Emma Desjardins

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Were you interested in other choreographers?
In terms of seeing work? I was. But for some reason, the Cunningham technique really drew me in, and I was searching for something that wasn't really in ballet, it wasn't in what I was getting in Limn and Graham and what I thought modern dance was. Cunningham technique had that rigor and codification of a ballet class, but it still had so much more grounding and use of the torso. And I liked that it was so challenging and you could almost never get it right, but you just keep trying and keep trying. I think for me that physicality was the connection. And then it was being intrigued about everything about the way Merce worked.

At what point did you start going to the school? Did anyone encourage you?
I think it was the summer after my junior year and, no, I think I just decided to go. [ Laughs ] Maybe I stayed in the city that summer. You only got Cunningham technique at Barnard ever other semester—it's in spring semester, I don't know why. It still is. So I just wanted more, and I went for the summer and then I took an occasional class during the next school year, but I was busy up on campus. Then after I graduated, I went back and got on scholarship.

What was that first summer like?
Well, it was just exciting to have other teachers. I thought Jeff Moen was a fantastic teacher for a beginner of the technique. He's really clear and understands the technique really well. But to go to the studio—and first of all, the studio is gorgeous. To be in that space?

It really feels like you're in New York.
Yeah. And to have so many other teachers—people who were in the company, people who had been in the company...it was Jeff and Mary Lisa Burns who were teaching at Barnard, and they so shared the class. [Mary Lisa] was the director of the studio for a long time. [Pauses] It's funny now that we're at the end and Westbeth is such a home. I think about the first day I was trying to find the studio on Bethune Street. I had gone to school at Barnard up on 116th: I had no idea where Bethune Street was! [ Laughs ] You know, I'm walking around the West Village. Oh here it is, okay! It takes you into a different world as soon as you turn down that street. Finding the building and going up to the 11th floor: It was all so new and exciting. We're not going to get to do it many more times.

I know, it's horrible.
I think the space is beautiful. I wish Cunningham could stay there as a home base. I think everyone does. But I don't think that anyone was really prepared for that to happen, because they would have really had to think outside the box and be creative with how they present the technique. The way the school was set up as an accredited program and this idea that you come to train is not, I don't think, the way professional dancers in the city think about classes anymore. Most people who are doing that kind of training are in college, so it just wasn't quite set up for sustainability as we moved forward, and no one was able to come up with quite the right vision to change it in order to make it possible for it to stay. Which is sad.

Because I actually think the idea of training is turning a corner and dancers are wanting to get more technique.
I hope so! God, I hope so. [ Laughs ] I think the technique is really important in the future of whatever happens to Cunningham and the work. And I think it's being a little bit overlooked right now. I hope that eventually—I mean if there's not a home base I think that Cunningham technique should be taught in every single college that has a dance program. It's a modern dance technique that trains versatile dancers. And also the more dancers that you have who are coming into the professional world who have studied Cunningham technique, the better able they are going to be to approach a Cunningham work that the company they're in happens to be doing.

I agree. So you graduated from Barnard and you enrolled at Cunningham, and you were a scholarship student. How long until you were made a RUG?
Well, I was a scholarship student. I started in the summer of 2003. By the fall, I was invited to take class with the company, and that meant class with Merce, so that was really thrilling.

Did you stand up front?
Yeah. [ Laughs ] I mean I always stand up front. That's my spot because I don't like to be distracted by what people are doing in front of me. I like to have an open space. But that was really exciting. 

Did Merce give you any corrections?
I don't remember the first company class, but after I had been a RUG for a little while and there was some hints and rumors that a woman was going to leave the company, I remember some of the corrections that he would give me then. And I always felt like in his class, when he gave you a correction, it was for you and not necessarily for anyone else. He would say things generally, but he would give the combination, and it would always be a little bit ambiguous, so everyone would try : What's the right way to do it? And then he would pull you aside and give you a correction that he wouldn't say to anyone else. So as you would take class, you would start to see people doing things a little bit differently after they had heard from Merce. That was always very cool—not that he changed a step entirely, but I always felt that the correction he gave you was something that he saw for you.

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