Dancer hailed for art world contributions

Even though her dance company recently won a prestigious award, Margaret Jenkins has been wondering whether she can really bring anything to completion.

The idea permeating the new, still untitled work of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company is unresolved. "We're exploring the notion that perhaps it's not possible to resolve anything," said Jenkins. "Be it political, personal, emotional or aesthetic."

Last month, Jenkins' efforts in the dance community reached a happy resolution when she received the Bernard Osher Cultural Award from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund. The annual award has been given since 1987 to an outstanding volunteer or professional in the Bay Area arts community.

Her dance company will celebrate its 30th anniversary in April with a series of six performances in Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason Center. The troupe will perform works from Jenkins' repertory going back to the '70s, as well as new work. An installation in the theater will display sets, costumes and photographs spanning the company's 30-year history. Locally, only the San Francisco Ballet has performed consistent dance seasons for a longer period of time.

Although Jenkins has never made what she considers a specifically Jewish work, her Jewish background has informed her entire artistic production.

"I was raised in a family where community was very important," said Jenkins. "I'm very aware of how community affects us."

Jenkins' father was the head of the San Francisco Labor School, where he taught Jewish history, as well as the history of African Americans and socialist political thought. Jenkins was raised with a sense of Jewish identity and community, although her family wasn't religious.

She collaborates between herself and the dancers, asking them for creative input.

"Unlike some choreographers, who say, 'Here are the steps, do them,' I say, 'Here are my ideas — how should we make this happen?'"

For a piece titled "Shelf Life," Jenkins asked each dancer in her company to choose a novel with a strong character that inspired them. Then, she asked writer Rinde Eckert to write a narrative that supported a "conversation" between the various characters. Eckert sang and performed the story he wrote, and the dancers created a dance around his story.

"It's a trademark of my art that it reflects all the different people that I work with," said Jenkins.

Jenkins also gives lectures — showing her audiences new works and talking about their origins and influences. Watching audiences discuss and interpret her works is sometimes revealing.

"People are comfortable having 10 different interpretations of Faulkner but get very uncomfortable when they don't understand a modern dance," said Jenkins.

A fifth-generation San Franciscan — her great-grandparents came over in the Gold Rush — Jenkins was raised a "red-diaper baby." As a result, politics plays a role in her work.

"I think having been raised in a family where politics was primary — the Rosenbergs, McCarthy — influenced me," said Jenkins. "But I also think I chose a nonverbal profession for a reason. I wanted a break from all that rhetoric."

Discussing Jenkins' contribution to the dance world, Beth Cahn, marketing director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, said Jenkins received the Bernard Osher award "especially for what she has done for young, emerging choreographers, in California and nationwide."

One of Jenkins' current projects, CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange), will build a forum for young choreographers to find more experienced mentors. For this purpose she raised money to renovate the DanceAbout space at the U.C. Berkeley Extension campus in San Francisco.

Jenkins said the sense of artistic community in San Francisco has been one of the best things about running a dance company here.

"We feel part of a community, and we've helped create the community," said Jenkins. "It wouldn't have happened in New York."