Fulfilling the Vision: An interview with dancer Jennifer Sydor

By Jeff Jackson 

Dancer Jennifer Sydor’s performances have been described as "dazzling" by The Boston Globe and "remarkable for her intense focus and vivid dramatic skill" by The New York Times. She is in her 10th season as a dancer with The Metropolitan Opera where she’s worked with Tony Award winning directors such as Mary Zimmerman, Michael Grandage, and Bartlett Sher. She has appeared in The Met Opera's Live in HD broadcasts worldwide, and on PBS's Great Performances in Manon, Don Giovanni, and Turandot, among others.   

Sydor’s credentials stretch far beyond the world of classical music and dance. She has also toured internationally with the legendary avant-garde theater collective The Wooster Group in collaboration with the performance troupe and electro pop band Fischerspooner. She starred in Doug Elkins' Bessie Award winning Fraulein Maria, and was a featured performer for five seasons in David Parker and The Bang Group's Nut/Cracked. She is also a principle dancer on the hit Cinemax television series The Knick

Based in New York City, Sydor has worked with numerous acclaimed choreographers and currently performs with Laura Peterson, Vanessa Walter's dance theater and film project Ripening, and Third Rail Projects’ immersive dance theater show Then She Fell. I interviewed her about her career and the two upcoming dance performances for New Frequencies at McColl Center, taking place at Goodyear Arts, including the world premiere of a new piece.


Jennifer Sydor

You work with many different types of ensembles, ranging from classic institutions like The Metropolitan Opera to the experimental theater collective The Wooster Group. What are the challenges in moving between such different modes and styles? 

Jennifer Sydor: As a freelance performer, the biggest challenge I face navigating between different aesthetics, choreographers, performance venues, and companies is carefully considering how to clearly fulfill the vision of the work. This often requires me to remain as open and as humble as possible. I might not always get to lead with what I’m best at, and instead must learn a new way of embodying the work. 

My training has mostly consisted of classical ballet, which aided me when I began working with The Metropolitan Opera. However, my classical training was not so helpful when I was part of collaboration between the electro-pop band Fischerspooner and the experimental theater company The Wooster Group. I spent a lot of time unraveling the traditional ways of holding my body that I had worked on refining during my entire career, in order to learn the idiosyncratic and highly codified movement vocabulary of The Wooster Group. In a sense, I had to let go of my ego, and sit with the discomfort of not being good at something. But over time, I was inspired and energized by learning yet another way of communicating through the body.

Is there any performance style that you’re particularly drawn to?  

I currently gravitate towards two types of work. One is abstract modern dance that is physically rigorous, non-emotive, and repetitive to the point of extreme exhaustion. I currently work with the choreographer Laura Peterson, and fortunately her work fulfills all of these interests. Second is immersive dance theater that is non-linear, cinematic, and involves one on one audience and performer interaction. I currently perform in Third Rail Project’s show Then She Fell, which is based on the life of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his complex relationship with Alice Liddell. 

Although these two types of work are extreme opposites in many ways, they both require an intense level of commitment, focus, and ongoing research, which sustains my curiosity and interest and inspires me to grow as an artist.

Whether One, the duet with Brian McGinnis that you’re performing at the New Frequencies at McColl Center show, was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s book After the Quake. What initially drew you to this text? Were there particular elements that you focused on?

Brian and I began our process of Whether One apart a few months before we met in Chicago for a rehearsal intensive. During a conversation early on in our process, Brian and I thought it would be helpful if we were both united in our source of inspiration for our collaboration. Since we were working apart from each other and decided to not show each other what we were working on, we wanted to investigate the similarities and or differences that would naturally unravel in our interpretation and translation of our ideas. In this case, we chose weather as our unifying theme. Our methods of research differed, but felt we were working towards a common aim. I became increasingly more and more curious about natural disasters and the sense of awe and fear it inspires in humanity.  

Both Brian and I are lovers of Haruki Murakami and the seamless way in which he fuses the real with the dreamlike. After the Quake is a collection of six short stories all set in February of 1995, one month after the Kobe earthquake in Japan. The characters are all at a safe distance from Kobe, but nonetheless feel the emotional effects of the disaster that send shock waves through their personal lives. The stories inspired us to investigate ways of embodying what transcends when two people are caught and trapped within the confines of a force outside of themselves; whether it is a weather pattern, the aftermath of a natural disaster, or the impending doom of watching a tsunami wave inch closer and closer to you at a rapid speed.

The piece you’re premiering, Dwellings like a Mirage in the Heat, is a collaboration between you, McGinnis, and Charlotte’s Eric Mullis (as well Charlotte musicians led by Brent Bagwell). How did this collaboration come about? How have you and Brian and Eric approached creating this work? 

Brian, Eric, and I met during the first semester of our graduate studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the summer of 2015. By the end of the summer, we all discovered we had a natural affinity towards each other that stemmed from mutual artistic admiration. Eric proposed the idea for the three of us to collaborate on a trio, and of course Brian and I said yes.

We all live in different cities, so we maximized our time together this past summer during our fourth semester at UWM. Brian, Eric, and I have very different ways of moving, which I believe is an asset when collaborating. Due to our differences, what made the most sense in our first couple of rehearsals together was to each construct movement phrases individually that we later shared with each other. We then took moments from each other’s phrases that spoke to us and interjected them into our own phrases. What began as three separate ideas now had points of connection.  

We continued in this manner as we discovered additional ways of interacting with each other; such as moving in unison, supporting each other’s weight, and witnessing each other execute a solo. It has been an incredibly enjoyable journey both during our time together in the studio, and apart in our respective cities.

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New Frequencies at McColl Center presents Chance Encounters, innovative dance performances inspired by works of art on Friday and Saturday, November 18 and 19, 2016 at 8 PM. Both performances will take place at Goodyear Arts, 516 N. College St. in uptown Charlotte. Tickets are $5 and available at the door.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.