Dr. Jill Nunes Jensen
Dr. Jill Nunes Jensen teaches Intro to Choreography, History of Dance Theater, and Senior Thesis Mentorship. She recently published “The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet” co-authored by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel. The book is available for pre-order here and here. The interview below dives into the details of Dr. Nunes Jensen’s experience with writing the book.
What made you decide to start writing the book? Was there a specific event?
Shortly after I started to research Alonzo King LINES Ballet I had in mind the goal of rewriting ballet history to include groups of dancers who have been marginalized in the genre. For decades I've chronicled and published work on King and his amazing dancers who are always excluded from the dance history textbooks for multiple reasons. My initial idea was to write a monograph on King but without enough people recognizing and knowing the work, the book would have to once again use King's choreography as an example amid others. I realized that the larger, harder, and necessary step was to first shift the course of how our canons are created and then make a claim as to why King's work was just as integral as any other's. It was around this time, about a decade ago, that I was introduced to Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel at a conference at Stanford. Kathrina and I were told by a friend and mentor, Janice Ross, that we should talk and over the course of a few years shared ideas about why we were interested in ballet while it felt others were not. We decided to test our theory that people did care about ballet, but they just wanted to care about it in a contemporary context and proposed to the Dance Studies Association hosting a special topics conference in New York in 2016. We were told that no one would come and yet with very little financial support (we had to make our own programs as fliers on copy paper and run to get coffee for everyone at the Starbucks near Washington Square as that was all we could afford to offer attendees) we ran the conference ourselves with support from colleagues and friends Ariel Osterweis, Lynn Garafola, and Tommy DeFrantz and had over 100 people from all over the world come. For a dance event that I basically put on with my friend who lives thousands of miles away, it felt like a HUGE victory for our project and proved that many did want to talk about ballet, how it could be historicized, and where it could go. We invited our amazing editor at Oxford, Norm Hirschy, to attend the conference as he is the acquisitions editor who frequents dance events, and the day after the event Norm had Kathrina and I meet at his office to offer a contract for the book.
What was your favorite part of the process?
The conference that led to the book was great and I miss going to New York with the book as excuse! And there was the day that Grant (my son who has grown up with this as part of his life) colored a picture of all the flags of countries that we have connections to in the book. There are 15 I think. Yet getting to work with the people who helped along the path was a highlight for sure. I have been in sometimes constant contact and become friends with people whose writing I teach in my classes, or whose work I've read and seen for years like Gia Kourlas who is The New York Times dance critic, or Wayne McGregor who is a well-known international choreographer based in the UK who also contributed a chapter with his former teacher Jo Butterworth. There was also the personal privilege of editing the chapter of my mentor, dance scholar Susan Foster who writes about William Forsythe in the book and her encouragement along the way. But my very favorite part of the process might have been seeing the cover finalized with one of the LINES dancers as THE image of contemporary ballet.
How did you know when it was finished?
That is a tricky question, last year at this time I thought we were pretty close to completion. Things felt solid and as if they had finally fallen into place. We had collected all the chapters and read through them copiously, editing each of the 53 chapters many times, and then the pandemics hit the U.S. in March and suddenly it felt like we might have been defeated by time (I refer to both COVID-19 and systemic racism as it was exposed to many who apparently didn't know this was an issue as the pandemics of 2020). And yet, it was a gift because I had the chance, thankfully, this past summer to rewrite the introduction and call out problems and issues that really do make the work contemporary and widen the scope of the work. Practically speaking, part of knowing it was finished was the publishing aspect and the management company that Oxford University Press uses giving us a schedule with dates. That said, I can say that even last week I was re-reading things, lol. A mentor of mine, Marta Savigliano, once shared that the way you know something is done is when you read through it and you don't change anything. I don't think that would ever have happened with the book as it is 1016 pages!!!, but I do feel it's ready.
What is one thing that you feel helped you most in building the career you have now?
I think my love of dance has helped me the most actually. I was one of those four-year-olds who declared I wanted to do ballet and while I didn't take the professional route, I feel the book has allowed me way more access to ballet than if I was performing with a company. I also think my commitment has been really solidified during the pandemic. Alonzo has a comment I have heard him share with people when they say they used to dance, and he asks why they quit, and they give a reason about someone telling them they weren't this or that and he then says, "and you believed them?" I think that is the most important thing always...finding what you can't give up and figuring out how to make it work no matter what the obstacles are, or people say you should do. I haven't had an easy go of things, a lot has not worked out in the linear fashion I'd imagined, but I love that every day I get to teach people about dance, and I never tire of learning new things and hearing new ideas about the art to which so many of us feel deeply connected. Lastly, I hope everyone remembers that dancers need to support each other by seeing dance. During my undergrad at UC Irvine we were encouraged to always see whichever company was visiting...it didn't matter if you could only pay 10$ and sit in the rafters. It was so important to my career now as so much of what I've done both in the book and in my teaching builds upon the idea that dance is valuable and urgent.