinking: ‘wow, why did it take so long for another, you know, to create a substantial collection on these issues? Why? Why haven't there been like, a million books in between dancing desires, and in queer dance? Of course there have been some, Ramón Rivera-Servera’s work and so on.
But I think there's a lot to say in part because when we look at the practice of dancing, we're also looking at people dancing. To set aside people Nicholai and some other folks for a while that sort of mask the body in some ways, but generally we're looking at dancing bodies that the audience will perceive as often as gendered, possibly as raised, possibly as the dimension of national origin, social class, and so forth. And those are dimensions that I think are crucial for the active interpretation. And as I moved into American Studies, I became very interested in sort of readers response theory, and how we understand the production of meaning, not just the production of texts, but the active reception and the production of meaning and for dance because we only see embodied individuals that at the very least, we determine, probably to fit into categories called male and female, when we bring a social matrix of interpretation already to what we see. So I think that the gender and sexuality questions become key -
Andrew: What can we learn from making that more visible, or for drawing attention to those different dynamics of bodies in space, including, I guess, race and class…
Jane Desmond: What's a particular interest to me, and I was thinking about this to, about a moment when I realised that I didn't solely want to write about a dance as a text that had a beginning and an end. But as a social phenomenon of practice- that was a light bulb moment for me because as a choreographer, I was very invested in articulating what was going on in a particular dance let's say a hula performance in in Hawaii on the stage. And then I realised I needed to look beyond the stage to this entire broader complex of the conditions of possibility of that dancing. And I think for me, the largest question is, what is the cultural work that dance is doing? And any particular moment or, or time and that means we have to look at whoever's dancing and whoever's seeing that dance - and then again, what are the acts of interpretation that are going on? So even if we're looking at a sort of elite, high art form, like ballet, what really interests me beyond a particular aesthetic pleasure I might get in expertise of partnering or so on is why this now? And who cares about it, and what difference does it make in their lives? So those are broadly social questions…25:13
Andrew: And I guess these questions also, and these marks of time, change and shift and I think, obviously, ideas around sexuality, gender, queer sexuality, non normative, you know, sexualities and genders shift as society's kind of understand them. And the politics become more at this point of time, I guess, more obvious or more openly discussed what I guess I'm trying to make this a better question. But I guess dance has not always been a progressive space in a lot of the main stage companies. But there seems to be a shift in regards to gender and it seems to be shifting regards to sexuality and these spaces and now kind of becoming - they're reflecting something quite different than they would have maybe 30 years ago…
Jane Desmond: Yes, we look at someone like Justin Peck’s work with the New York City Ballet now. And we think back to Mark Morris’ version of the Nutcracker, which I saw when it opened at the Brooklyn Academy music. I happen to be living in New York at that time. And I remember going to see that I mean that was stunning! The sort of cross gender casting that he did then sort of gay quotations and so forth. And one question is, well, why did it take you know so long to get from the heart not by Mark Morris to Justin Pecks’ same sex partnering in his 2017 subway dance. So, you know, I think he called it, The Times Are Racing - you know, why is that still worthy of commentary in the New York Times like, Oh, I my goodness male partnering-
Andrew: And then you say somebody like Matthew Bourne who kind of went the other way, having this incredibly progressive work and then increasingly replicating heterosexual narratives or norms on stage or denying the possibility of homosexual desire within those spaces, or queer desire within those spaces…
Jane Desmond: Right and this I think, you know, we're going to have an afternoon to sit down over coffee and talk about this and look back and look at Matthew Bourne and look at these moments that sort of stand out as, as clotting - plotting differences. We also want to come back to this question, who is watching this work? And how does it have meaning for them and whom is this work addressed? And you know, in some ways, we're talking now about so-called elite art, concert dance and we would want and who's in those audiences? And what about placing that in the same space and time, let's say New York with other types of dance with dance on the street with dancing like clubs? What's going on?
So the question of again, of either audience as participants if we look at like, club dancing, or social dancing, to me, again, comes back to this what is what does this practice mean? Whether it’s just an impact on you know, Lincoln Centre, or it's in a club on the Lower East Side. What does it mean to people who are watching and making it and what are the sorts of allowing range of experts’ severity and experimentation or articulation of speculative futures that are allowable in that space? Those would be driving questions for me.
Andrew: What makes me think, you know, a few weeks ago, I was at Manchester pride, and it will remind the body is a site of protest, and can be a performative counter narrative. I'm not a professional dancer, but the way I can use my body within space with other people can become incredibly powerful. And that collective union of bodies in that moment with music reads in very different ways and is incredibly political in some respects.
Jane Desmond: Yes, I totally agree. And I also went to our local Pride here is a sort of micro urban area of maybe 100,000 people. So there was a downtown parade was thinking back to early parades, you know, in the 1960s, late 60s, early 70s, where drag queens in San Francisco, and might have been in front of the parade and I was looking at the labor unions, credit unions and banks, who were all in the gay pride parade here. And you know, maybe tossing so some beads, as if we were New Orleans, and so on, if you people sort of dressed up with over the top a little bit more reference to a gay performance style, you might, you might say.
I thought, How do I feel about this? On the one hand, I'm sort of glad the local credit union is saying, We want gay business. We recognise you as a as a citizen, and in the economy, we want to cater to you. On the other hand, thinking back to sort of exclusivity, a declarative difference, which is what we saw in a lot of US Gay Pride parades earlier on. That difference was really, really not there now. 31:40
Andrew: Often these floats also employ models or professional models that are paid for the day to be in these spaces. I had a, I had a similar moment at Manchester Pride watching the commercial floats, and most of them you like, yeah, okay, I can see, have a place, but there was one float that was from the company Serco. Now Serco in Australia is responsible for running detention centers, which lock up gay people who are fleeing persecution, and here they are marching and the other side of the world in a pride parade. And you just think…
Jane Desmond: Maybe that is part of the work and the possibility of contribution that an academic can do, or, you know, I think, or like yourself, can do to make visible those things that they just get, you know, just smoothing it over with that nice float in the Gay Pride parade. But we don't unpack again, this, what are the conditions of possibility that brought them into the parade, and that masked their other role halfway around the world - how we articulate that, how do we bring that into public discourse? I think, part of the work that we can do as scholars, and increasingly, of course, that's, that's risky work when we think about the trolling online and so forth. But I think making those connections visible or articulating this, this shift over time is part of the work we can do.
Andrew: Moving on maybe a little bit, I'm really interested in regards to the body and talking about you've already kind of touched on some of them, but the other arenas in which have explored the body, including non humans, taxidermy. What are the differences in the display in the presentation of what I guess those moving objects are and also, how does dance inform your curiosity?
Jane Desmond: You know, when I first began writing about taxidermy, it was one of these moments where something is very compelling to you. And you don't really know why. And you push it away. And you say, well, that's ridiculous. I'm certainly not going to write an article about taxidermy!
But I began to thin look at the history of display of these dead animals in natural history museums and some of the ideologies of that capture and display and so forth. Well, a lot of work has now been done on that. But for me, one of my avenues particularly was how is that body posed? I didn't want to just say, well, there's, you know, here's the bobcat in this glass display case from 1902. I wanted to know, what were the conventions of display. Did they have a paw up - was the mouth open? Was this animal posed as if he or she was about to leap out of the glass container? What was the notion of this being as it was posed in arrested movement? So for me, you know, that sort of level of deep detail of reading each individual taxidermy specimen, as they say, was directly out of a dance point of view.
I would make notes, you know, I would draw, I would be in these museums, and I would draw version of this so that I could later go home and say, well, where was where was the weight, was it on the back right foot was this condensed muscle giving us the impression of an animal about to spring? How did the taxidermist actually imply a future aliveness in a dead body through the literal choreography of that body in the display case? 36:04
Andrew: And so how do you go about collecting data for this kind of research? I've read some of your things and you have undertaken a range of what would be considered out of the box kind of explorations or observations, can you talk to me kind of about how you go collecting data and some of the weird things you have participated or witnessed?
Jane Desmond: I will say two things. One is that as I as I moved across a number of disciplines in my work, from the performing arts, then into the humanities, and now, I actually have an appointment in the social sciences as the only non anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology based on the fact that I began to do a lot of field work, which I felt was necessary to answer some of the questions that intrigued me. I find that I'm constantly doing my homework, the same way that as dance studies was developing in the 90s, some people in other disciplines would say, ‘oh, dance, that's cool. I can go and study dance but they would know nothing about dancing, talk to no dancers not read anything that was written about dance and sort of say, ‘Oh, this is cool, I'll just look at dancing.’
So I always want to make sure that I'm trying to do the necessary intellectual homework to understand the ways that an intellectual community is framing certain issues I may not agree with, that I may want to springboard from now. But part of this involves constant reading and disciplines outside my own. And I think that that is an important act of respect to disciplines as we move across them to try and do interdisciplinary work. So that's the first thing. And the second thing is, then this question about what counts as evidence is so different in different fields. That's another thing to sort of learn, how do you how do you measure something in a field? Do you do care about that measure? Do you actually count the number of things for example, how do you articulate experiential evidence? So it really depends for me on what question is that I'm trying to understand. For example, when at the very beginning of displaying Death and Animated Life, I wanted to start with a moment from my field work that had disturbed me. That I felt had put me at the edge of my ethical comfort. And that was accompanying some guys who were conducting work at a farm and gathering semen from bulls to test their health, and also to test their comfort level with these types of procedures.
And as participant observation would have it, you know, one actually does these procedures to the extent that is safe for the animal and for the humans. And this intimacy, this disturbing intimacy with a bull was something that I felt I wanted to articulate in part because I have the tools to articulate it, to talk about the motions that the ball was making a talk about the feel of my hand on this animal, and to make that vivid for someone else who also then can come to that moment and say, how do I feel about this production, animal research or whatever the question was at the at that at that farm. So in a way, I'm saying that part of what counts for evidence varies with the particular situation. And the question that one is asking and in that case I wanted to draw on my abilities to articulate physical experience as a way of communicating to others what I felt was honoured physical challenge
Andrew: That is one of the things that I would have put in the more unique teetering on weird categories, because it's an experience that is so outside of my own realm, you know?
Jane Desmond: Anyone in the dance realm - but pretty normal for anyone in the medicine production realm. Yeah, you know, that's the ability of coming into another world; whether it's into the world of a dance a dance studio, that's a rehearsal, or whether it's doing observation at a dance club, or whether it's doing observation in a veterinary clinic that's collecting bull seaman. This is sort of a extraordinary privilege. I feel at fieldwork, when people invite or allow you into the daily practice of their worlds, whether it's their social worlds, or work worlds-
Andrew: What are you exploring at the moment?
Jane Desmond: Well at the moment I'm working on three things, I am writing the afterword for a special issue that explores taxidermy, both historical and as a creative art form. I'm about to write the afterword for a special issue of DRJ - a dance Research Journal on swift contingent, labor in dance, and the effect that has on the notion of what working and making work is. And I am working on a longer-term project called, Medicine across the Species line, where I'm trying to understand how the practice of medicine for animals is similar to the different of types practices in human medicine.
Andrew: Oh, yeah. Wow, that sounds really interesting.
Jane Desmond: The thing that ties them all together, as we've been talking about in each case, is there are these unique bodily practices, whether it's making work in a studio, or whether it's an artist putting together different dead animal bodies into a sort of speculative taxidermy vision of a future. Or just practice in the animal clinics of touch and the production of knowledge across that species boundary of two very different types of bodies. So in some ways, for me, while it might seem unusual for someone else, to be working in all these at the same time - it kind of comes right back to that sort of embodiment as something that drives the questions that really appeal to me.
Andrew: Before I started recording, we're talking about our weeks and kind of the state of the world. It seems like we're living in this time at the moment where art, academia, journalism, science, and other central pillars of a democratic society have been questioned and blatantly disregarded or attacked by political leaders across the world, not just in the States. How do we protect and defend these aspects of society and does dance and play a role in that space? 45:06
Jane Desmond: Now back to the Gay Pride parade, I think it's important, crucial and hopefully effective to put bodies in the streets and for all we can do on social media - spreading news fast with iPhone video documentation. You know, when we have all of those hundreds of thousands of men and women right after the Trump election, in the pink pussy hats - in Washington DC and in cities throughout the US and other cities abroad. That visual, that power where so many people physically saying no. Physically coming together, I think that is really powerful. Even in this time of I'll just put it on Facebook and I'll the like the right thing and so forth. So we can be thinking back to the Aids protests, Julian Messina and the big puppets. We can use all of this creativity and can begin to make it visible and to act up and say no. I think it’s crucial and I think we should we use our artistic abilities to to do that. And I also think it's exhausting. It seems to be one thing after another, there's never closure, there's always another protest. It's like a part time job, and I think that is the situation we're in. And I think the emotional impact through spoken word, through music, through dance through visual productions - they are part of that. Putting your body in the public space and saying, No, I think that's crucial now, and I think that for many of us it becomes part of our daily work.
Andrew: And such important work…
Jane Desmond: Yeah, and such exhausting work. I mean, already the artists are unfunded or under-funded and the stakes are quite high and I think the possibility that art brings talking about affects or aspects. Well, affects move people to action. As artists, we are capable of illustrating that aspect of emotional responses that can mobilise people to action, and I am grateful that we have those abilities.