By Mary Hierholzer
“Artist Profile” is a monthly feature highlighting a figure in the ballet world.
Choreographic influences: Jiří Kylián, Justin Peck, Crystal Pite, Cayetano Soto and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano (whose Carmen.maquia, Mr. Jenkins says, might be the best dance piece he’s ever seen)
Reading: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff, and Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott
(Re)watching: Happy Endings and Friends; watching (for the first time) Making History and Abstract: The Art of Design
Listening to: Ed Sheeran and The Brothers Bloom soundtrack… on repeat.
How did he get his start in dance? “I was taking a gymnastics class in college and I did a handstand on the parallel bars and ruined both of my wrists—they both snapped backwards.”
It’s not the answer you’d expect. Nor is it what you’d expect to hear when award-winning choreographer Kevin Jenkins says he was terrible at the jazz class he took instead of gymnastics. “I got the teacher to flunk me so that I could take it again,” he said in an interview with The Boston Dance Journal.
After taking Jazz I (twice) at a Grossmont College, he fell in love with the art form, and the pieces of a future dance career began to come together. Having already finished his pre-requisite courses, Mr. Jenkins went out on a limb and took an entire year of only dance classes. It was an unconventional start to a career in choreography for the 34-year-old who now has a robust résumé that includes a gig at Jacob’s Pillow and awards from Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine and four dance film festivals.
A scholarship to the Academy of Performing Arts in San Diego was a launching pad, and Mr. Jenkins danced professionally for six years. Before long, he knew that he wanted to choreograph. With three distinct styles—neoclassical, contemporary, and “really, really” contemporary—he founded a start-up dance company, Garage Contemporary Ballet, with friend and fellow choreographer Ryan Orion Beck in 2006. Though it was a generally successful endeavor for six years, San Diego was not the prime location for a dance company, and they closed the ballet.
After zig-zagging throughout the west, teaching and choreographing for various stretches of time at the School of Ballet Arizona, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco—where he found more success with choreographing and with dancers—he came to another halt, realizing there were only so many options at his talent level. “At San Francisco Ballet, you have to be named Christopher Wheeldon or Liam Scarlett to get hired,” he says. With family in Boston and a wide breadth of culture on the East Coast, he picked up and moved again.
Teaching at Boston Ballet School was another breakthrough for Mr. Jenkins. He began marketing himself more aggressively, and gained access to dancers of an even higher caliber despite his high standards. “Who I work with is paramount. I refuse to work—by choice—with people with ego,” he says. “I end up working with the nicest, most beautiful dancers, and that really affects the work.”
True to form, he recruited Boston Ballet dancers Corina Gill, Paul Craig, Sarah Wroth and former Boston Ballet dancer Ricardo Santos to perform his work, whose kind spirits translate into elegant ballet and selfless partnering. He doesn’t take their improvisations for his own work, but rather he yields to their natural inclinations in order to make the movements smoother. He also continues to work with David Maurice, a dancer Mr. Jenkins hired in San Francisco. He finds Mr. Maurice’s background in Gaga, a movement language developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, to be inspiring.
“When I work with dancers who are amazing, I find it’s almost impossible to get stuck with them,” he says. “I can see where their body needs to go—I can see where I want it to go, I can see what the music is telling me to do.”
Because he never danced for a major company, Mr. Jenkins’ introduction to choreographing looks different than the fast track many successful choreographers experience. “That company gives them opportunities to choreograph, they have that on their résumé, then they have a great example of their work,” he says.
He chooses to view his humble route as an advantage. Having often lacked access to top-tier resources, he learned to make do. “It’s forced me to really figure out what I like to see and make that happen,” he says. “That’s gotten me to where I am now.”
He also used his learning years to expose himself to various dance styles in order to become a more insightful choreographer. He has a strong background in hip-hop and in San Diego he danced with a Persian company. So, how does someone know they’re watching a Kevin Jenkins ballet? “The hands,” he says without hesitation. In his pieces, Mr. Jenkins uses signature distinctive hand movements inspired by both the intricacy of hip-hop and fluidity of Persian style.
Creating a ballet, his own memory is the key. “If I can imagine the movements, it’s way further beyond than what I can physically do.” Though his imagination sometimes creates choreography that literally no dancer can do, he says it is always worth trying. “We come up with some really cool stuff that way,” he says.
Mr. Jenkins loves his work. He faithfully consults his trusted (and brutally honest) editors, and knows he recognizes progress when they like his choreography, and when he is happy with what he has created. As his choreography matures, he requires more maturity from his dancers, and this keeps propelling Mr. Jenkins forward in his career.
“Every year I keep slowly moving up and working with better companies,” he says. “The more I do, the more I realize that I love doing really complicated work, and at a certain point you need a really high-level dancer for that. I want to continue working with companies who are going to help me do that. My goal is to continue choreographing for the next 50 years.”
See a new piece by Kevin Jenkins in a ballet showcase at Green Street Studios, April 21–23.