The Sensitive Challenge

Stephen Petronio dancer Jonathan Jaffe interviewed by Donald Hutera


Donald Hutera

Posted on

Although his roots are in Kansas City, Missouri, dancer Jonathan Jaffe has lived in New York City for eight of his 28 years. Initial training in classical ballet – from the age of three! – was followed by later studies in modern and Afro-Caribbean movement. Jaffe credits Peter London, a long-time dancer in the Martha Graham company, as being his biggest influence in college. ‘Peter was the man who taught me how to really do it,’ he says. Armed with that inspiration, he embarked on a free-lance career.

’My professional experience was very piecemeal at the beginning,’ Jaffe admits. ‘I left school without graduating because I needed to broaden my experience. I’d trained since I was three, but I felt I had a poor understanding of modern dance. This was emphasised by my own studies in dance history. So, I decided to explore.’

For Jaffe this meant taking classes and exposing himself to the styles of several choreographers. ‘I was very lucky to dance in very diverse work. My ballet training always informed me, as well as the sequential movements from African, and especially Afro-Caribbean, dance. I became attracted to passionate, sensual dance.’ That includes flamenco, a dance form he cites as another factor that has had a great impact on him as an artist.

After working as a free-lancer, in 2002 Jaffe became a full-time member of New York-based Sean Curran’s company. ‘I was attracted to the way Sean integrated movements from many different origins into a specific voice, and I admired his loving and giving demeanour.’ After two seasons, however, Jaffe left to take up a job in Jerusalem. ‘I’d auditioned for Amir Kolben’s Kombina Dance Company while traveling in Israel,’ he recalls. ‘I returned to New York City and then immediately went back [overseas] with my bags packed and a new Israeli citizenship.’ He spent several months there dancing all over the country and working as a back-up dancer in an entertainment company to make ends meet. Altogether it was an interesting, but unfulfilling, adventure. ’The style of the dancing was very theatrical,’ he says, ‘but it didn’t particularly resonate with me.’

In 2005, five months after moving back to the Big Apple, Jaffe was dancing for Stephen Petronio. What is it about this man’s work, and being in this troupe, that engages and sustains Jaffe’s body, mind and feelings? ‘Stephen is deeply interested in movement and how the body expresses its energy. He’s interested in telling a story about motion, and how that transforms into emotion, and the interplay between the two things.’ While the work sometimes borders on chaos, Jaffe believes that ‘it finds its way through and creates beautiful, recognisable structures. The company has always been filled with terrific dancers who are sensitive and creative. This has been the basic recipe that’s helped me grow and begin to thrive.’

Asked to enumerate the challenges and the thrills of interpreting Petronio’s dances, Jaffe says, ‘Stephen requires us to have our own voice in the creation of a work. Things sometimes get what at first seems to be incredibly complex in our relationships to other things onstage, things we can’t even see or sense yet. This can be challenging to navigate and understand, but it’s thrilling when things firm up and the smoke clears.’

Given Petronio’s penchant for devising fiendishly ingenious dance, it’s inevitable to wonder what methods are typical when a new work is being made. ’Sometimes we start with specific ideas or a base phrase of movement that he give us,’ Jaffe says, ‘and sometimes we mimic or give a reading of movement that he spontaneously creates, or that we see the other dancers doing. We then use all these methods and more as we sew the pieces together.’

Jaffe is articulate about the sensations that pass through his body and consciousness onstage. ’When I dance my body becomes lost. I sense and feel in a more primitive and sensitive way. My entire intelligence is spread out into my body, and it grasps at connecting to something real and physical and living. My thinking and my sensing become indistinguishable.’ So what constitutes a good — or not-so-good — performance? ‘I perform my best when I’m able to have a physical, energetic and emotional conversation with the people around me and the audience. That trumps any minor body faltering.’

As for the works that are relatively new to the company, Jaffe offers a few insights about what it’s like to inhabit their individual worlds. ‘ When I dance B and B [Beauty and the Brut] I feel as though I’m fumbling around this urbane, hip jungle that’s covered in a self-conscious malaise. In Girl in a World I have a sense of desperation and half-resignation, half-determination.’ For Jaffe there’s a stark contrast between these recent dancers and the established piece that joins them on UK tour, Lareigne. The latter, he says, ‘feels classic and architectural while the newer works feel more emotional and edgy.’

Aside from dancing full-throttle for Petronio, Jaffe has begun to fashion his own mixed-media and collaborative work via a company called Four Worlds Dance. ‘’I’m interested in collaborating with musicians, poets, visual artists and dancers. It’s not only choreography or improvisation that are involved, but creating an environment where different kinds of artists can communicate. It’s the communication between the parts that excites me most. It’s absolutely central to what I’m going after.’