Crossroads or Roundabout? Jessica Bonenfant

What am I doing here? 
And is it a crossroads or a roundabout? 

As an American in Ireland, the proliferation of roundabouts took some getting used to. Much of Irish daily life was easy to slip into. Some things were quirky, or occasionally frustrating (WHY IS IT SO HARD TO FIND A CAFE OPEN ON A SUNDAY?) And definitely full of surprises (I own a goat! And the local grave digger is my bestie.) But adjusting was exciting. I was at the outset of a new life – motivated by a new project: Greywood Arts. A residency for artists of all kinds, in the rural village of Killeagh. A far cry from my life in NYC, but with the potential to find the kind of meaningful community I’d touched on in my short time in Grand Rapids, MI.

When we began this project, I imagined a workspace of my own. Running a residency would make that possible. In New York, like many big cities, space was at a premium. My practice as a choreographer meant spending nearly as much time scheduling rehearsals as running them. I had done a few residencies, and found the uninterrupted time and space invaluable. I wanted to be on the other side of that. I wanted my own studio. Space to make, to teach, to gather and exchange information. But that certainly wasn’t viable somewhere as costly as New York. And the city didn’t feel right for me anymore – I’d fallen out of love with it. 

While visiting my husband’s parents in Ireland, we began to day dream about what we would do with a big old convent, a prominently derelict feature of the town he grew up. Space for artists. A place to build community. What started as a day dream became an obsession. I found it ignited the same drive that a new choreographic work would light in me. Really, the pull was even greater. 

Indeed, once we found the perfect space (not the convent in the end), it became my creative work. I threw myself into making my vision for Greywood come to life. However, after a year of not really making dances, I began beating myself up for it. Once the studio was ready, and I wasn’t using it, I grew frustrated with myself. Then, after about three years in Ireland, I had some perspective. Now, I look back at all of the planning and designing of the space, the decorating, the programme development, the branding, the community building, and want to say to myself “ok, you’ve really done a lot, and it WAS your creative practice.” There wasn’t energy left to craft performances. Giving myself permission to not choreograph was pivotal. Because I was creating so much, even if wasn’t performative.

As a choreographer, it is hard to feel like I should be “mid-career,” when in Ireland, I am virtually unknown. Although, truthfully, scores of mid-career artists living in NYC would be virtually unknown. But when I moved here, I was back at the beginning in many ways. I was learning to navigate a new system, full of unfamiliar hierarchies. My trusted collaborators were across an ocean, and building new safe, intimate, and honest relationships with new people was daunting. It requires a vulnerability that you are trying to hide as an entrepreneur, spending your time projecting confidence in your new endeavours. But that vulnerability is something I value highly as an artist. 

Another year on, and I’m still not making. I can give you a list of excuses. The main one is time. I struggle with whether this is actually an excuse, or simply a reality. Starting any new business, but especially a not-for-profit one with some reliance on public funding, is all-consuming. And we’re growing rapidly. But I’m feeling the pull to return to my own practice more. And once again, the guilt for not. Internal monologue: if only I was more disciplined. If I just got up earlier. If I could only stick to a schedule. 

In New York, I had external deadlines. It was simple to sign up for one of many work-in-progress sharings or apply to showcases where you can test out your ideas in front of an audience. Most importantly for me, this provided a sense of urgency. I’m responsible for my own deadlines now. And it’s not my strong suit. 

Do a little every day, they say. Just start with 5 minutes. I can do it for a bit. But I can’t sustain it. I’m fascinated by frameworks for creative process. I tried The Artist’s Way and scribbled morning pages for nearly a month. They’re useful anyway, to get all your thoughts down on paper and clear the way for creative flow. A bit like the mediation at the beginning of Contemplative Dance Practice, opening the way for responsive improvised movement (another group from my New York life I miss dearly.) But I never go so far as to find out what to do with them.

Sometimes I wonder – am I still a choreographer? Do I still want to make dances? Performances? Or what? 

It’s exciting to not know. 
It’s terrifying to not know. 

I have no idea where I’m going. 

And I rarely get into my own studio here. (Do I even think of it as mine? I don’t. It’s for the visiting artists…)  

Think back. Where do I usually begin? Start with research. 

There are ideas that have been with me for a long, long time. Percolating. Some since I did a residency in France, just after grad school. Eight years ago!

So much started that summer. My love affair with residencies (and with my now husband – which unbeknownst to me was the beginning of my journey to Ireland). I haven’t gotten to do another residency since. I’m tied here, running this place for now. But back then, I was teasing out something based on visiting the red light district in Amsterdam. And how the portrayal of women in the media dehumanises them – linking this to the prevalence of domestic violence. And food started making its way into the work – cheese, cake shaped like breasts. In a painting of St. Agathe in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, she’s holding her breasts – which had been removed as punishment – on a platter. I was struck by it in 2011, and it stuck with me. The cake in our performance didn’t quite get there – with whatever I was trying to do… But then last year, in Italy, I came upon depictions of Santa Lucia with her eyes on a platter in the village of Minori.  I wondered about these women. The Martyr Saints. Religion has never been a preoccupation for me, but women’s experiences are. I feel compelled – and have for a long time – to do something with these images. 

St. Agathe
by Francisco de Zubarán

But again (or still?), I have no idea where I’m going yet. 

Figuring it out…

I’m not nervous about making (or am I?). If I’m really honest with myself, I’m nervous about sharing with a whole new echelon of people, in a different cultural context. Instead, I think about what I would tell the artists who stay here if they were saying this: Don’t make assumptions about what people know. Or think. It’s okay not to know where you’re at – so long as you’re doing the work.  

Recently, I had to take a driving test to get my Irish license (another unexpected quirk of moving to Ireland). I stalled. I hit a speed bump way too fast. And I was in the wrong lane in the roundabout. I was nervous at the beginning. But I passed.

It turned out okay. 

Photo by Carlos ARL,
Greywood Arts resident March 2019

Jessica Bonenfant Coogan is the artistic director of Greywood Arts, an artist’s residency and community creativity hub in East Cork, Ireland. Jessica came to Ireland after more than a decade based in New York City, where she worked as a choreographer, director, performer, and improviser. She has an interest in creating durational performance installations, exploring site-specific spaces, and creating for film. Her work frequently explores women’s issues. Jessica has worked with students at  University of Toledo, Grand Valley State University, the American College Dance Festival, and University of Michigan – where she received her MFA in choreography. She now teaches improvisation to professional performers at the Firkin Crane in Cork.