Skin Deep: Jeanine McCain talks UNDER HER SKIN

Jeanine McCain was raised in Montana, and danced and choreographed in Washington State and Colorado before transplanting to Philadelphia, where she is now assistant professor of dance at Ursinus College. But her first full-length work, UNDER HER SKIN (premiered at this year’s Fringe), was inspired by the life of McCain’s great-grandmother, who lived in eastern Pennsylvania coal country. Premiered at a recent FringeArts Scratch Night, the twelve-dancer piece features inventive video projection, with an art film seguing into the live dance. Jeanine tells Phindie what’s UNDER HER SKIN. [Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street] September 4-5, 2015; fringearts.com/under-her-skin.

Photo by Bryon Calawa.

Photo by Bryon Calawa.

Phindie: What inspired UNDER HER SKIN?

Jeanine McCain:: UNDER HER SKIN is inspired by my great-grandmother, Susan.  When I was a kid, I asked my grandma about our heritage from her side of the family, and she told me she didn’t know because she was adopted. It turns out that was not entirely true. What actually happened is that Susan was not married when she got pregnant, and it was 1926, so she had the baby (my grandma) in secret and grandma was raised by a foster family.

Phindie: What about her story fascinated you?

JM: The interesting thing is that Susan stayed in her daughter’s life. My grandmother knew that she was her mom, and they had regular contact, but their biological relationship was kept a complete secret.  Susan took that secret to her grave. Even her siblings never knew she had a child. She never married and never had any other children. I’ve learned that she did, however, go to college and become a high school art teacher in Freeland, PA, her hometown, and she was a part of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. I’m really fascinated by how her life played out, and the dichotomy of her private life versus her public life.  This public vs. private life is a major theme of the piece. I think we all have our own version of that, and I’m particularly interested in what that looks like for women of today compared to women of the early to mid 20th century. Sometimes it feels not much has changed.

Phindie: What other themes do you explore?

JM: Hand in hand with that public vs. private theme we are looking at how we deal with the expectations and external pressures of our culture, and what it feels like to live with these ideals being projected onto us. (Video pun intended.)

But also, we’ve talked a lot about memory and dreams. When we talk about family history and secrets, there are so many broken or lost memories we might have or wonder about. For instance, I am so curious what it felt like for my great-grandmother to keep such a major part of her life hidden, her motherhood. I think this must have been a painful thing, but on the flip side she lived an impressively independent life for a woman of her time. This work, in part, is weaving together my own projections of how this might have felt and played out in her life.

Phindie: Your choreography for UNDER HER SKIN seems to highlight both the individuality and universality of femininity.

JM: Yes!

Phindie: How important was the input of individual dancers in this?

JM: The input of the individual dancers is extremely important in my process. I don’t generally come into the studio with set choreography to teach the dancers. I come in with movement ideas and themes of content that relate to those, and we create the actual movement phrases together. Every rehearsal is a full on collaboration. This is important to me because it creates a deep sense of investment and ownership for the dancers, which translates into fully embodied performances.  I also just find it much more meaningful (and more fun) than simply dictating my own ideas for others to follow.

Phindie: Where did you get the footage you use in UNDER HER SKIN?

JM: The video footage we are using was all filmed in an abandoned hallway on the top floor of my apartment building (which is accessible through a door in my closet!). This was an amazing find because there are rooms back there with the wallpaper peeling off the walls and plaster falling down from the ceiling, but they maintain this “lost in time” sort of charm.  All of this fit in perfectly with our theme of lost memory and dreams and secrets, because the whole experience of being in there is like you are looking in on something from the past, something that was forgotten.  So this footage relates very deeply with the themes we are working on in the studio.

Phindie: What’s your process for combining dance and video projection? How do the two inform each other?

JM: My process for combining dance and video is a continuing discovery, and in this piece I am working with it in a few different ways. There are moments when the video is fully combined with the live dance and being projected onto the bodies, and there are moments when the video is the only thing happening on stage and it is deepening the story being told by the live dance. When the video is projected onto the bodies, the live body and the recorded image work together to express a theme.  Phindie: How do the video and dance inform each other?

JM: I mentioned how things are projected on us by the expectations of our culture.  In the literal terms of the video projections this represents the lost memories and dreams left behind. In the beginning of the piece, the bodies are still, but the images on them are moving. It’s a representation of what is going on inside, which is essentially a search for meaning, to fill in the blank spaces of the stories of the past.

Phindie:  How did you connect to composer Garrett Hope? What do you like about that collaboration?

JM: Garrett and I met when we were both on the faculty at Ursinus College. We have worked on three different pieces together.

Phindie:  What do you like about that collaboration?

JM: I really enjoy working with him because each time we base our collaborative methods based on the needs of the current piece. For instance, for UNDER HER SKIN, I knew I had a recording that just had to be a part of the score somehow. It is a recording of my grandfather singing “Mona Lisa” at a piano bar around 30 years ago. You can hear all the bar sounds in the background and it just really takes you back in time. I played it for Garrett and he decided to base the entire score off of this recording, which opens the piece. He took the score to some amazing places that feel very abstract and create sort of an ethereal world for the piece, but the entire thing is all somehow rooted back in the structure of the “Mona Lisa.” This was perfect both musically and from a content perspective because the lyrics fit rather seamlessly into our themes as well.

Phindie: How did you fit the movement to his music?

JM: Another interesting thing about this collaboration is that all of the movement came first, and Garrett wrote the score based off what we did in the studio. So it was basically scored like a movie, and it does feel rather cinematic from start to finish.

Phindie: How do you keep the work intimate given the large floorspace of the Performance Garage?

JM: We’ll begin the evening with an installation that happens around the stage area as the audience is coming in. The installation will include video projections and a image collage throughout the space to set up the back story of the inspiration for the piece, and the audience will be invited to contribute to the installations with their own stories. I think this will start us off with a sense of intimacy.

Phindie: How about during the actual performance?

JM: Once the dancers take the stage, I think maintaining that intimacy has a lot to do with how the dancers embody the work, and we work with this a lot in rehearsals.  Each dancer has a very personal connection to the themes of the piece, and some of that is a painful part of their own story. I believe if they allow themselves to fully express this vulnerability, the audience will stay close.

Phindie: Are you going to be able to see much else at the Fringe Festival? What

are you looking forward to?

JM: I’ve barely even had time to look at the Festival Guide yet, but I can say I’m incredibly excited about Lucinda Childs and the Available Light collaboration in the curated Fringe. I’m also excited about several things I saw at Scratch Night. There is so much great work in the community. I hope to see as much as I can!

Features, Fringe Festival, Interviews, Theater - Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , - no comments

About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.