Jerron Herman: Dancer/choreographer decodes Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday August 1, 2023
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Jerron Herman (photo: Maria Baranova)
Jerron Herman (photo: Maria Baranova)

For the 11th annual State of Play Dance Festival, August 3 through 13 at ODC Theater, a dozen visiting and local choreographers and many dancers will participate in showings of works in progress as well as workshops and site-specific performances. One standout is Jerron Herman, whose extensive solo confronts the artistic 'perfection' of Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing.

Having worked with prominent choreographers like Heidi Latsky, Herman, 32, has also spent years developing his own repertory in group projects and solos. He premiered "Vitruvian" last year. Since then it's been adapted for a film version as well. Along with acclaim for this work, and being featured on the cover of Dance Magazine, he's received grants for the project from several arts foundations.

Herman's abridged solo will be part of the festival on August 10 and 12. Born in San Francisco and raised in Alameda, Herman has spent the last 14 years living in New York City. We discussed his background in dance and his focus on re-seeing Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man embodied by a Black disabled queer man.

Jerron Herman (photo: Daniel Kim)  

Jim Provenzano: Your concept of the Vitruvian Man become live and your interpretations of it are quite intriguing. You've performed this at a few places, right?
Jerron Herman: Yes, I premiered it in New York City in May 2022 at Abrons Arts Center. I took it to the Baltimore Museum of Art in March this year. ODC will be the third stop, but it also lives as a film that's had releases at Abrons Arts Center and also Lincoln Center.

A few prominent disabled-inclusive dance companies like AXIS Dance in Oakland and Candoco in London have expanded opportunities, but there are still few. Which came first for you, the "I'm determined to break into the dance world" or perhaps, "I'm going to use it as physical therapy for cerebral palsy?"
Oh, therapy didn't factor in at all. It was actually a very out-of-the-blue invitation from another choreographer, Sean Curran.

He and Heidi Latsky —hers was my first company that I was with— were both early Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dancers. They're very good friends, and I was an education apprentice at the New Victory Theater during college. I was assigned to be his assistant for one of his workshops. And he was like, "No, I don't need an assistant. Be a participant."

And over the course of a week, he was interested in my movement and introduced me to his company and the concept of modern dance. And then finally, he brokered an audition for me with Heidi's company. I auditioned for her, and I was with her for eight years.

With Heidi's company, the preeminent physically-integrated dance company in New York City, but I think that her having her lineages and her legacy and practice in Modern dance really spoke to how my body already moved. And so there was a kind of simpatico or a bit of mirroring with respect to the form and then how my body worked, how my body moved already.

It became a lot about translating what I already do or how my body expresses. We were both very surprised with how there were some things that fell in line with typical line or typical of athleticism and some things that really had to be modified.

So it was a journey in her company of piecemealing or thinking about the variety of ways that I was either exhibiting some elements of Modern dance already and ways that I was able of being taught. I really learned on the job. That was a trial by fire and one of the most exciting art moments of my life because it was so unexpected.

I'm curious about your inspiration for the specificity of the da Vinci 'perfect man,' which he used as a geometric sign to show the human form, with a female, which is of course also famous for being included in a satellite sent to outer space. What caught your eye first that inspired you to interpret it?
I've always been a big art history nerd, and I've always had a fascination with antiquity as a source of maybe some hidden truths, some ideas that we can assimilate to in modernity. One of my biggest barriers to that realm is its lionizing of symmetry, and for me being quite asymmetrical, I found incongruity. I just didn't fit.

What do you expect? I'm a Black, disabled, twenty-first-century man. I wouldn't be Hercules if I tried, but nevertheless, there was this thing around the idea; how do you get to an image? How do you get to enflesh or embody something? That journey was really exciting to me. And I come from the theater world, so I thought about what could my story ballet be if I were to create a world and create a narrative?

And the Vitruvian Man was oddly so present in my life, just this idea of constantly being, if not explicitly, then definitely implicitly always matched up with this idea of using all four of your limbs, using your faculties as best as possible.

Jerron Herman performs "Vitruvian" (photo: Maria Baranova)  

My childhood in the Bay Area and at the storied Kaiser Permanente was littered with Physical Therapy sessions that were all about me utilizing my body to an extent of sociality and to efficiency. And in my work, solos have always had this bridge of the past and present that is a personal history of, say, my experiences with cerebral palsy and that being quite misunderstood, my use of athleticism not being clocked as legitimate because they have been underneath the time clock. But so this kind of falls into the same vein where I'm going back into the history and finding ways that I do match and fit into the image.

Yes, one thing I disliked about studying dance was ballet's centuries-old false ideal of perfection and symmetry that you mentioned. Discovering postmodern works like Trisha Brown was always in contrast over feeling the need to be perfect. Post-modern dance was a savior because you could be unusual. Did you know of AXIS or other companies or even spaces that would welcome you?
My parents were always very adamant about me finding my community when I was growing up, getting entrenched, understanding disability for myself when I was in adolescence. I was quite into being a maverick and doing it all myself and independent. I do remember, though, because I grew up in Alameda, so the Alice Arts Center, which was the Malonga Casquelourd Center back in the day, was in downtown Oakland.

I went there for one class, I think it was a contemporary hip hop class, and we did a combination to Justin Timberlake's "Senorita," but I didn't realize that that was the holding house for AXIS. And so it was as though I had just missed them and missed an opportunity of understanding that. But I think about that often. I went to New York to find my community and that's been kind of strange for me, knowing that the Bay Area is the birthplace of the modern disability rights movement.

It's the Fertile Crescent of disability rights and disability justice, and I had to go all the way to New York to figure that out? That's really funny to me. But what I realized is that my journey was about it being authentic, so I definitely couldn't do what my parents told me to do, so I rebelled.

That's why coming to ODC this summer is impactful and important, because it's a true homecoming. I'm bringing this piece back to the roots of not only my childhood and how I was reared, but also kind of offering to disability rights and just disability justice legacies. I'm bringing what I've learned away from them back to the environment that really spurred it on without any of my help.

I found New York City in the 1980s and '90s was difficult, just to live there as an able-bodied person. Do you have to make adjustments?
Sure. There is taxi program that subsidizes folks through the city, so you can take a cab for the same price as a subway ride if you're in the program, which I think is fab. And I guess we're all in some housing lottery. Unfortunately I have always had walk-ups until recently. So I am now in an elevator building, which is so great, finally in a space that feels like assistance to what I do.

I'm doubling up. I'm disabled, but I'm also a dancer, so on any given day, I don't know what injury is from where, what ailment is from where. But now we have our first disabled officer of accessibility for the MTA, Quemuel Arroyo. He's amazing. Actually, I danced with him for a couple of years in Heidi's company.

There's also a host of new innovations on stages, and there's a new reclamation of accessibility. Danspace Project became wheelchair-accessible recently. Mark Morris continues to be a champion for their Parkinson's Disease program for aging individuals and showcasing them in actual performances. There's a lot of change going on culturally, infrastructurally. There is always going to be something that is left to be desired. The funniest thing that disabled people do, often, know how to adapt for themselves, and the adaptation can look quite strange. I have some wheelchair-using friends who descend down subway stairs.

You have the unique opportunity of representing a trifecta of communities. You're turning it into a gift, but also you're pushing these boundaries.
Yeah, I would think so. Yeah, they're complementary, for sure.

Were you attracted to certain choreographers because their movements, their style was amenable to you? Do you find other choreographers who you've wanted to work with or to study?
I'm drawn to choreographers who consider abandonment and consider the relationship between constrained and release, which is really the two markers, two pillars of my movement. But I also love a challenge. I also am seeking complementary or even challenging disciplines, challenging styles, so that I can grow.

Jerron Herman  

As I've become a soloist, I still kind of miss the imparting that happens from other choreographers. There is something there that I do like to dip in and out of, because company life, I don't think it's for me anymore, but I do like to learn, to interpret.

That's what has assuaged any kind of need to be the best, because I'm just interpreting. I think I've released myself from perfection for several different political reasons.

The empirical nature of dance is that, like we said, the height of perfection is a goal, but not anymore, and not for many choreographers.
A step's being perfect is definitely an internal goal, or that the performance itself could lend or exhibit the intentions of the choreographer or the idea person; that's always forefront. Excellence and rigor won't be relaxed, but what will be is a sense of shame, I guess.

One of my biggest humbling moments was in one of my last pieces with Heidi. It's a trio with two women who are fabulous, gorgeous, non-disabled, and me, and it was Heidi's desire for her longest-running dancers to be in a piece together. And literally the first half in, from the wings, I'm off my leg. There's a picture: I'm in the front, downstage, and I'm out of sync for the first ten seconds of the piece. I'm off, and everyone's on. How indicative of everything.

But again, we got through. The end of the piece gets revved up and all these other things, and actually those little things. Why is the first seconds of a piece hard for me, because of my spasticity? I tense the first moment I'm on stage, and then I need to relax.

So what I did with it for my solos is incorporate a sense of warming up at first, and there's something performative that I must implement in order to get my body ready to then do a full jeté, a turn, what have you. I allowed myself to get to a place of my authenticity, but not at the expense of some prowess.

When we think about accommodating disabled people in spaces and in society, it's not that we can't do the rigorous things the whole time. It's that we might have bursts that are in the pocket and then others that aren't, or that we might need more accommodation before we get to the thing and then on and then off, more accommodation.

It's temporal, and I think that that's one of the things around disability that people still feel awkward about. It's like they now expect a yes or a no. It's more malleable. And there's something around it that is quite germane to a dance practice.

Several solos from the experimental Judson Church era in the late 1960s are now considered iconic for post-modern dance. Are you finding that 'Vitruvian' is going to be your signature solo piece, or are you looking forward to making other works?
I've been getting to "Vitruvian" for a while. I think that it's a culmination of a lot. I started really in earnest in 2018 and started making solos around 2016. But it really wasn't until the premier —the commission to build it and then to make it— that I had the thought of, oh, this could be signature, this could be something that feels personal, also theatrically effectual and also true to where I was and where I am, and technically interesting. That was really important to me.

The leaders of the Judson era are my totems as well, and I definitely look to them for ways of collectivity or collaboration or how to build a piece. I definitely was looking at Yvonne Rainer's "Trio A" multiple times during the creation of this next solo I'm in, and Steve Paxton's works have been really helpful.

I loved him. I wanted to be him, basically.
Yeah, he's great. He's a rock star, for sure.

His pioneering of contact improvisation led me the discovery of not having to fit a box of "This is how the movement goes," but instead, "This is how the movement comes to you." Do you find opportunities within "Vitruvian" that are improvised?
There are definitely moments of improvisation. There are still places to respond to the environment where the improvisation happens within structured places. There's a section that's literally called "Break," and that is both for the audience, for myself, for the ancestors of all the people I talk to. It's an eight-minute section. It will be shortened for ODC because the whole piece is 45 minutes, but I'm doing a 30-minute section.

Artist Chella Man redrew da Vinci's Vetruvian Man for Jerron Herman's dance.  

Ironically, "Break" will be cut short, but in it I do allow myself that time to ready my body and assimilate to the floor, do all those kind of thematic, juicy things in the view of the audience. It has really resonated with folks because really it makes them uncomfortable. It's eight minutes of darkness/meditative slowness with me on a wall with a floor light kind of shining in.

Allowing an audience and myself to sit for eight minutes proved to be challenging to folks, but also really helped them to assess their speed and time, because before that, I'm ripping and raring for a good ten minutes. They're with me in this energy, and then we slow it down. It definitely changes the room.

My Baltimore concert was particularly interesting because there was a new community of disabled artists that I had met that really came to the show; we came for each other. It was like I was just the context that they got to have their time, so that was kind of fun. I was like, great, you're not even coming for me. You're coming for your friends. I loved it, because they, in terms of spaces, got to be together for something that is about them. They have those moments that aren't theatricalized, so to have someone register it as a theatrical moment was really special. And so, yeah, that's what I do. If I'm making an improv moment, it's to serve the story, and it's also to serve the response, how I can respond to real time.

'State of Play' at ODC Theater August 3-13, $10-$30 (Jerron Herman Aug. 10 & 12, 6pm). For some shows, ASL interpretation available, and facemasks required. ODC Theater, 3153 17th St.

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