Erica Janko: Behind the Scenes of “The Performers”

Erica Janko ’17 is a Sociology & Anthropology major and a Dance minor at Swarthmore. She recently showed “The Performers” at the University City Arts League as part of Philadelphia’s annual Fringe Festival, but her involvement extended far beyond just choreography; though the work was choreographed for her senior dance project, it was for her sociology research that she staged it as a part of the Fringe Festival.

As manager, producer, and director of the work, Erica was involved in all facets of coordinating “The Performers.” I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Erica on Sunday, October 16 about her research, her inspiration, and her thoughts about the performance. This interview has been condensed and edited for flow.

How did you spend your summer in Philadelphia?

I became an aspiring choreographer to study other choreographers. I lived in Philly in the summer, and I went to as many dance events as I could. I put “The Performers” in as part of the Fringe Festival so I could go to Fringe Festival events. I went to a lot of shows and I interviewed a lot of choreographers. Creating the performance part of it…was to feel the actual pressures of being a choreographer first hand. The thesis is a yearlong project for sociology and anthropology.

What are your major topics for the paper?

I’m still figuring that out exactly, but something interesting is that a lot of choreographers don’t get paid for their choreographic work. I didn’t make any money from the performance; I used my summer research grant to pay for the cost of the performance.

What were your major findings?

I still need to [transcribe] my interviews, so I’ll have more solid findings at the end, but people rely a lot on support from other people in the network–so like, something I hadn’t considered fully is that to make a dance work, you have to rehearse it, and to rehearse it, you need to have space. Most of the spaces in Philly, you have to pay for, but if people are able to build connections they may be able to get spaces at discounted rates, or join space co-ops. I was doing all of my own tech stuff, like all of the lights and stuff, I was setting it up myself, but people can get support in that way, too. Almost everyone in the audience I knew or someone related to the show knew. So even the audience is a support network, which is neat.

How did you manage to get the space at University City Arts League?

I got a discounted rate on the performance rental, kind of on the rehearsal rentals. The Fringe had a Google spreadsheet where people could say what they were looking for, so I posted on the spreadsheet saying I was looking for a space with white walls and mirrors. I was panicking the week before, because I hadn’t found one yet, and of course the deadline came right after finals.

Let’s talk about the content of your piece. I wanted to let you know that many of the themes you touched on in the performancefrom identity to femininity to an awareness of playing certain rolesI found to be very powerful when expressed through the medium of movement.

Yeah, when I took “Intro to Sociology” my sophomore year, we read part of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, which is looking at the performer audience relationship as a metaphor for social interactions and how people perform for each other and influence how they’re perceived. So that was the initial inspiration for the piece. As I started working further on it, I was like “this is too literal, I can’t do this anymore.” And then, my other work has looked at female identity so I started to bring that in a little bit, particularly over the summer. Two summers ago, I got a grant from Swarthmore to study dance in Vienna at a festival there. I did a workshop there that was about seeing, and that’s where I developed the initial score with one person in the audience and one person describing what was going on.

Could you elaborate on how this idea stemmed from the workshop?

The workshop was called “I Like to Watch,” with with the Paris based American artist Jennifer Lacey, and we did a number of exercises, and then in one of them I thought of the thing with how the show started, with one person moving around and another person narrating [the movements].

It’s so cool to hear how your piece evolved throughout these experiences, from the dance workshop to the Goffman reading, to your own research on femininity.

I wanted to get into how the performers I was working with—who are all cis-gender women—perform self in everyday life. I gave people writing prompts that were like, “What aspect of your performed femininity would you like to explore further?” That was one of the last writing prompts, after we did research around the general themes for around a month, and then we narrowed it down to create the characters from there.

What kind of research was done?

I guess I’m referring to research as being in the studio and trying out different things, using movement prompts and writing prompts to investigate themes that might not have empirical findings. Like, seeing how we feel doing certain movement exercises or seeing how certain thoughts may be related to movement.

Did you discover more about yourself through the movement prompts? I’m sure you already have an extensive awareness of your own body.

I mean, I’ve been working with these themes for the last couple years I’ve been at Swat. I think I’ve been thinking so much about getting the performance ready that I was doing things with people for a while and then I stepped away and took on more of a director’s role. I’ve worked with myself a lot—it can get kind of boring. But I’m really excited by what other people’s experiences are. So I stepped out and saw what was there and how it could fit together.

Can you tell me about specific movements you were focused on?

I think as one of the main scores of the piece, I was working with the idea of being filled with iron-filings. And then being drawn and repelled by a magnet. I guess I work with physical sensations that don’t actually exist.

I know from watching the audience through the live projections that a couple people did start following your descriptions of Asher’s movements. I felt there was a space at the beginning of the performance where I could have acted, but I was also hyper-aware of the context I was in. I was in a new neighborhood, everyone was a stranger to me, there were adults thereI felt that I could have been completely misinterpreting the environment!

I thought that was fun, like, creating that tension. I feel like that, to me, happens a lot in everyday interactions [laughs]. A couple people did start following along, which I thought was funny. I did warn the performers at one of the final rehearsals that people might be interacting, but I was thinking the other night, like, I didn’t really prepare them for whether people interacted or not. And even the people who reached out to touch me in the May performance, I was the only one being touched, and they knew I was the person choreographing it.

Erica is hosting her next workshop Community in Movement: Following, Leading, and Embodying Group in Self on Sunday, October 30. Time and Location TBA, contact ejanko1@swarthmore.edu for more information.

Featured image by Rhiannon Smith’17


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