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Experimental dancer Justin Jones takes it back to jazz

Get this. Justin Jones, one of the fast-rising stars in our downtown-dance firmament (which translates as experimental, often multidisciplinary, post-postmodern work), was trained as a jazz dancer. In fact, his first professional dance gig was with Jump Rhythm Jazz Company in Chicago.
Which is why he was tempted to name the dancers in his new work “Justin Jones and the New Jazz.” “That is, if I had a company,” Jones says.

The quartet, “Pinhead,” includes Jones, Anna Marie Shogren, Sarah Baumert and Dylan Skybrook, and premieres this weekend (June 12-15) at Red Eye Theater.

“If I took away all the costumes, music and context, there would be certain movements in the piece that seemed to me incredibly jazzy,” Jones says. “The technique and style” of JRJC’s artistic director and choreographer,Billy Siegenfeld, had a big impact on me. I assimilated it and rejected it.” 

Justin Jones, front left, with Pinhead members Anna Marie Shogren, Sarah Baumert and Dylan Skybrook
Photo by Avye Alexandres
Justin Jones, front left, with Pinhead members Anna Marie Shogren, Sarah Baumert and Dylan Skybrook

After discovering modern dance while at Northwestern University, Jones transferred to New York University. After graduation, he ended up performing in Tere O’Connor’s iconoclastic and groundbreaking company in New York City from 2001-2004.
“But I started feeling a lot of it [the jazz] popping through the making of this new piece,” Jones adds. “The way I used my limbs for accents, the way I had this polyrhythmic sense of what I’m doing, just some of the general shapes of the physical impulses I had. It all reminded me of my work with Billy Siegenfeld and my jazz-dance training in Illinois.”
And Jones doesn’t have a problem with that. After his successful “the SCREEN/the THING” at the Walker Art Center/Southern Theater “Momentum” series last year, a fascinating work about dance, physics and human relations, Jones decided to “make a piece focused on my history and training, my family and the house I grew up in, my parents’ house in suburban Illinois, where the fabric was yellow, the wallpaper was yellow.”
Inspiration from a sunny childhood

“It was a very sunny place, a very easy place. As I started working on the piece and constructing this idea that I was going to make an autobiography, I felt a conflict. A lot of work I’ve seen that’s about a personal history, well, the maker is often making it from a place of conflict with that history. I don’t have a conflict. I have no trouble looking back. I had a great childhood.”

Justin Jones as a young lad in suburbia.
Photo by Linda Jones
Justin Jones as a young lad in suburbia.

If there was any sort of glitch, he adds, it was about “how I relate to my masculinity,” he says. “I don’t feel like a traditionally masculine person, and I’m trying to figure out where that comes from by looking at my masculinity in relationship to my dad, a guy’s guy, an ex-Marine. And my brother has the body type of my dad. Not like me, this little thing with long flowing locks. But I’ve always felt comfortable in my skin, as a non-typical dude.”
Since moving to Minneapolis and beginning to create his own work, Jones has also been examining O’Connor’s influence. “I’m happy to emulate the really deep structuring things he does,” Jones explains. “But I’m trying to extricate myself from his movement choices and proclivities. In embracing more of my early jazz-dance training, and being true to that impulse, I’ve found some departure.”

Jones’s work is part of this year’s “Isolated Acts,” curated by Steve Busa for the last 12 years. “This series provides a space for the development of new work that’s multidisciplinary, much of it movement theater and dance,” he says. “I’m really fond of the way Justin looks at movement. He’s able to tell personal stories, but blow them out and create fantastic shape with his stuff. His work has physical and emotional shape, and I find it accessible.”
Jones adds this about the personal nature of “Pinhead”: “I’m an abstract painter, rather than a portrait artist. This work is full of design and composition that evokes feeling, but it’s not a narrative portrait. I’m not asking people to draw a line between a character and what’s they’re saying. It doesn’t work on that level.”

Just think of it as jazz.
What: Red Eye Theater’s fourth-annual New Works 4 Weeks festival
Who: Justin Jones, “Pinhead”
When: Thursday-Sunday, June 12-15. Other performances: Leah Nelson, “Techni-Colored Blues,” June 19-21; new text works by Juels Weiland & Janelle Ranek, Becca Barniskis and Tish Jones, June 26-28.
Where: Red Eye, 15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis
Tickets: $8-$15
Phone: 612-870-0309

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