Mathew Janczewski, Artistic Director of ARENA Dances, photo by Aaron Warkov
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Mathew Janczewski, founder and artistic director of ARENA Dances, about his company’s upcoming performances of Ugly at the Joyce Soho starting on October 30th. Commissioned by and premiered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last year, Ugly will be making its New York premiere. The evening-length, multi-media work examines perceptions of beauty and society’s demand for physical perfection through abstract movements inspired by martial arts, gymnastic athleticism, and court dance. Ugly stemmed from collaborations with a variety of artists, and features original choreography by Janczewski, electronic music composed by Morton Subotnick (who will perform live on stage), a narrative by playwright Kira Obolensky, and a video installation.
Janczewski, who has been choreographing since he was sixteen and founded ARENA Dances fresh out of the University of Minnesota in 1995, started brainstorming ideas for Ugly after biking by a green silo that said “ugly” on it in graffiti. Recognizing that he usually makes “big physical dances attempting to be beautiful”, Janczewski questioned society’s obsession with defining what is beautiful and what is ugly. He asked himself, “Who am I to be the judge of what’s ugly or grotesque?” This led to creative round-table discussions and workshops with artists and dancers over a two-year period, which was occasionally overwhelming for Janczewski since he tends to work over brief periods of time. In the studio, he and the cast of seven played with ideas and closely collaborated to create Ugly, and with the support of the Walker Art Center, the piece premiered in October 2007. In three distinct sections, Ugly takes the audience on a journey from Baroque, to Technology/Disco, and finally to Nature, with each section giving way to the next. Janczewski received a range of feedback after the premiere. “A lot of people said they didn’t like it because it made them uncomfortable, but others loved it”, he told me. Since Ugly was so different from the majority of his work, Janczewski wasn’t surprised by the mixed reactions.
ARENA dancers in Ugly, photo by Cameron Wittig
This past January, Dance Magazine recognized Janczewski and ARENA Dances as one of the top 25 to Watch, stating that “the abstract, deeply intelligent choreography of Mathew Janczewski, which his dancers inhabit with almost preternatural ease and precision, makes audiences swoon.” Ugly sounds like a fascinating, thoughtful, and extremely relevant work. Hopefully this is just the beginning of Janczewski and ARENA Dance’s performances in New York City. Ugly will be performed October 30 through November 2 at the Joyce Soho. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (212) 352-3101.