Corey Brady and Tristan Ching Hartmann rehearse "Global Moves," the 50th anniversary performance of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company at Presidio Theatre, June 16-19, 2022. (Photo/Kegan Marling)
Corey Brady and Tristan Ching Hartmann rehearse "Global Moves," the 50th anniversary performance of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company at Presidio Theatre, June 16-19, 2022. (Photo/Kegan Marling)

Margaret Jenkins looks back on 50 years of pioneering modern dance

Margaret Jenkins started dancing when she was just 4 years old. Now nearly 80 and a pioneer of West Coast dance, she has been both a witness to and leader in its change and evolution over more than half a century, influencing generations of performers in the world of modern dance. And she’s still working today.

June is the start of the 50th season of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, where she has been a dancer, choreographer, and teacher since its inception.

MJDC is marking the anniversary with “Global Moves,” a new show in collaboration with artists who have worked with Jenkins over the last half century, including international artists from China, India, and Israel.

“I think that by celebrating the 50th, it’s a way to look back at what has helped you, and what formed who I am,” Jenkins said in an interview.

Margaret Jenkins (Photo/Kegan Marling)
Margaret Jenkins (Photo/Kegan Marling)

When Jenkins began her career, she said, there were few actual spaces for dance performance or practice in San Francisco. The Bay Area was in constant competition with New York for dancers, a city that had more jobs, more choreographers and more consistent pay. In 1973, when Jenkins started MJDC, a small group of dance instructors was teaching hundreds of students. As time went on, she said, the students became choreographers and teachers themselves, creating their own works and employing other dancers.

“When I was a young person, you really had to leave San Francisco if you wanted to get a more professional training and a more expansive training,” Jenkins said. “You don’t have to leave San Francisco anymore.”

Jenkins is a fifth-generation native of the city herself, born in 1942 to Jewish parents who were both “progressives and unionists” and heavily involved in politics and the arts. Her father, David Jenkins, was a leader in the labor movement and adviser to several San Francisco mayors.

Jenkins studied at Juilliard and UCLA before beginning her professional career in New York under Merce Cunningham. She later returned to San Francisco and founded the MJDC. She still lives in the city.

“I started a performance space by knocking down some walls and doing what people do, which is, you know, sand floors and buy some pillows and put light bulbs into some cans and call it a performance space. And we started making work,” Jenkins said.

Dancers rehearsing for the 50th anniversary performance of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company at Presidio Theatre, June 16-19, 2022. (Photo/Kegan Marling)
Dancers rehearsing for the 50th anniversary performance of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company at Presidio Theatre, June 16-19, 2022.
(Photo/Kegan Marling)

She credits some of her success to the financial support she received from the Jewish community. When MJDC achieved its nonprofit status in the mid-’70s, donations came in from foundations and individuals wanting to support the arts in San Francisco. Jenkins was able to offer a more livable wage to her dancers — a wage that would keep them in the area.

“If it weren’t for Jewish philanthropy, I wouldn’t have a company,” she said.

In anticipation of the company’s anniversary this year, Jenkins has created “Global Moves,” which she describes as an “investigation into how the globe moves and how we move.”

Some of the pieces are informed by the political strife of the last several years, she said. “I wanted to make a work about how we navigate our streets, and our political conflicts, and our personal longings,” she said.

“Global Moves” also pays tribute to the community Jenkins has created at the MJDC, she said, and the collaborators and dancers who will continue her work when she is gone.

“Global Moves” features guest dancers from three international companies: the Cross Move Lab, originally from China but now based in New York City, the Tanusree Shankar Dance Co. of Kolkata, India, and the Kolben Dance Co. of Bet Shemesh, Israel.

One of the dancers, Irit Amichai Gabinet, formerly of Kolben, will take part virtually, with her performance recorded and projected to audiences at the Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center in San Francisco.

Irit Amichai Gabinet
Irit Amichai Gabinet

Gabinet, 38, met Jenkins in Israel in 2011 when Jenkins came to work with Amir Kolben, founder of the company that bears his name. Kolben and Jenkins collaborated on “The Gate of Winds” through an exchange in which the respective companies visited each other in their home studios. Gabinet also joined Jenkins as a dancer in the more recent “Breathing at the Boundaries,” which was filmed.

Gabinet has been attending rehearsals for “Global Moves” over Zoom. When she worked with Jenkins in person, Gabinet said, she was a collaborative choreographer who was supportive and open to feedback. As they have transitioned to working virtually, Gabinet said Jenkins is still that teacher.

“She has the same traits. The way she works is the same,” Gabinet said.

For this 50th season, Jenkins is most excited about bringing her former collaborators back together. She is eager, too, for the chance to present a live show before an in-person audience for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I’m looking forward to hearing what they feel, what it’s about for them, and whether or not it opens their eyes in any way to a different way of thinking about something,” Jenkins said. “And even if it doesn’t, whether they leave feeling as if they have a little bit more light in their step.”

“Global Moves”

8 p.m. June 16, 17 and 18 and 3 p.m. June 19 at Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center, 99 Moraga St., S.F. $20-$50. Proof of vaccination and masks required.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene is a J. Staff Writer. Originally from Vermont, she has a BA in political science and an MA in journalism from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsleygreene.