Ohio Interviews: Choreographer Jody Oberfelder

Photo of Jody Oberfelder by wowe

Jody, tell us about “4 Chambers,” which you are performing in Officers House #15 on Govenor’s Island for audiences of 12 at a time in July. Did you create the work specifically for this space? What is your hope for how audience members will experience the piece?

I knew that this piece was not meant to be sited in  traditional performance space. At the Documenta last year in Kassel, I was inspired by an installation in an old house by the train station. There was something about being in a space with historical ephemera, ghosts of past lives, rooms and hallways where we were allowed to have our own individual experiences that exited me.

“4Chambers” has been brewing ‘in my head’ for a long time. And that’s pretty rough for a choreographer. We’re used to conceiving our art with live bodies in a room. The dancers are primary in this work, also as ‘docents’ guiding audience members through different experiences in each chamber: visual, physical, ‘mind’ led, and pulsing.  In this work, rather than have the audience empathize kinetically with action on a stage, we are creating an intimate experience for audiences to feel their hearts from the inside out.

The audience will feel they are on the inside of a giant beating organ while also remembering that their body the container of their own heart, with its attributes of both the scientific and the  emotional.  It is my hope that the audience will feel more alive!!!!

Photo by Julie Lemberger selects

Was the work choreographed to music? What sounds will be part of the performance?

When I choreograph, the idea usually comes before the music, unless it’a a piece that’s totally music driven, like my 10 piece suite to Stephen Merritt’s songs (Magnetic Fields) or a commission like Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale (Brooklyn Philharmonic) , or Dido & Aeneas (Orchestra of St. Luke’s).  So the chicken or egg question is usually starting with the big idea, working with movement, (or film) and then as the piece simmers, listening to a lot of different pieces and seeing what lines up. The four composers for this work are a diverse lot. But all could fall under the new music. Andy Akiho and I worked together on THROB, last year’s piece in which the dancers wore heart monitors.  Matt McBane’s work is inviting, gradually accumulating a richness of texture, and Richard Einhorn’s work, composed for two string quartets,  is intense–get’s you stirring. Jonathan Melville’s Pratt’s work was composed for this piece. He sampled his own heart beat, there are strings, a singer–it conveys a pulsing journey.

First “Throb,” now “4 Chambers”– tell us about the source of your interest in the heart. 

My husband, Juergen Riehm, is an architect. One of his clients, Dr. Holly Andersen, is a cardiologist. She heard I was a dancer and said, “Oh, that is such a wonderful thing. When my patients come out of cardiac surgery, I tell them the best thing they can do it put on music that they love, maybe a piece they grew up with, and slowly move to it, not rigorously, but gently. This will strengthen the heart. This let me to a whole study of happy hormones, endorphins, the physical mechanics of the heart, connections of brain and heart, states of being, feeling and thinking.  THROB was a pretty sexy duet with an ersatz scientist giving them tasks, tracking their heart rates and playing the synthesizer to the timing of their accelerating hearts.

I was curious if it was possible to have the audience share the same inflections of heart rate chance as the onstage action. So 4Chambers is my more ‘up close and personal’ response to that questions. Are we able to create an intimate individualized experience for each audience member, and yet have a collective trajectory?

Also, thinking about the heart–that it’s all we’ve got–the great life signifier–you could say I’ve been thinking about mortality in general, but not in a morbid way.

How are you collaborating with neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki? Also, after your focus on the heart, might the brain be next?

Yes–Wendy is actually part of my piece–I interviewed her on the connections between the heart and the brain. She is part of the ‘Artery of Knowledge.’ Her interview is one of several short films, [presented] gallery style, where participants can learn more about the heart.  There’s a demo on pulse points, my friend tells his heart attack story, Sarah Science talks about the circulatory system…lots to read and reflect upon.

The brain as a future project–let me think about that!


The shows are free! To help the company offset the cost, there is a Kickstarter campaign:


There are two VIP previews:  Saturday, June 29 at 2 and 3:30; Friday, July 5 at Noon and 1:30

Performances: July 6, 7; July 13,14; and July 20, 21 

There will be five “seatings” per day:  

11:30 AM 

1 PM

2:30 PM

4 PM

5:30 PM, finished in time for the last ferry.

Reservations for the performances must be made through Mercedes@jodyoberfelder.com