Office Hours: Cunningham Centennial
Nancy Dalva and Rashaun Mitchell
Nancy Dalva was appointed the Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence in 2012. She produced and wrote the webseries Mondays with Merce, and produced the videos in the Mondays with Merce Film Library–all available on the Trust’s YouTube channel, which she manages. She also administers the Merce Cunningham Facebook page and Twitter; assists scholars, researchers, dancers and students; and writes, lectures, and arranges discussions about Cunningham’s work.
Rashaun Mitchell is an Assistant Arts Professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Dance Program. A celebrated performer and choreographer, he is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Bessie awards, and is a licensed stager of the repertory of Merce Cunningham.
NANCY DALVA: Hello, I’m Nancy Dalva. I’m here at the Skirball Center with Rashaun Mitchell to discuss the Merce Cunningham Centennial program here at this theater. Hi, Rashaun.
RASHAUN MITCHELL: Hi, Nancy.
ND: Tell me about the program.
RM: Well there’s three choreographers: Mina Nishimura, Netta Yerushalmy, and Moriah Evans who are all creating new works in response to Merce Cunningham. And the proposal is really open and I don’t know exactly what they’re doing; they’re all deeply entrenched in their processes right now. And I’m getting glimpses of things that they’re doing, but it will be a shared bill. And there will also be two performers performing Cunningham choreography, Shayla-Vie Jenkins and Keith Sabado. And Davison Scandrett is doing the lighting for the entire thing and it is just an experiment in seeing kind of how Merce’s legacy and Merce’s influence resides in these particular women but also as a proxy for kind of the larger contemporary landscape.
ND: And what do you do?
RM: I’m doing this. I’m talking to you. I mean, I essentially am acting as curator, guest curator, I suppose. I am a trustee on the Cunningham Trust and so one of the sort of mandates of the trust is to kind of preserve and enhance Merce’s work. Of course we are in the Centennial year so he would have been a hundred now and there are lots of different programs happening throughout the world this entire year of different scales and types. When I became a trustee I think I just, you know, I was trying to think about what I could bring to the table that wasn’t already there maybe. It was clear to me that the Centennial would certainly consist of a lot of very typical things that we would expect. You know, the repertory being performed. Right? There’s lots of companies that are performing the work. There’s lots of freelance dancers that are performing the work. There’s this huge, you know, Night of 100 Solos that’s happening…
ND: This is happening in three theaters the same day Merce’s 100th birthday in London, in Brooklyn, and in Los Angeles. Performers almost all previously unacquainted with Cunningham’s work are performing solos that are being put into an event so that many solos will happen at the same time. And it’s all being live-streamed so if you’re really dedicated you could see the whole thing. It’s just so ambitious this project Night of 100 Solos and it’s very exciting and two of your dancers on this program are performing parts of that.
RM: That’s right. Cori Kresge and Eleanor Hullihan are both in Night of 100 Solos and they both have danced in my work.
ND: And are they in this program?
RM: They’re not in this program but Keith Sabado is in the Night.
RM: But Keith Sabado…oh that’s what you mean…yeah Keith Sabado and Shayla-Vie Jenkins are both performing in Night of 100 Solos at BAM and have agreed to also perform their solos at Skirball. One of the beautiful things about the Night of 100 Solos is that all of the dancers that have agreed to do the project have been given a license to perform their solos that they’ve learned for the next two years, so it’s a nice way to think about the future and to give them opportunities to perform the work
ND: Did you stage any of these solos?
RM: I did I taught eight different solos, four of them in New York and four of them in London which I just got back from London. Daniel Squire is directing the London event and Patricia Lent is directing the New York event.
ND: All of these people are former Cunningham dancers who now stage Merce’s work.
RM: Right, that’s right, and I went to London and taught these solos in an environment that was really remarkable, actually. The rehearsal process was happening at the Wayne McGregor Studios. It’s a beautiful open sort of white space. All of the dancers that were enlisted to do this are from different companies the Rambert Company, Scottish Ballet, different freelance dancers and so it was a real nice mix of people and artists and bodies and interests and backgrounds. And everyone kind of exchanging at the same time and everyone working simultaneously in the same room which was really fascinating.
ND: It does sound that there’s a baseline technical facility in that group.
RM: Oh yeah. I mean, I didn’t have anything to do with the casting of any of these. Well that’s not true, I did recommend some people. But certainly in order to do Merce’s work successfully there’s a certain technical level of proficiency that one needs or is ideal. And all of these dancers have that. So that’s sort of the baseline but then getting them to that place in a very short amount of time where the work actually looks like the work, that’s a different challenge.
ND: Had you danced all the things you coached?
RM: I had danced all the things I coached, yes. A lot of the solos that I taught were Merce’s roles actually, so I taught a little bit from “Crises.” I taught a solo from “Square Game.” I taught two different solos from “Antic Meat.” Something from “Split Sides.” My solo from “Nearly 90.” I think there’s a couple of other ones in there, taught a “Changing Step” solo actually to Danny McCusker, which was really quite fun to do. I didn’t perform that solo very much but it was one of those solos that was like a training material for new dancers coming into the company.
ND: So in some cases you’re passing on material that you acquired directly from Merce and you are now transferring it or transmitting it to a next generation or across generations, some of these dancers are after all your own age. Do you feel there’s a special responsibility in any way when the role was Merce’s?
RM: I mean I think there’s a special responsibility period.
ND: That’s a good answer.
RM: No, really because you know it’s certainly relatively easy to teach a step right. You know you can break it down to the building blocks of the material itself. And a lot of people are skilled at learning a step in a series of steps. But there’s this other kind of underlying information or mysterious kind of aspect of the work that has to be transmitted too and that’s a lot harder.
ND: Rashaun Mitchell, you have now gotten to the questions that I wrote down to ask you without my asking them, which is “What makes up Cunningham besides steps?”
RM: Oh my God. It’s such a fascinating question, isn’t it?
ND: I would like you to talk about intention, phrasing, and that within any given phrase–or what Merce would say “how to get from here to there”–there are choices for you and that might even change from performance to performance. That kind of thing. So when you coach once the steps are there, how do you convey the rest?
RM: Well it’s tricky. It’s complicated. It’s imperfect. And I think I have a lot of anxiety about it, actually, when I’m in the moment. Because there’s a part of me that wants to remain as neutral as possible and to just deliver the information that I was given…
ND: But you were given that information in the Cunningham studio by Cunningham so there’s all this…
RM: Or by the anointed teachers and stagers of the work that I learned…yes…
ND: We could say that Merce knew how to draw out the qualities that he wanted and he knew what he wanted. And if you look in the notes, you can see it might have been a pretty complex thing he wanted. He could get that just by giving stage directions.
RM: Because he was who he was. And for me, the way that he spoke to me and the way that he coached me and directed me, the language that he used was always pretty anatomical or sort of energetic, maybe. Never, you know, narrative or metaphorical or image-based just super matter-of-fact, right? And yet, I think as a dancer in the work you arrive through the repetition of– it’s so much repetition–but through the repetition of the work, you arrive at some other kind of meaning, I think, in yourself that does get, that is palpable, right? And so, how do you transmit that? I think that’s a really interesting question.
ND: And then there’s another thing–which is more technical perhaps–which are elements of stagecraft, which don’t have to do with steps but at which I consider you to be the supreme exponent for example how to get the audience to look where you want them to look. Are they looking at your foot? Are they looking into the wings? How do you direct where they’re looking and when do you look at them? When I look at your videos I can see that this is part of how you dance.
RM: Well I think maybe it would be good to tell a story. When I first got into the company, there was a very, very, very short period of transmission time between Ashley Chen who I replaced and myself. And he taught me all of his repertory in a very short amount of time and the situation is so pressured and precious. I remember often learning something and not quite knowing it yet and being thrust in front of Merce to show the material. And there was something; it’s such a strong memory in my mind, because of the sort of pressure of the situation. I remember thinking like “Okay, you know you don’t know what you’re doing at all, so how do you manage that, how do you negotiate that?” And there was a certain sort of survival strategy that I developed in the beginning to somehow convey that I knew what I was doing without actually knowing and somehow it was legible or passable until I was able to actually fully integrate all of the movement. Because it is very complex movement to coordinate generally speaking and I feel like there was something about intentionality. There’s something about, maybe the tone in the body, there’s…there’s an energy a sensibility that is developed through the training system and through being in front of Merce.
ND: When you go like this, that’s one of the qualities, which is that even when still, you are moving. The current of energy across the body never stops. Stillness is just another kind of moving.
RM: Right. Yes, and so, for me I feel like I didn’t necessarily think about this when I was dancing the work but now that I’ve moved past that and I’m doing a lot of reflecting and looking at the archives and digging into these questions of legacy and like what remains. And the question is, like, really for me, what is the work? Because I feel that the most obvious answer is that it’s the repertory, it’s the step. But for me that’s a little hollow, feels like a fossil or like an art object of some kind versus this mysterious kind of underlying information that is present in the performer. And also the larger idea of the work, you know, Merce’s philosophies, his methodologies, his process. I was trying to talk about what the work, what I’m trying to get at about what the work is because without the life force of the artist, without the sort of apparatus of the whole system that has created the environment, the collaborators, the sort of like ethical concerns, the methodologies like all of that for me is the work and it builds into the thing that gets seen as the product.
ND: Yes so, the performance is the tip of an iceberg. There’s the studio at Westbeth. There’s all the dancers who have come before and move in and out, of course, you.
RM: And there’s his notation system that we now have more access to. You know a lot of his notes and the way that he worked were not available to us when he was alive. Now that he’s passed, people are digging into the notes and looking at each piece and sort of starting to kind of open up or understand what was at play what questions he had in each piece. And how, you know, for instance, how did he use the chance procedures? You know, I think it’s a really huge misconception that people have.
ND: Let’s address this conception that people think that you were making that up in the wings.
RM: Yeah, no. People say that often like “Oh you were improvising.” or “You kind of just did whatever you wanted.” or Merce just rolled a dice to like make all the decisions. It’s like, no that’s not…
ND: So let’s return to something earlier that you said which was that people doing this now are entrenched in this process. I think there’s this notion that somehow Merce was a very process-y person in the studio, but he did all of that before he came in. He used chance at some point or points in the making of every work, but once he decided it was done with rare exception.
RM: Yeah and by the time it got to us, it was already a relatively fixed thing. And of course there’s interpretation and there’s things that get lost or gained in transmission, but pretty much the step that was delivered to us was usually transmitted verbally by the time, in my era, by the time I was there, because he wasn’t really able to move his body in the same way. So there was a real clarity always.
ND: Your generation was able to make his thoughts visible. It went from his words into your performing it was an extraordinary ability you all developed, I think.
RM: Well I think by the time you know in my generation, he was a different Merce than I think he was prior. I think we all sort of had a more sort of loving grandfatherly relationship to him. So I don’t know if that engendered something in the work, but that’s an interesting point.
ND: Earlier dancers have noted with some asperity that you got a different Merce.
RM: I think we got a better deal maybe in some levels.
ND: I was very pleased to hear you say Mercer would have been 100, because the idea that he is 100 seems strange to me, because he isn’t. To me, he’s as we last knew him at 90, but he’s also all the ages he ever was that you now can consider him…
RM: He’s exponential.
ND: It’s the continuum of his entire life, but also we now can stand back and see the repertory as a whole. So standing here now in this place that you’re in where you’re a choreographer yourself, you have your own work, your own company, doing all these things with the trust, what is your survival strategy for keeping Merce in your mind as he was?
RM: I don’t try to do that.
ND: What do you do or you just don’t think about it?
RM: I mean, I do think about it. I think I’ve had different strategies over different points in time and a lot of them have to do with my own physiology and what’s going on in my body and how my body is responding to emotion. Some of it has to do with the choreographic questions that I find myself asking in my own work and always there’s the understanding that like I am inevitably and forever linked to him. So on some level whatever I do or make is often seen through the lens of him and so I think in certain pieces that I’ve made I’ve tried to address that. In certain pieces, I mean, I tried to ignore that. I’ve tried to go really far away. I’ve tried to go back to the scene of the crime and kind of uncover things and rearrange things. And I guess that means that I’m interested in this idea of legacy, in this idea of influence, in this idea of like passing things on and how we evolve as a society, as a culture, as individuals. And I think those questions are always present and I think I am in this place now where I’m like transferring those questions over to other people to see how they handle it and to see if they might illuminate something to me that I haven’t been able to discover yet. And so I think all of these choreographers are not the most obvious choice, right? It’s like in terms of thinking about who’s influenced by Merce Cunningham, I mean you could say Pam Tanowitz or you could say Sarah Michelson or you could say a lot of other people.
ND: Liz Gerring.
RM: Liz Gerring.
ND: Or even choreographers who are of a much older generation like Trisha Brown.
RM: Exactly, yeah, and of course all of the people that danced for him that are choreographers. You know, Kimberly Bartosik and Jonah Bokaer, like different people. Neal Greenberg. I mean there’s lots of people that could have been asked to do this but I feel like…
ND: Douglas Dunn.
RM: Douglas Dunn, exactly, but I feel like I wanted to choose and think about people that weren’t the most obvious choice and to see if we could uncover slightly more like invisible threads.
ND: Well I want to think about two things that I thought about your work after Merce. The first one was I went to Boston to see your staging of “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” at the ICA and I realized what an amazing stager you were of the work.
RM: Well that was the first staging project I ever did.
ND: And then I went to see your own work and I was just it was such a revelation to me because I’d seen you dancing Merce’s roles and I had just thought you were like that and when I saw you as yourself in your own work “Oh my goodness he’s just entirely different.” That was truly performance. It was a sublime, not an impersonation but an embodiment of someone else’s qualities. I hadn’t realized how what an advanced activity and acting that was until I saw you as yourself.
RM: Yeah well, it’s interesting because when I used to do, when I was, you know…you take class every day as a dancer. And certainly in that work and the technique is the thing that you know. It’s a formula and you repeat the same exercises every day with slight variations, right? And I just remember like always feeling like I would start the class not knowing exactly who I was or what I felt and just going through some kind of motions but like somehow in the process like arriving at myself. Like it’s almost like identity forming to do the class in a weird way. So like there was a sort of stretch of embodiment that happened every day, over and over again, right? But that accumulates over time and I feel like some of the work like the more abs–I don’t wanna use that word, but some of the more complex later works are considered to be more abstract than some of the earlier work.
ND: They’re less narrative. The subliminal narrative is even more so submerged.
RM: But to do “Crises” for instance required me to be an actor; like, that’s the thing. And it wasn’t explicitly relayed to me in that way. It’s just that as I was learning it and as we were all like collaboratively trying to arrive at the thing that we thought it could be, I felt like, “Oh I have to actually tap into something that is completely outside of this technique actually and completely outside of everything that I’ve learned about this work.” It’s like I’m drawing from some other place. I think we all do that as dancers and as performers we’re always drawing from different places sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously but I think it’s like that. That’s the stickiness there, I think. That is the work almost. And when dealing with transmission, I’m dealing with like having to teach these roles to different people who never met him or didn’t see the work or haven’t trained. I do have to almost kind of relay my own experiential knowledge in a different way.
ND: One of the things that Cunningham’s dancers got to do over time was move backwards in time like wizards and dance through the repertory. And always the dancers moving backwards found the dances, found the work easier than the dancers had come into it originally because the technique got so much more complex.
RM: Oh, I could actually disagree, slightly. I disagree because I feel like, or I think I disagree, if I understand what you said correctly, you know, I feel like in my generation we got really good at moving very fast and doing lots of complicated isolated movements and really intricate rhythms, like that was our thing, you know. And when we were asked to go back to the sixties and do these sort of like more austere or kind of like more full-bodied you know actions, we weren’t very good at it. It was like putting on a different outfit, you know, and trying… It’s not quite fitting right. So that’s how I felt about it, actually.
ND: I asked Merce about it. I said, “Is it important that the dancers have danced through the repertory?” He said “oh yes.” I want to mention another piece of yours “Interface” where to my interpretive mind you asked yourself “What didn’t Merce choreograph for?” and the answer was the face. So you extended the act of choreography to the face and I thought that was a radical extension of what you were already doing. And so that fits in with your part of your description of what you do now. I think it might be important as long as we’re here on camera to say what did you do here at NYU.
RM: Oh yeah. Well, I teach in the Dance Department at Tisch School of the Arts where I’m also the associate chair. I’ve been there for seven years. And I’ve had a trajectory of teaching that has really shifted over time, first coming in really as a Cunningham teacher and that was what I was hired to do, but then immediately sensing some friction about teaching a technique, like archaic technique to a younger generation of people who have no access to the work. So being confronted with this question of how to make it relevant and whether it should even be relevant, I don’t know. There’s a lot of questions that I have there, but just how to create access points to the work has been something of interest for me. And I’ve done a lot of work in trying to expand the technique to kind of like unpack it, to kind of like infuse it with other, newer ideas and other kinds of stylistic interests.
ND: It’s a fusion now.
RM: It’s a fusion and I think that Merce would have actually liked that. I don’t think that, I don’t think that is, I think that Merce was a fluid person. And I think Merce was someone who was always changing and progressing and growing. And I think that he would have wanted his technique to continue to grow as well. I don’t think it was a solidified object, but, you know, you can argue with me there.
ND: I would argue with two points. I would say that the technique is not archaic; it may be archaic in the context in which you teach.
RM: That’s what I mean. It’s not archaic to me.
ND: Because this is a very postmodern and forward-looking dance department. But in the Cunningham workshops and in the classes that are held, we see that learning this archaic technique as you put it makes anyone a better dancer to do anything. So it’s a toolkit.
RM: Yeah, and all of the choreographers that are on this program have trained in Cunningham in different ways. I mean Mina. Mina and I met when I was an understudy at the studio and she was you know an international student there. So I’ve known her for 20 years. She trained in that technique for many years and you would never really know it, because we think of her is this like butoh artist and this postmodern dancer. But I think that you can sense it in her sense of time, in her imagination–she’s got a wild imagination. I mean you can feel it in these other ways that are not so obvious in terms of like line, shape, you know.
ND: With Netta, I don’t feel that when I see her dance in her own work. But when you see her in Pam Tanowitz, you see the Cunningham in there.
RM: And she’s got this like bold, kind of ambitious, really kind of in-your-face sensibility that I think also has some crossover with Merce. And then Moriah is also, you know, been a dancer for a long time and has taken classes at the studio and has taken workshops. So she also has access points as well. But I think her work is for me…the overlap there is more of a conceptual thing and a really like sort of rigorous, mental exercise. She creates these really elaborate notation systems. There’s a certain like driving pulse in her work that I think I relate to Merce, as well. So I think all three of these choreographers, you know, you’ll see the influences in very different ways which I hope at least.
ND: I’m thinking of you saying what Merce would have liked or not liked. And I think that you’re in a place where you can state that, because you had a long relationship with him.
RM: I am but I also got that, I have to be fair and say that, you know, I’ve had a lot of conversations with other dancers and the work and throughout the company. And so I’m not, these aren’t necessarily just my words. Like I have spoken to Jeannie Steele who as you know was dancer for a long time and super close to him, and she has told me that he said that he understood that people might be able to improve on his original ideas in terms of the technique itself. So I find that to be like super galvanizing.
RM: Yes I would say from my own point of view that when people say “Merce would have loved this,” I say… And they say, “Don’t you think…” and I say, “Well, I can’t say what Merce would think or say or do in the present.” I think you might be able to say that but I can’t. But what I can tell you is what Merce did say and did do and — just as important Rashaun — what Merce didn’t say and didn’t do. What he didn’t do is an enormously important thing that I only realized when he’s gone. When he was in the room, there were things people didn’t do, there were liberties people wouldn’t take. But I do know that one thing he said and he said it to Robert Swinston, his very longtime assistant, “Do something else.” And I think that…
RM: Keep going.
ND: Keep going, keep going, and do something else. And this is exactly what you’re doing.
RM: This is something else.
ND: So for Merce’’s birthday, we do something else. And yeah, you can go see companies perform the repertory and do it so beautifully.
RM: And you could engage with the work on different levels, too. I think is what is important for me to convey to people is that it’s not just one monolithic thing. There’s actually all of these layers and different contexts for engaging in his work.
ND: I went to Léon to see “Exchange,” a beautiful work of Merce’s, which I hadn’t seen for a very long time, in which I’d never seen him in. Although there’s a beautiful film with him in it and he keeps striking the warrior pose. Was Merce a warrior?
RM: Well that’s one of those questions and I would throw back at you that you would hate… But is he a warrior? It seems like you think of him that way. I don’t necessarily think of him that way but he certainly was someone that could persevere.
ND: That’s what I was going to say. He was so persevering.
RM: He’s a beautiful example of just like keeping going and like the accumulation of knowledge over time. I mean I think that’s beautiful.
ND: If he was a warrior, I think what he was battling with were the restrictions of age and making his world larger not smaller. And the reason he could do that was because you all were in the room.
RM: And now we’re not.
ND: Well on that sentimental note, I will add that I am the scholar in residence of the Merce Cunningham Trust. And I invite you to look at the Trust’s wonderful YouTube channel this summer. We’re releasing ten videos that have been saved for Merce’s Centennial. One of them is a full-length performance of “Square Game” filmed at Ann Arbor Michigan with Rashaun Mitchell in Merce’s role and it is spectacular.
RM: In a purple unitard, no less.
ND: You were wearing some pants.
RM: Yeah, I am.
ND: Admit that there are pants.
RM: There are pants.
ND: It’s been such a pleasure to have a chance to visit with you here at Skirball. I know that this will inform people who are coming to the show before and also after. And we also invite you to follow us on social media and thank you very much.
RM: Thanks Nancy.
ND: Always a pleasure.