The Dance Enthusiast Asks Jenny Rocha/Rocha Dance Theater’s about “Half-Heard” as part of CUNY Dance Initiative
CUNY Dance Initiative and John Jay College, in collaboration with Rocha Dance Theater
Friday, February 15 @ 8:00 PM
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
A choreographer, performer, costume designer, and teaching artist Jenny Rocha bridges genres as director of both the modern-based Rocha Dance Theater and the cabaret troupe The Painted Ladies. Presented by CUNY Dance Initiative and John Jay college, her upcoming concert dance work Half-Heard incorporates elements of cabaret, drag, and physical comedy in a satirical take on gender dynamics in the workplace.
Nadia Khayrallah for The Dance Enthusiast: Could you tell us about your journey between the concert dance and cabaret worlds?
Jenny Rocha: I graduated from Roger Williams University in ‘96 and moved to New York right after that. I was dancing for Sean Curran and Heidi Latsky for about 8 years, as well as independent choreographers. At the same time, I was always creating my own work. Rocha Dance Theater has been around since 2001.
My cabaret dance project, the Painted Ladies, began after a Dance Now event at Joe’s Pub. I had created this 3-minute act where we sat on boxes and were these uninhibited female characters in a percussive dance.
From there got into creating a dance troupe that wasn’t about typical burlesque, the striptease, but was more about neo-burlesque: using political satire and making work with a relationship to the empowerment of women. It’s still going strong today.
The Dance Enthusiast: Has your work in these two areas overlapped?
Jenny Rocha: The burlesque world really influenced what I was creating in so-called modern dance, because I felt such a freedom in what I could do onstage. On top of that, I’m a costume designer and burlesque has a close relationship between costume and character. I thought, why can’t I do that in Rocha Dance Theater?
My Painted Ladies vignettes have always had a lot of contemporary dance in them. I believe the theatricality has to be very physical.
The Dance Enthusiast: How did costume design enter your practice?
Jenny Rocha: I’ve always been interested in costume design. My mom makes wedding dresses, and I started getting into architectural type costumes while I was creating neo-burlesque. I also really like costumes that you hide behind. It’s a reoccuring theme in my work. I did a piece called Battledress: it’s a combination of armor and stereotypical dress. So it’s like a housewife with a face-cage on, rubber gloves, and a silver-metallic apron, combining these elements.
The Dance Enthusiast: What political themes have you previously approached in your work?
Jenny Rocha: For example, I did a piece last year during the Harvey Weinstein case. I was nervous to do this act in a nightlife scene, because usually it’s more playful. I’m Harvey Weinstein and I have this award in my hand and I have this posse of men (all women in drag). There’s this one woman who enters the stage and I’m teasing her with this award, getting her to do all these things to get the award. Then we bring a non-disclosure agreement into the room and force her to sign it in this very physical way. At the end, we have this dance with slinkies attached to our briefs.
It was very ridiculous. People came up to me afterwards saying “I was afraid to laugh because it’s not funny, but it was funny, and I was affected by it, and I kind of wanted to cry.”
The Dance Enthusiast: And what themes are you exploring in your new work Half-Heard?
Jenny Rocha: My entire life I have experienced mansplaining and misogynistic coworkers, like every woman I know. I went from being harassed as a bartender to not taken seriously in the nightlife scene. A year ago I decided I wanted to make a full evening about this, using elements of neo-burlesque, and women in drag to ridicule this macho construct that is in the spotlight now. I chose the corporate setting because it was relatable to a lot of people with 9-to-5s, and also because it had this sort of coldness to it that I wanted to use as a setting.
In the beginning there’s this competition for spots in this company — like musical chairs. There’s two women left fighting for one position, and it becomes this duel.
There’s a section called “stealing of the idea” where the woman comes up with this idea and the men steal it, running offstage, and onstage with the idea. The men start fighting over it themselves. Everyone is just pushing tables and chairs around. We take all these tiny little microaggressions and blow them up, physically.
In the second section we’re women and we’re wearing these very limited costumes that we hide behind. There’s three women in a hat with a fringe curtain down to the ankles. One dancer has really long hair that’s just draped over her face. There’s someone behind it you can clearly see, this powerful person.