Jessica Rajko to Debut Dance Work Inspired by Drinking Culture at Crescent Ballroom in Downtown Phoenix

After Jessica Rajko learned about the trend of Europeans holding American-style parties complete with hot dogs and drinks served in disposable cups, she started thinking more about drinking culture among young Americans.

The Tempe-based performer, choreographer, and intermedia digital media artist has since choreographed a work titled I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am, which five dancers will perform at the Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, November 12. The cast includes Felix Cruz, Jordan Daniels, Sydney Jackson, Elisa Radcliffe, and Juan Rodriguez. The full-length dance work, which runs about one hour, includes music and spoken parts that help create what Rajko calls a "poetic" vibe.

In addition to choreographing the work, Rajko also designed sets with Melissa Rex, and did both costume design and props. Lighting design is by Carolyn Koch. 

Music for the first part of show has a soundtrack feel. "It makes the first half almost feel like a series of interwoven vignettes," says Rajko. "The intermission," she adds, "is a series of very popular karaoke songs." The last section will feature live DJ performance by DJ Fabulous. The performance includes music by Robin Vining, DJ Magic Mike, and Mad Rad. Karaoke selections are by 4 Non Blondes, Neil Diamond, and Rebecca Black.

A portion of the dance was first performed in September as part of Arizona State University’s Fall Forward dance event. Rajko holds an MFA in dance and interdisciplinary digital media from ASU, where she’s now an assistant professor with the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre.

I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am weaves the personal experiences of the cast and choreographer with cultural phenomena related to drinking alcohol, conveying the complex nature of diverse drinking experiences not reflected in dominant narratives about the ways and whys of young adult drinking.

Despite ASU's party school reputation (it ranked #17 on the Princeton Review's "Top Party Schools for 2012" list), that wasn't a big impetus for Rajko creating the piece. Rajko says she learned from ASU psychology professor William Corbin and Karen Moses, Director of ASU Wellness, that only half of college students actually drink, despite popular notions that nearly all of them do so. During the course of doing research for the piece, Rajko found all sorts of ASU-specific alcohol-related facts on the ASU Wellness website

While talking with diverse young adults, observing drinking in various settings, and researching the psychology of this age group and alcohol, Rajko discovered that stereotypes about drinking, which center on the experiences of white heterosexual students at college fraternity or house parties, only tell part of the story. 

Rajko hopes her piece, created in collaboration with the cast, will convey the bigger picture. People who drink have vastly different experiences. And stories shared, whether focused on alcohol or other parts of human experience, should reflect the full depth and breadth of American society. Although she choreographed the work with those ages 21 to 35 or so in mind (she's 33), Rajko says it appeals to a much broader audience. "I think this topic really touches everyone in different ways, and the piece tries to acknowledge that."

The process of creating what Rajko sometimes calls her “drunken dance” included engaging cast members in discussions of their own encounters with alcohol — such as their first drinking experience, and their most poignant one. Rajko had each think about where they drink most often, and consider some creative questions, too. “If you met someone new for the first time,” she asked, “how would you describe your friend alcohol to them?”

The resulting work is a mash-up of movement and dialogue. “Sometimes the piece feels very personal, and sometimes it makes a broader statement,” she says. The piece features both contemporary modern and musical theater styles of dance.

Rajko is excited about performing the work at Crescent Ballroom. “I wanted to be in a space where people have these experiences,” she says. But Rajko, who typically presents site-specific work, sees another benefit. “It’s more accessible than a theater,” she explains.

Cast member Sydney Jackson, an ASU dance major who turned 21 during the course of working on I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am, thinks the medium of dance can help people explore issues it’s sometimes hard to discuss.

“America’s drinking culture is a big dark elephant in the room,” says Jackson. “There’s a lot of silence and awkwardness.”

Jackson expects the performance to elicit strong reactions. “I think people will go through emotions,” she says. “They’ll begin to think about how they conduct themselves, and how they experience drinking culture.”

I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am is being performed at 8 p.m. on Thursday, November 12, at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix. Several musical performances will follow. Tickets to the 21-and-over event are $7 presale or $12 at the door, are available on the Crescent Ballroom website