02 / Jamie Benson on the Art of Not Fitting In: an interview with Germaine Shames

Jamie Benson

Jamie Benson aims to challenge performance traditions and create accessibly original work as a dancer, choreographer, producer and instructor.

Jamie attended the Dance Department of Cornish College of Fine Art and Spectrum Dance Theater on scholarship—and there any resemblance to Billy Elliot ends. A boundary-pusher and glorious misfit, he observes and explores humanity by placing differing styles of dance into unexpected, and often humorous, everyday landscapes.

What follows is a candid and personal conversation with Jamie about his life in dance and performance—a life of creative tenacity with which many artists will, no doubt, identify. Welcome, Jamie!

There was not an obvious career path waiting for you when you completed your dance training. In many ways you have made a strength of not fitting in. What has it been like to forge an independent niche for yourself? Do you consider yourself a better dancer for it?

I’m afraid “not fitting in” turned out to be my strength, so I finally embraced it. In dance, unlike other creative professions, fitting in is often a necessity. Only in the last few years have I decided to own my quirky looks and unusual interests, my asymmetry. Obvious career path? Yikes, no. I’ve tried for years to reconcile my jazz baby beginnings with the modern-based technique I first acquired in college. I now, more or less, embody the eternal tension between entertainment value and artistic integrity.

Jamie Benson

It’s been a long, gruesome road. I’ve sort of given up on dance a couple of times only to end up immersed in it all the same. The process has made me a better performer, certainly. The struggles I’ve endured being my own Producer, Choreographer, Public Relations Rep and Development Director add a lot of weight, I think, to my performances—even when they’re humor-heavy. I’ve heard it said that the comedians with the most painful backgrounds end up being the funniest.

Plus, after some significant successes with regard to my development and marketing efforts, I’ve started getting work helping others with it. That is very fulfilling also. Now, if I just had a little more time and money to do my own work, I’d be set.

Ballet formed the cornerstone of your training. Traditionally, ballerinas and danseurs and their instructors and choreographers have remained faithful to rules laid down centuries ago. As a choreographer you freely pair classic and barbaric dance forms. Is there anything about ballet—technically, thematically, spiritually—that you hold sacred? By adding an element of barbarism to ballet, what is gained? How do you know when you have gone too far?

Germaine, this is a stellar question. Ballet is a crucial expressive form. It embodies many of the structures we as choreographers use to tell a story or express a feeling. Because the rules can be so stringent in its purist form, ballet can get stuck in the past. It’s loads of fun to take ballet class. There is a sense of history, pure elegance and a wonderful longing to defy reality with beauty.

Having typed that, I love using ballet in my own work as a representation for the aristocracy, or the pretence we present to the world. When a ballerina loses her lift, her steel-like structure, her refined magnificence, it offers so much in terms of drama and metaphor. Who hasn’t, while trying so hard to stay tall, keep it together, lost that will to present strength and beauty? As someone who loves all things outlandish or “campy” I feel I’ve never gone too far with this (although I suspect I’ve gotten close). As long as I find a sense of authenticity in the narrative I’m creating, I feel on the right track. The work has to be grounded in some definitive truth. I find great delight in placing highbrow and lowbrow themes next to each other. I walk the line where they meet in an attempt to break new ground in dance. Ballet is a respected part of that process.

Your marriage, about which you created a performance piece, attests to the power, not only of love, but also creative synergy. In what ways has your marriage contributed to your development as an artist?

Wow, I’ve gained so much from my relationship with Andrae Gonzalo. He, being the consummate visual artist and fashion designer, helped push me back into dance during one of my hiatuses. Much of my work has been collaboration with him. His deep love and knowledge of theater has helped to inform the work also. Our tastes are just similar enough to share a stage and yet different enough to keep us frustrated, challenged. Not to mention the fact that his ability to innovate the costuming is really awe-inspiring. HEAR THIS CHOREOGRAPHERS: Please put more thought into your costumes. They propel the work to new conceptual/aesthetic heights. The costumes, along with your choreography, further enable an audience to suspend their disbelief & be taken away with your work.

The life of any artist seems to hold its own unique interplay of agony and ecstasy. How would you describe yours?

Jamie Benson

Wow again. Let’s be frank. Money and looks have been a source of a lot of turmoil for me as a dancer. The cost to continue consistently training, alongside the pathetic rates dancers get to perform, has frustrated and derailed me a few times. I’ve noticed other dancers from wealthier families excel in a more seamless way. I’ve worked three odd jobs simultaneously at any given time my entire adult life. Although the employment I have now is both more fulfilling and pays better, I’m still juggling part-time gigs. I’ve spent much of my best dancing years scrambling to pay rent. That has an emotional and physical toll. It’s tricky, although dance is a high-minded art form, it’s also an aesthetically-based performance form. In many dance forms, women are often supposed to look lithe, thin and sexy whereas men broad, strong, a heartthrob. I’m afraid I did not fit the bill often—being told over and over that I was “too skinny” or “too quirky” to the point where I developed a complex about it. Of course, I always intended to make more time & room in the budget for a gym membership and personal trainer, but it wasn’t possible during my younger years.

That being said, I’ve created the kind of work that I want to see and, I’m told, doesn’t exist anywhere else. That is a satisfaction reserved for very, very few. I’m deeply grateful to continue to pull that off. Being able to create a platform uniquely your own and have people relate to it is so much more exhilarating than being the third dancing Disney Chipmunk to the left. Because I’ve been able to produce work that I love before, I truly believe in my ability to manifest this joy again and have every intention to do so.

In addition to your very busy life as a performer, choreographer and producer, you also teach. What do you strive to pass on to your pupils that your instructors never taught you?

Not to be too self-critical! It’s tough to stare at yourself in a mirror and be told you aren’t doing things right for a whole class at a time. Humor is also a major factor in my approach to teaching. I’m quick to acknowledge the mistakes I make in class or to share mistakes that I used to make if a student is having a similar problem. It disarms the students and gives them wiggle room to grow without unnecessary drama.

What is next for Jamie Benson? What else would you like to share with our readers?

Jamie Benson

I actually have a big announcement, Germaine, and would love to reveal it here! I just accepted a job from dance presenter White Bird to be the Rehearsal Director for Le Grand Continental, a groundbreaking work by internationally renowned, Montreal-based choreographer, Sylvain Emard. I’m responsible for teaching a diverse group of 200 Oregonians a 30-minute contemporary line dance. I’ll help organize the event, lead rehearsals, and perform with those selected. This is the same performance series I’ve been working on in New York as an assistant, and it was a rather profound experience. While in New York, it was inspiring to witness the work become about far more then learning a series of movements. This event is absent of ego (almost any age, weight, or experience level can do it) and uses dance as a common denominator to bring a broad community together. Le Grand Continental has been traveling around the world, and I am thoroughly grateful to be a part of both the New York and Portland versions of it. Check the video trailer out and see for yourself.

I look forward to sharing more exciting dance stories with you all again.