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Issue 07 Dec 07, 2021

Choreographing the Personal: A Profile of Jessica Roseman

Disrupting the conventional one-track lineage of ballet and modern dance, Roseman’s choreographic process is rooted in the synthesis of complementary movement techniques and practices of care.

Profile by Ilya Vidrin

Jessica Roseman is photographed behind blossoming purple flowers.

Jessica Roseman at Lexington Community Farm, August 2021. Photo by Olivia Moon Photography / halfasianlens.

Jessica Roseman’s dances are hybrid forms. Slow, sinewy lunges, lush side bends, and deliberate one-legged balances swiftly drop into pedestrian walks across the stage, only to be picked up again as intricate gestures. Her movements are often punctuated by dialogue, sometimes with a voice-over and sometimes murmured or whispered by Roseman herself. Effortless leg swings are replaced with effortful push-ups, highlighting change and transition rather than static line or form. In all of her dances, Roseman’s gaze is perhaps the most telling. Reaching out into the distance only to settle on an audience member with a subtle smize, her eyes complete the story her movement begins.

Engaging with her identity as a biracial Black-Jewish woman in the performing arts, Roseman’s work is fueled by a desire to reveal, to bring to light, to make visible. She notes that her dances prioritize what are still, even in the twenty-first century, “essentially private realms of the multifaceted female experience, including pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.” Her work challenges and disrupts the idealized representation of womanhood, revealing instead what is so often hidden and neglected. Through her performances, Roseman demonstrates the unique quality of dance as a medium for cultivating deep embodied reflection, deliberate visceral action, and candid communal compassion.

In many ways, Roseman represents the quintessential twenty-first-century dance maker. Whether she’s offering participatory prompts for audiences to notice their own subtle internal processes through breath or investigating solo movement as ritual to access memory, Roseman’s choreographies are somatically driven invitations to find art in everyday places. Disrupting the conventional one-track lineage of ballet and modern dance, Roseman’s choreographic process is rooted in the synthesis of complementary movement techniques and practices of care.

Jessica Roseman at Lexington Community Farm, August 2021. Photo by Olivia Moon Photography / halfasianlens.

She began dancing as a child, drawn to the familiar tropes of ballet (tutus, tiaras, tights). She continued to study jazz dance in middle school, moving to the music of Prince and learning how to rock her pelvis (which she notably found obscene at the time). Throughout adolescence she honed her dance composition skills under the guidance of her high school mentor, Jay Cradle, while performing with the varsity dance company at Newton North High School. Roseman went on to study improvisational, post-modern dance at Wesleyan University, studying under greats including experimental choreographer Deborah Hay and Susan Foster.

Nowadays, Roseman works as a Feldenkrais practitioner, licensed massage therapist, and single mother of preteen twins, all the while growing and developing her creative dance practice. What draws me to her work, and what I find to be so special, is how Roseman’s private practice is self-contained. She prioritizes her own personal experience as the source of meaning in her dance work while still recognizing the importance of quality and craft in creating choreography that is meant to be viewed. Roseman’s movements are versatile and fluid, shifting between elements of physical exertion and subtle expressions of dynamic stillness. Her inquiry is rooted in self-care, taking time to feel through and respond without forcing herself to create. She continues to be inspired by Deborah Hay’s experimental choreographic approach, Liz Lerman’s democratic process in communally reflecting on work in progress, and Robert Irwin’s subject matter of space, perception, and time. Her excitement for these methodologies drives her inquiry into grappling with the resources and the limitations of dance and art making, and what stands out is how her choreographic process emerges on her own terms.

A Brief History of My Belly, a recent work, invites the audience to witness Roseman’s exposed belly. “I breathe with the layered emotions, awkwardness, and vulnerability this sharing provokes in me, for all of us together,” Roseman says of the piece. The work considers intimate, personal relationships between her memory and the present, and her body and the audience. The piece begins with Roseman holding a large orb in front of her belly, illuminated from within. Clad in a simple black tank and leggings, she whispers “shhh” as the lights lower and focus in on her lone figure. She asks whether the audience can hear her, immediately engaging a visceral shift in the audience as they nod, smile, and lift their hands, thumbs up. The piece unfolds as she places the orb in front of her, staying close to the audience, and slowly pulls back, scrunches, and adjusts her clothing to reveal her skin. She carefully beckons the audience into her own history, whispering as she smiles, pants, grimaces, contracts, extends, and reorients while remaining almost in place. The choreographic arc features Roseman’s personal experience with stillbirth—expressing grief, the process of grieving, and the feeling of “dropping out of the living culture.” It is the vulnerability and intimacy of this piece that creates room for the audience to witness and to connect with evocations of shared humanity. “There isn’t space for having depths of sadness and being a functional human,” Roseman reflects, “so to choreograph in that space feels liberating.”

Turning to the current moment, the pandemic had a significant impact on Roseman’s ability to safely access food while protecting her at-risk family. She shared that the traumatic experience made her feel disconnected from her dancing. In response, Roseman has been reconciling how to undo these harms by creating what she calls “NOURISH projects,” which are community-based dances for racial justice. Thus far, she has led workshops and events as artist-in-residence at Lexington Community Farm, exploring creative connections between dance, racial justice, and growing food. She cultivates opportunities to smell, observe, touch, and taste what the farm has to offer, inviting play with sensory awareness, embodied attention, and building practices of appreciation, gratitude, and acknowledgment of land and space. Later this year, Roseman will begin the second phase of the work, interviewing Black mothers at the Cambridge Center for Families to inform a choreographic exploration. Prioritizing exploration of the unknown, Roseman states, “If sensing and feeling the right action for the moment is my process through improvisation, the product is not important. It is the seeking and questioning that brings me to the end. I enjoy asking questions.” The second phase will culminate in a film collaboration with Boston-based multidisciplinary artist Olivia Moon.

Jessica Roseman with workshop participants at Lexington Community Farm, August 2021. Clockwise from back left: Debbe Strod, Sheila Lawrence, Madison Horn, Kayla Horn, and Tracy Kim Horn. Photo by Olivia Moon Photography / halfasianlens.

Participants move through the space following Roseman’s lead at Lexington Community Farm, August 2021. From left to right: Tracy Kim Horn, Kayla Horn, Sheila Lawrence, Dorothea Osborne, and Ren Galvan. Photo by Olivia Moon Photography / halfasianlens.

Many of Roseman’s projects are autobiographical; she sees them as opportunities to process how to tell stories about her life even when she is not quite ready to tell them. This sort of multifaceted inquiry is relevant to a much wider sector than the fine arts and performance world. Rather than merely instrumentalizing dance as a tool for processing challenging experience, Roseman demonstrates how the artistic product itself continues to stimulate thought, provoke inquiry, and open dialogue. Roseman’s work emerges from an investigation of the personal, both as idiosyncratic experience and as subjectivity itself. While her work is deeply personal, the versatility of her choreography generates a narrative arc that invites the audience on her journey. The combination of spoken dialogue, movement, and stillness provokes a kinesthetic empathy that turns inward. Roseman’s work is fundamentally rooted in relationality, contending with experience of self and experience itself. The seamless shift between the pedestrian and the athletic movement serves as a reminder of the interplay between human nature and human potential—between that which is and that which can be.

Roseman’s choreographic work as a biracial woman highlights and reflects the unique experience of her particular cultural identity. She has spoken about facing the challenges of being told that she is not “enough” by institutions, funders, and even community members—not Black enough, not Jewish enough, not white enough. Roseman reminds us that dance, and art more broadly, can be so rooted in identity that our artistic failures easily become our personal failures. Her work responds to the systems of exclusivity that directly conflict with the rhetoric of humanity. The resulting performances invite a reckoning with who we are and can be as people. Roseman’s choreographies demonstrate how the line between exclusive and inclusive is really liminal, tied to aesthetic preferences that can infringe on collective, communal freedoms of expression.

While intuition, emergence, and instinct are important aspects of her choreographic approach, Roseman is also very sensitive to craft and draws on a number of choreographic tools for thoughtful, intentional composition. She pairs her dance experience with the Feldenkrais method and her work as a licensed massage therapist to bring forth what she calls “the integrity of bodily honesty.” She works often with repetition, rhythm, and focus to invite herself and her audience into dialogue about functional mobility and the limits and resources of anatomy and physiology. As a mode of communication, Roseman’s work demonstrates how dance can support and trouble distinctions between the visual and kinesthetic elements of relation.

Roseman’s choreographies are of the moment, of this cultural time, yet there is also something quite transcendent about her work. Her dances enable opportunities to encounter the personal and to provoke reflection through a softening rather than only through resistance. The softening reflects her attention and commitment to ethics of care and community while continuing to disrupt by intentionally avoiding reproduction of the status quo. She shares that questions are fundamentally experiential for her work. While many of the questions she poses have already been posed in different settings, her work gestures to the ongoing, fluid nature of identity and relationality and so merits the continuation of inquiry, given that there is no way to fully settle.

On December 8, Roseman will join in conversation with Karen Krolak of Monkeyhouse for a discussion around the “NOURISH” project.

A version of this feature was originally published in Issue 07: Rooting, fall 2021. 

Ilya Vidrin


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