Jrme Bel strikes again with a new portrait of a dancer.
Tue Sep 7 2010
What were your impressions of Merce?
Of course, I was shy when I met him. It was kind of like meeting a myth. But the rapport was very simple, which is what surprised me. He was 80 at the time, and he spoke to me in French because he knew I was French, and he just was very gentle and had a smile on his face and he used the vous form with me. In French, you have the vous and the tu; usually in the dance world, we use the tu, but the vous is very respectful, a very elegant way of addressing someone, especially coming from a person of his aura and career and all that. And then, of course, my impression evolved through the years I spent there, but I always felt like he was so respectful. That's something that I really appreciated with him. He never screamed or told us what to do or told us that what we did was not the right thing. We didn't exchange much about our private life, but it allowed our private life to remain private and that was something that I also appreciated very much. I mean, all those things are in retrospect. I'm sure at times I was frustrated because I felt that him not talking to me was maybe because he wasn't interested in me or didn't like me but in retrospect I'm able to see all the good things about establishing a professional relationship—it creates boundaries and distance and it allows you to do the work you have to do and not bring anything else into it.
I'm sure the age difference had a lot to it.
I'm sure. I was probably like the 95th dancer hired by him! [Laughs] It's not like he was going to invest as much as he did, I'm sure with Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber. But you're 22, 23—I didn't necessarily have the right distance or maturity to see it that way.
Can you talk about some of the roles that were important to you?
Yes! We found something. [Cracks up] I think I was fortunate because a lot of it has to do with who you replace in the company, and I replaced someone who had big roles. Glen, at the end of his career at Cunningham, had quite a bit to do and some of his roles they gave to older dancers but his good roles also they gave to me and I think it allowed Merce to see that I could take on those roles. It allowed me to prove myself right away. Of course, Biped was important to do; I did it so much. It was the piece I performed the most. I probably did it 110 times—onstage. I'm not even counting the rehearsals. It was performed a lot and it was the first main featured role that I did also.
What was it about Biped?
It was kind of like stepping into a bubble because everything worked so well together, which isn't always the case with Merce. And to me, I'm very interested in his pieces where things don't necessarily work together—the accidents. How the music can crash into the dance, but with Biped everything was very flowy. It was kind of like stepping into a bubble. Still having to do incredibly amazingly hard steps but with the scrim that is in front of the stage, it helps having that feeling. It would feel very different and you'd be like, Oh yes—they were here, the audience. So that was an important piece for me to do, but Interscape was also important. It as the first piece crated on me, and I had a very long duet with Lisa Boudreau. I think that started my career there as one of the duet guys, because I had a couple of them after that. Dancing with Derry Swan was the most important. Anytime I danced with her was a treasure.
I think we just had such a good connection. We didn't need to speak to each other and it felt like our bodies could adapt naturally to where the other was. It also helped that she was my friend and that I respected her a lot as a dancer. Not that I didn't respect the other people that I danced with, but I had a particularly strong bond with her and Merce also created a bunch things for us. We did Suite [for Five] together; we did Windows. He created Way Station and Split Sides. Fluid Canvas. So we did a lot together and it felt really good to dance with her. Onstage, we didn't have at all the same presence, but we could look into each other's eyes and smile at each other very naturally, which always felt really nice. I cried like a baby when I had to do my last show with her. It was horrible. It was kind of like saying goodbye to so many moments that I knew I couldn't have with anybody else. But I did. I didn't have the same moments. I danced a lot with Andrea Weber and we found our particular relationship, which was really nice. She replaced Derry in Suite, and Suite was an important piece.
What made it important for you?
It was Merce's part for one thing and anytime you did one of his parts, you felt extra pressure and responsibility. It's a very raw piece. There's very little music and there's no decor and the costumes are very revealing so you felt very vulnerable. It was a very vulnerable piece to perform, but beautiful. You really felt like you were creating a particular connection with the person you were dancing with every night and it was different every night, which is one of the great things about Merce's work: It feels different every night.
Is that true of all dancing?
It is true in general, but especially with Merce because there were no clear indications about what to project and what to feel. So the story that could happen every night could be different, could not even be a story—he could be thinking about so many other things, so in that sense it was even more particular every night and also depending on the partners that you had. One of the great things with Derry was that it was different every night. She was very much listening to what we were doing together and responding accordingly. So that felt really good. We could play together with our material. Also, the other piece that was really important was Fabricatons. I was doing Merce's part, but I was doing Merce's part when he was 70 and the whole reconstruction was incredibly interesting. We worked closely with Trish Lent and bringing back his part was a challenge. I was 24, 25 at the time. We were not going to make me dance like him. He was 70 and had a whole different body and past that he brought onstage so it was trying to figure out what exactly Merce was trying to do when he was performing this piece. And adapting it to a younger body. That was an interesting challenge.
You perform and discuss repertoire that is not just from Cunningham in the solo, right?
Yes. I do. I do things I did before and things I have done after.
You danced with the Cunningham company for eight years. Why did you end up leaving?
Already when I was dancing with Merce, I did other projects. I performed with Alain Buffard in the New York cast of Mauvais Genre; I performed with Kimberly Bartosik once. Most importantly, I performed with RoseAnne Spradlin [Survive Cycle], which to me was one of the best projects I've done. Even with Merce, I was hungry for other experiences. I tried to do it a little bit when I was in the company because we had a schedule that allowed it, but eventually it left me hungrier for even more. Which is what I found in Lyon, obviously since it's a rep company with a lot of choreographers.
You knew the company?
Yes. Maydelle [Fason], who had been in Merce's company, joined [Lyon Opra Ballet] for a year or two, and of course she came from a different background than I did—she did ballet before. And Ashley Chen—I was hired by Lyon in 2004 and turned down my contract and gave it to Ashley. That's how it worked, and so Ashley went and I stayed with Merce. Four years later, I was like, Okay, hopefully, he'll want me back. Or he'll want me again, and Yorgos [Loukos, the company's artistic director] agreed to hire me.
Why did you decide to stay in New York?
[Laughs] Let's say for personal reasons and then when people go see the show they'll understand why. It was time. It was nine years altogether with my apprenticeship with Merce and I felt like I got everything I wanted out of this experience. It felt good to be a Cunningham dancer and it gave me my identity when I was in New York, but I think also the fact that I was doing other projects, I wanted to be a dancer more than a Cunningham dancer. I think that was important to me.
Did the Lyon Opra Ballet have a rep you wanted to do?
Yeah. [Yorgos] commissioned younger French choreographers to do work like Rachid Ouramdane and Christian Rizzo. It just felt very current and like I could touch Maguy Marin; I could touch [William] Forsythe; I could touch Trisha [Brown]. I was 30, and I knew I wasn't going to travel all over Europe to audition for those people nor did I want to. It fit.
Are you still with Lyon Opra Ballet?
No. I left. The excuse was to tour this piece. It's such an amazing opportunity for me to perform outside of a big structure, and I wanted to grab it as soon as possible. It was time also to be more in charge of what I wanted to do. And to do something about what dance means to me at this point and to investigate other directions. There is something empowering and also very scary about the ability to choose. I think that's why I felt very comfortable in big structures for so long. I chose to go there but then things were being chosen for me. Now I'm 33. I felt it was a good time to do that. There are probably quite a bit of performances coming up of this [solo] so it's not like I'm jumping without a net.