Mon Dec 19 2011
And you found it at Cunningham, or elsewhere?
Elsewhere at first and then at Cunningham. When I studied his technique at first, I was like, "This is so hard, I can never do it." And then I saw his company perform at the Tate and all I remember is them being on relev the whole time and I was just like, This is not going to happen. It was multipl--stage Events. So I loved Cunningham when I was in college, but for some reason in my mind, it was not even a possibility. So when I moved to New York, I didn't go to the studio for months, almost for a year. I went to Peridance, DNA, what I thought were the modern places and I worked with small companies, did a few projects here and there with Peter Kyle and Eliza Miller. I think that was it at the very beginning.
How did you make your way to the Cunningham studio?
I saw this ad in the paper for a scholarship audition. I had been in New York at that point for nine months and I had been doing little projects here and there that I was really happy with, but I hadn't been training as much as I wanted to because I had to work at a restaurant to survive. Again, I had a conversation with my parents and they were like, "You know, we just wanted to remind you that you moved to New York to dance and we know you feel like you have to work to make money to survive, but we'd rather help you financially and have you actually dancing, which is what you went there to do, rather than work in a restaurant." So they started helping me, and I started working less. Got a scholarship for Cunningham, so started being there a lot. Got a lot of encouragement from the teachers, mostly besides Robert [Swinston], it was Banu [Ogan], Jeff [Moen] and Louise [Burns] who actually were really present at the beginning. And then pretty quickly an understudy left, and I really wanted to be an understudy so I was assertive and went up to Robert and was like, "Hi, I want to be an understudy, what do I have to do?" And he was sort of like, "What?"
Yes. He said, "Come take class with Merce and if he likes you we'll take it from there because he's the one making the call." And I took class and Merce liked me.
Just like that?
Just like that. I mean I remember that first class I took with Merce, it was like I couldn't breathe. Literally, I don't think I was. I was starstruck and not just by him, but by the company, too. To be in a class with the Cunningham company? Dancing next to those amazing people and listening to him? I picked the spot where I was furthest away from him. He was in the downstage right corner and I was by the piano upstage left, all the way in the corner. I think I was behind Rashaun [Mitchell] because he had befriended me by that point: "Just stand behind me, you'll be fine." And I remember at one point, I think it was an around-the-leg exercise, Merce sort of said, "You!" And pointed in my general direction. I was like, He can't possibly mean me. It's that thing where he points and everybody steps away and little by little, you feel like an imaginary line is coming toward you and there was no one behind me. He said, "Yes, you. Make sure your leg is really straight at the back." And I was like, [Whispers] "Okay." And that's the story of my life—it's a correction that I get a lot. I was so glad that I got a correction in my first class and that he saw, right away, what I have to work on as a dancer. And I was so far away. But he noticed.
What a laser eye, right?
Yeah. I was so far away from him! He was 88 at that point.
Did you become an understudy right away?
Pretty much right away after that class. I had been at the school for six months. And then I took class with Merce. One of the understudies had left, but Robert wasn't sure when he was going to hire another—before the summer or after the summer? I got hired right before my birthday in June and started right away.
And you were with Jamie Scott?
Jamie and Melissa [Toogood]. Daniel [Madoff] was an understudy with me for like a month. And then he replaced Cdric. Then John [Hinrichs] got hired. It was the four of us. And then when Melissa got in the company, Krista [Nelson]. So I was with Mel for a year and with Krista for a year basically.
What did you work on?
XOVER and Nearly Ninety. Actually XOVER was a very interesting experience because the summer that I got in, they had been already creating it, but the way the RUGs [Repertory Understudy Group] worked back then was a lot less consistent. If you had a gig or you had to leave, you just did. So Merce was more used to, I have one person, so I'm going to make a solo or I have two people, so I'm going to make this a duet, which is how the XOVER duet got made. Because for a really long stretch of time, he only had two dancers. And then he had this crazy section—the really fast section in the middle right after the slow duet. And it's the section that originally was [Daniel] Squire, Jen [Goggans], Holley [Farmer] and Daniel [Madoff]. And it's really fast and spazzy and there's a lot of torsos and right after I got in, I had to learn that section, which was weird because they had already created it, but Merce wanted to see it. That section is so difficult. I mean, still to this day if we leave the piece for a couple of months, we have to relearn it because there are two or three torsos for each step. It's almost as if he was playing with the torso, moving you through space so you really have to be kind of wild with the torso while still in control. So I had just become an understudy. I had been in the school for six months; I was still trying to figure out the technique, and he was like, "Just learn this." That was the biggest challenge I've ever had to face. He was testing me, I think, because the other people only spent two hours teaching me, which really is not that much for that section. I kind of followed them a little bit. We did it once or twice. I kind of had the idea, and Merce asked me, "Do you have any questions?" I didn't really want to waste his time so I'm like, "Well, I think I'm okay for now." He said, "Everyone else leave. Dylan, figure it out." So I'm left in the space and it felt like an hour. It was probably more like 35 minutes. It was just me on the floor; he's watching me trying to figure it out. And now looking back on it, I think it was a test of how I worked, or if I could just keep going. And I just kept going. And I just tried to figure it out and I knew if I didn't remember, he would sometimes throw me a bone or sometimes not. And Jamie was on the side stretching and she would gesture at me or try to help me out sometimes, but it was just like, How much can you take?
Your memory is your memory.
Yeah and are you going to make something up to just keep dancing. Are you going to stop? How do you work? As it turned out, I do this section now, but I literally had to learn it three or four times because it's in this fast-memory drawer, not really the long-term memory. It's like I have to remember it right now to dance it right now. And then I don't do it and it goes away.
What did he say to you after that?
He was impressed. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I think he said something like, "Well done." It's a lot. And I didn't realize it at the time, but after talking to people I was like, Oh yeah, that was a big deal that he said that to me. He taught me so much and his presence was so...He was such a generous man. Such a giving person, and I know maybe it wasn't always like that, but when I was around, he was just so giving and so patient. Something that Jamie and I talk about and share is that feeling that you were never not good enough. Certainly we felt inadequate in comparison with the company or absolutely not ready, but for him it was like you are who you are, and that's good enough for me right now. We all work 200 percent every second of the day. But you were good enough for Merce no matter where you were. And that was a great thing; with the wrong people, it might make you lazy, but with us, it just provided us with the comfort to be able to go for it and not feel frozen by the fear of not being good enough. We were able to make mistakes, which is what he really loved. I don't know if he was aware that he was doing that, but just making us confident in our ability made us so much more free as dancers.