When did you start dancing, and why?
When I was very little, like four or five. It was ballet and tap. I was in Great Falls, Virginia. And I went to ballet school there until I was probably 14, then I started going to the Washington School of Ballet.
Who was running it then?
It was still Mary Day.
I was pretty sure you had a ballet background. Did anyone in your family dance?
My older sister danced for a little while, and my little sister, too. And we all ended up juggling different activities. My mom was like, "Okay you have to decide now, are you going to do this one or that one?" And I just kept picking ballet and picking ballet.
What teachers were important to you?
Well, my first in Great Falls; the first real ballet school I went to was important. The first day my mom brought me to school—[the teacher] was British and she was very, very strict. All the little girls were leaving in tears. They were so upset, because she would yell at them. I was very timid as a child and sort of the same way. If anyone said anything, I would just bawl. My mom was like, "This is going to be really good for you. I think you need this." That thickening of the skin was good for me. And then at the Washington School of Ballet, we had a Russian-trained teacher, Rudolf Kharatian, and he was great. It was nice having a male teacher because I always liked turning and jumping and big, moving combinations. I learned a lot from my other teachers, Patricia Berrend and Victoria Leigh.
Did you spend time going to summer programs?
I did. The first one I did was at Vail. Margaret Haddad was the name of my first ballet school [Margaret Haddad Studio of Classical Ballet], and she had a relationship with Katherine Kersten, who was running Vail at the time. I got an audition and I remember I was like a country mouse—it was at Juilliard, and it was my first audition, and everyone had headshots and flowers in their hair. And we showed up in our polyester leotards and pink headbands. I was shocked that that was the dance world.
So you auditioned at Juilliard?
Yeah. Three of us went up there with my dad, and we didn't get in, but then the next year—maybe there were people who ended up not taking it?— there were spots open and we got in under the radar.
What was your level the year you didn't get in?
It was interesting. I think of the things that we did. [My teacher] put on four-act ballets and I would dance Aurora on pointe, and she would do all the variations. So I thought, I can do all of this. But then, the actual training might not have been quite... [Laughs]. I also did a Houston Ballet [summer program] and an American Ballet Theatre one in Detroit, later when I was in Washington School of Ballet.
So were you ballet focused?
Yeah. I had no interest really in doing modern dance. I remember our first modern-dance teacher at Washington School of Ballet. We were all, What is this? We performed to Enya, and it was strange for me and not aesthetically what I was interested in at all. I didn't get asked to stay and join the company or apprentice [at Washington Ballet], so I went to college. I went to Barnard and figured at least I would be in New York and get to dance, go to Steps.
And Barnard has a dance department too.
Yeah, it was great. I had no idea. I just wanted to go to school in New York. I didn't get into Tisch [NYU], and I applied to Barnard and Columbia, and I got in to Barnard.
Had you been auditioning for many dance companies?
No. I just sort of assumed. If I wasn't going to fly at Washington Ballet, then it probably wasn't worth jumping at. I probably had a little bit of a dancer complex and I was thinking that I wasn't quite good enough. But it was for the best. [Laughs]
Who was in charge at Barnard?
It was Janet Soares. Mary [Cochran] came my last year. I figured out that there was actually a dance program and good dance classes, so I started taking ballet, and then my first semester there I did a piece with Danny Pelzig, who was a guest teacher at the time. He does Broadway stuff now, but he taught ballet class and he used modern dancers and ballet dancers. There was a small group of us. So it was my first taste of doing something a little bit outside of what I had known as classical dance.
What were you studying at Barnard?
I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to be an art history major. I have studied Japanese my whole life.
Really? That's crazy. How did that happen?
The elementary school I went to had a Japanese-immersion program, and it was just our public school, right by my house. So first through sixth grade, my parents put me in it. It was Japanese for the first half of the day—so you'd do your math, your science and your health in Japanese, and then switch the other half of the day. So I started then and stuck with it through high school. So I was taking Japanese classes at Columbia, too. I wasn't interested in business, and we had been put under the impression at a very young age that that was the thing: We were going to learn Japanese and be really good at business. [ Laughs ] We were going to be translators! And that wasn't really appealing to me, so I didn't know what I was going to do with it. I just stuck with it because it was interesting, and I was learning a lot. And then I started taking East Asian Studies courses, and I think I would have double-majored if I could have dropped the language, but I wanted to keep the language. So I went to Tokyo for a semester and tried to experience that through the language. And then I ended up majoring in dance. [ Laughs ]
That's amazing. So when the company goes on tour to Japan...
We don't. I was so devastated that that was never happening. They had gone a long time ago, and I was really hoping that they would go back. It would have been so fun for me.
And if you had been around for Scenario when Rei Kawakubo designed the costumes.
Yeah. But I get to talk with [Takehisa] Kosugi [the company's music director] a little bit, which is fun.
So you majored in dance. What were some other performing experiences there?
When I really figured out that I wanted to go the modern-dance route in my sophomore year. Elisa Monte came and set Pigs and Fishes , and it was the first time that I had done anything barefoot. First of all, it was so amazing not to be on pointe shoes on this crappy stage where everyone was slipping and falling, and I got the solo part, and it was exciting. I had so much fun.
It was natural.
Yeah. But I didn't have any interest in Merce at the time.
Had you seen his work?
I'd had only seen it in dance history class on video, and it wasn't exciting to me on film. I didn't see the company perform until my senior year at the Joyce doing Events , and I was floored. I was like, This is what I want to do. I was sold.
What was it?
I think it was the training. It was also that I could see each individual dancer. I could really see the different personalities of each one without acting. I hate it—I took Martha Graham classes at Barnard, and I hated having to emote on call. I'm not that dancer. So suddenly there's this thing that's technically really rigorous. The dancers were all so beautiful, and each of them had an individual voice that came out so clearly. And I cried. I never cry during shows. So I knew that was the thing I had to go for.
So you went to the studio for the first time.
Well, Barnard offered Cunningham classes, so I finally took them for a semester, then I started going to the studio. And I still remember that first class, just being in that space in the evening, and there were so many people. It was so crowded, and everyone was moving together, breathing together. I graduated from Barnard. I had been taking Cunningham classes a little bit that spring in the studio when I could. Maybe I was there for a few days, but then I took a month to go to Europe and audition and see what was out there—I took classes with different companies. By the end of that, I was kind of disappointed and underwhelmed. I came back—so that was the summer of 2005—and auditioned for a scholarship in the fall. I was a student for a year and a half. And then I got to do some extra projects, and then got hired as an understudy.
When you were in Europe, what kind of work were you auditioning for?
I didn't know what I was doing. I just kind of went for whoever had auditions. I started in London, I went to the Place to take class, and I went to another school, the Pineapple. There was an audition in Leeds—I can't even remember the name of the company now—and it was in an aerobics studio and it was really young. I went to Paris and that ended up being fun. Not so much dance. I went to Aix to audition for [Angelin] Preljocaj and to take class with them.
And he has a Viola Farber background in his training.
Nothing happened with it. I mean, I don't think he was even there. It was just his company class. I went to Nuremberg and there was an audition for the Staatstheater there, and I can't remember the name of the choreographer who was running it, but I really liked her, I really liked the vibe, I really liked the way that she worked. I got far, and then nothing came of it. So then I went on to Berlin and I took classes, then I went to Amsterdam and took some more.
What an amazing experience.
It was really great. It was fun, it was exciting to be by myself. And then it was exciting to come back and really feel like this is where I want to be.
That's when you got your scholarship?
Yeah. I was there for just over a year. You know, you start—you have to get your class card signed, get into the intermediate class, get your class card signed, take the advanced classes. I think what helped was that Robert [Swinston] had some projects that involved students, and I got to participate in those. And actually doing the work really helped me grow more comfortable with the technique.
What projects did you do with him?
We did a Torse revival. And Inlets 2 .
What was it about the technique that seemed natural for you?
A lot of it had to do with the fact that—of course there's an aesthetic, but there was no longer that ballet [mandate of], Okay this is how an arabesque looks. This is the right way to do it. It was, I'm doing an action, and when I do that action fully, of course there's room for improvement, but that's it. And so what it looks like on my body, it looks like on my body, and that's okay. You didn't have to fight so hard to look like everyone else. And adagio I hated in ballet. In the context of Cunningham, it was not so difficult for me to approach.
Was it the rhythm? What do you think?
I think it was having the freedom to not worry so much about how I looked all of the time. And there is a texture to the movement. It's something that when I watch the work I see a lot. Some movements are really thick, and you can see people's limbs cutting through the air in this slow, sustained way, and then some things are so light and fast and sharp. There's so much freedom to play with that, so when you're bored of doing something one way, you can try doing it another way and it's okay: You're always able to reinvent it through textures and rhythms.
Do you imagine a different texture before you perform?
Sometimes. Yeah. I think of how I want it to feel.
What dancers were you with as a member of the Repertory Understudy Group [RUG]?
Daniel [Madoff] and Melissa [Toogood] were understudies when I started doing projects with them. And John [Hinrichs] was there. Dylan [Crossman] came a little bit later.
But you did do some projects with Daniel Gwirtzman?
Yeah, I did some stuff with Danny. I did one show with Pat Catterson early in my time in the studio. But I was busy. I was working, too, at night. It was hard, when I was an understudy, to find time to do much. I was working at a restaurant at night, and we were actually working almost every day. There was one year we worked 52 weeks.
How did you become an understudy?
I still remember the day that it happened. We were working on Duets . The duet that I performed with Daniel, we're still doing. We had run it, and Merce was there, and Robert was there, and they were trying to hire another woman; they were deciding between me and this other girl. I could just tell. And I could tell that Merce wanted her and Robert wanted me, and they decided to hire both of us, so it worked out really well. We were with Daniel and Joe [Simeone]. Melissa was touring with the company a little bit, filling in for Julie Cunningham. I remember going in feeling like, Oh, Merce doesn't really want me, I can kind of sense that. But then something changed. Not too long into it we were working on a Changing Steps duet. I think he saw that I was fast and that I could pick things up quickly, especially when we were making work. I could see him start to encourage and notice me more. It took me a long time to really feel comfortable enough to dance fully. I was very shy and insecure for a lot of that time.
How did you get over it?
You know, I feel like I am still getting over it. [ Laughs ] I don't know. When we were working so much with him, it was easy to just let it go because we were so busy and making so many things, and it was so much fun to just let go of it. And I think he really loved working with us because of that—because there were four of us. And Melissa and Dylan and John and I had such a strong connection and really liked working hard with Merce. I think I was able to let go of a lot of my inhibitions.
I imagine it's so technically challenging that you can let the insecurities fade away.
Yeah. And it was easier when we were making work than when we were doing older dances. When you're making work, you are the model. What you do, until he says no or corrects you, is yes. So you're always affirmed. When you're doing older stuff, you have videos and you watch dancers who were so amazing, and you just feel like you'll never live up to it. Your body's different. The way you move is different. You're trying to fit into their image, and you can't do that. It takes a long time to learn how to do the work as yourself.
What older pieces were you learning?
As understudies, we kind of ended up giving ourselves free rein. Robert was away so much; we would e-mail him and say, "Can we do this? Can we learn that?" I think it was a little bit problematic, but it was really great for us at the time. So we were working on Trails —a lot of duets and trios and quartets from Trails . And Fluid Canvas , and we ended up working on Square Game .
So you would mainly look at videos?
Yeah. There were notes for some things, and Robert would tell us which notes to look at. When we found ourselves bored. It gave us something to do, and we knew that Merce liked seeing something new. We would start our days running what we had done; the second half was for making new work. So we always had to run something first. And he was tired of running the same things we'd been running every day for a year, so we started looking for other things. "There's this trio, can we learn that?" We just wanted to stay busy and keep Merce excited, too. And it worked. He put a lot of that stuff in Events .
Did he care about reviving stuff?
I think he was bored by the process, but once a revival was complete and he could play with it, it was great. He didn't like watching people learn. He didn't like waiting for people to learn.
So were you learning off to the side?
Yeah. Or he would have his time to himself a little bit and we would learn things then. I mean, sometimes he would watch us learn. But it was not his favorite thing. He was always moving forward.
In terms of spending time with Cunningham, there was a real difference between the RUGs and the company members. How did you deal with that when you were a RUG?
I felt pretty aware of it because when we were here rehearsing, it used to be that they'd go on a five-minute break and the understudies would come in and run something for five minutes and then leave. But it started taking longer and longer, and I would kind of, in the middle of what we were doing, be like, Should we stop? They're coming back in. We're on their turf and they're not happy with us. I was definitely aware. And when we were teaching things to company members, they would ask us really specific questions in trying to figure out every step: "Don't you know exactly what this is?" Not necessarily being mean; it's just that it was frustrating to get the information secondhand from someone who was probably much less trained than you were and much less experienced. We wouldn't know what to say. "Well, this is how I was learning it," or "I think this is what Merce said." We learned how to really listen to Merce's words and remember them, so that you could say, "Well, he said this. It wasn't a specific step thing, but he did say, 'Do it like this.'" We were learning how to communicate.
I never thought about how that part must have been—not only learning material, but figuring out how to pass it on.
Yeah. Sometimes I wanted to say more and felt uncomfortable doing so. Two weeks later you might want to say, "He said this—so just keep that in mind." But I didn't want to overstep.
How did you get into the company?
Holley [Farmer], Daniel [Squire] and Koji [Mizuta] were fired and Dylan and I got hired.
What was going on at the time?
I had been an understudy for more than two years at that point. I knew that Merce really liked working with me, and it was hard. I was having a hard time and was wondering if I should stick around anymore. Was anybody ever going to leave? How long does [Merce] have? I wanted it so badly. Then there was all this...Cunningham is great for poor communication. Just the entire building. [ Laughs ] So there were rumors: We might hire someone. We might hire two people. We don't know who we're going to hire. Ah! We want to know how to move forward! Finally, I got a call one evening from Robert—in the Robert way [ Gruffly ]: "Hullo, yeah, you're going to be in the company."
You knew that they had been fired?
We knew that because there had been a whole blowup at the studio. We would speculate a lot, but we knew everyone was really upset, and there were a lot of negotiations going on. It was really frustrating.
And so weird, I'm sure.
Yeah. And then we would go in the studio and work with Merce and it was like, This is weird, too. [ Laughs ]
Did Holley Farmer teach you her roles?
No, she didn't. I learned a few things. They were away on tour, and Robert had told all the understudies to start looking at Split Sides and to learn some parts. And we had started understudying things a bit more. I learned all of Holley's parts in Ocean . And there were maybe a few other pieces. With Split Sides as well, Dylan and I learned the duet. And Krista and John worked on other sections. So we learned the duet by ourselves basically. Once we knew we got hired, I think that was one of the only things she worked with me a little bit.
Was it cool? Was it okay?
It was okay. I don't think she had a problem with me. She was always very nice to me. Encouraging. It was just the situation. But it was also frustrating not to have her around to work on a few other pieces. It would have been nice to spend a little more time with her before she left.
What were your first dances as a company member?
It was Split Sides and Sounddance .
I love Sounddance.
It's my absolute favorite thing to do. It's such a rush. And it's everything I love about dancing. It's flying around and moving fast and moving big and exerting myself to the fullest. I could be dog-tired and still do Sounddance . It's that exciting. I wasn't even supposed to perform it, actually. That was during my first tour, and Julie was out and that was going to be her part, or had been. The company was off, but we were working, so Robert and Merce had me learn it. I still remember going back and looking at the 1974 video from Berkeley. After I had learned it, I remember thinking, Oh I get it. They were so wild and so sensual and so otherworldly in it. I remember going back in to show Merce after I had looked at that and worked on it myself and he said, "That's it. That's the right energy."
Sometimes I think it should be more demented, but it's a fine line.
Yeah. It is a fine line, and that's one of the things I've learned. For my first eight months of tourin,g it was hard to let myself find the freedom that I had had as RUG in the work. As a RUG, we had very few performances. You were just in the studio having a ball and really going for everything. And then when you got onstage, it was so scary and different. All of a sudden, things that were so easy were really challenging again. It took me a long time to learn how to keep going.
Was it because you were onstage, you were suddenly representing this institution, too?
Just everything about it. The lights and the nerves. I think I still carry some of that complex. I didn't feel like I was good enough for a long time. So I felt really insecure.
You can't put a price on freedom.
No, it's true. Most of the stuff that we were doing was created on us; we were running it over and over again. Or things that we had learned but Merce then worked on us with, so we had a lot of freedom. And then I got in the company and he died shortly after, and all the roles I got—a lot of them were Holley's, which was already like, Oh my God. I have to do this thing that Holley Farmer did? And then older revivals. It just took awhile to figure out how to make them my own. Still, there's something about that.
What else do you love to dance?
I love to do Pond Way . Because I have this great duet that's very textural for me. It's very smooth and quirky and heavy, and I feel like I get to be myself in it. I get to move my back a lot, and it feels good. I love doing Split Sides . I love working on the duet with Dylan—the way that we are able to interpret what Holley and Daniel did and make it our own. I love taking risks, and it's all about taking risks. So that's fun for me. BIPED still terrifies me. [ Laughs ] It's the hardest thing. We always start the first week back with BIPED , and I'm like, Why do we start with this piece?
Why is it terrifying?
It's just hard. It's really hard. There's a lot of balancing; it's not my favorite thing to do. I have a great duet with Melissa that I really love, and that's probably my favorite part of the piece. It's the one thing I get to do with her. I like Events . I got to do this really fun trio with Dylan and Jen [Goggans] that was something that we had done as RUGs. I loved just getting to do some of the things that I worked on with Merce.
How did your relationship with Merce change when you got into the company?
You know it's hard to say, because it was so brief. So I don't think it had time to change much. My relationship was as a RUG with him. And I'm so grateful for that. The first time he called me over to talk, it was so exciting. He would do that all the time. He'd run us into the ground, and then we'd go down by his chair by the end of the day and he'd tell us stories. It was really special. He told a story about meeting Gypsy Rose Lee once. He told us stories about a lot of his contemporaries, and then he would talk about touring and the birds and different things.
Was he around a lot?
Yeah. Really up until the last two weeks. He was really there. I would say the last two months he may have started leaving a little bit earlier than he used to, or he'd take a little bit of a longer nap than he used to, but it was a very quick change actually.
Did you know what was going on?
Kind of, yeah. I feel like maybe Trevor [Carlson] talked to us a little bit, or Robert would talk to us, to say that he was getting tired and he needed more time. And then he was going to the physical therapist.
How did you guys deal with that aspect?
Not too well. It was hard. We really wanted to be dancing for him, and he couldn't be on all the time.
Who do you dance for now?
You know what? That's the big change. We dance for ourselves now. It's kind of neat; I don't think it's anything any other generation ever got to do. I mean, always to some extent, but when Merce is there, you're always dancing for Merce in some way, so it's sad, but it's also a privilege to be able to do this work for yourself. And not to have to compete and audition for spots to get Merce's attention all the time.
Because this is it. There's no competition in that way.
Do you rely on other dancers to help you or watch you?
We do. Everybody's watching more, and pretty much across the board everyone's been pretty open to giving and receiving feedback, which is really nice.
Do you think that the company should fold?
The million-dollar question. You know what? I think it should. As much as I don't want it to end—I mean, really the thought of not working with these people and in this way any more breaks my heart—I think that without someone like Merce to keep moving forward, it's just going to fizzle out. Our relationships with each other will fall apart. The whole thing will start to collapse, and that will be the worst. I don't blame Robert for not being that way; I don't think he can be that way. Merce was a visionary, and no one can replace him in that respect. This is his work. And reconstructing pieces, or going back and giving notes in rehearsals—sometimes we start going backward. What's going to happen in five years? We're just going do it the way they did in the '70s and never think about how people do it now? It's hard to actually admit that. I don't know if I've ever admitted that officially, but I think the longer this has gone on, the more clear it becomes. And not to say that the work shouldn't be done. Absolutely, the work should be done.
Do you think the work can be done with integrity?
That's hard. I don't know. I've never seen anyone else do the work. It's sort of amazing the transformation that takes place from being a student at the studio to an understudy and a company member, and when you see people go through it the way they approach moving—and you see it when you teach class. Some people are so concerned about form and everything. It's takes them a while to learn how to do it and to dance the work. And that's something I hope that we can help with in universities or wherever the work is being taught: to encourage people to explore the movement with their own bodies and find ways to make it dance.
Do you teach at the studio?
I do. I don't teach very often, but it is an interest. I like teaching. I think it's another thing I'm going to have to learn to be more comfortable with and grow into, but I know that it's in me. I have to figure out how to groom it.
Have you figured out what you might do?
I have not figured out that out yet. I want to keep dancing. I don't want to stop now. I have long-term plans, but next year, who knows? I mean, I hope there's work that I can do that's inspiring to me.
What do you mean long-term plans?
I've been doing a lot of Alexander [technique] work, sort of on the side. It was like a rehab for myself, and I know that I would like to teach that. It's really interesting to me, and it's helped me so much. So I know I want to become an instructor, but I think that requires more time than I can give and dance. So that's on the long track, but next year...
You want to keep dancing, but where do you go from Merce?
I know. I really miss being part of the creative process. I miss creating a lot. I think that's where most dancers find their strengths and their power.
Was it a surprise that that's where you found yours?
It was. I was so nervous the first day he started. I'd been an understudy for maybe two or three weeks, and then he started making something, and I was like, Oh my gosh. Here we go. It was a shock, and I was terrified, but it was so fun for me. It was like the most complex game of Simon Says I've ever played. [ Laughs ] I think that's probably when he started seeing me the most.
Can you talk about what it was like seeing him for the last time? Did you go to his apartment?
I did. We went twice. We went before we went to Wolf Trap and we said goodbye. Merce Skyped with us the night before that show at Wolf Trap. That was my first show, as well as Dylan's and Krista's. It was in my hometown; it was so exciting. He talked to us briefly on Skype, and what stuck the most is that he told us not to show off, but just to do something. I was like, yes , that's why I like your work. Because that's what people do—they just commit to your work fully, and it's not about the showing off or the acting things out. And then you can see who people really are. Then we went again when we got back, before we went to Jacob's Pillow, and I think I was with Andrea [Weber] and Marcie [Munnerlyn]. I was with a group of girls who had gone to a dance class somewhere to learn the "Jai Ho" dance from Slumdog Millionaire , and they did it for Merce. It was so funny.
Did he like it?
Yeah, he loved it. He was laughing. I was actually convinced we would probably see him again when we got back because it was like, we need to say goodbye three times. He's not going anywhere. And then we had that amazing storm and we sort of knew, Okay, if Merce is going to die, it's going to be during a huge thunderstorm. The rain was torrential. And it was Merce. It was very much how I would expect him to leave.
You performed in the Event at Rockefeller Park. What was that experience like, in that circumstance?
It was weird. I just sort of remember feeling the sensation in my chest, like I was more connected to my heart, for some reason, in that moment. It's hard to really describe, but I felt just suddenly aware of that spot. It was so moving, and there were so many people. You could just feel their empathy. It was really special for us, and for what we lost and for what we were going to do.
I've never been outside watching dance where there was so much focus.
It was great. And Robert was great during that time too. I think back, and some of his strongest moments were in that time after Merce died. He really took care of us all. It brought everyone together in a way that we hadn't been. We have grown together in different ways, but that was a unique experience.
Do you all talk about what this experience is like now?
I think we do touch on it from time to time. Actually, we do talk about it a lot. The whole time I felt like, even when I joined, Dylan and I—the whole time we would go out and have a drink and talk about the experience. We talk too much. [ Laughs ]
You and Dylan?
The whole company. But I have to say I think everyone's been really great throughout this whole tour. And we're probably closer than this company's ever been. Even with all this bullshit that pops up here and there. It really feels like a family.
How do you deal with this time, the uncertainty?
It was hard for a little while, but more and more I'm finding that I just want to immerse myself in it as much as I can. I want to be working on everything I have to perform, and when we're taking class—I kind of just decided that as long as I'm here, I'm going to go full speed and take class and explore it in this environment while I can. Work on things by myself when I'm free. And that's how I'm dealing with it. And I think when I leave it I'll feel like I lived in fully.
Does it feel different to perform now?
Yes. I think it still varies from piece to piece, but when I'm more comfortable with something, I feel confident. I just feel like I'm going to do it how Jamie does it, and here it is. I still feel unstable sometimes, but I'm comfortable with that. I think being more comfortable with the imperfections and the failures is part of it, and I feel that way now.
Did Merce allow you to feel like the failures were okay?
Absolutely. When I was working on Sounddance even, he repeated that old Cage thing to me, saying something about, you're doing everything right now, just go a little further and make some mistakes. And he said that again to me when I was learning Sounddance . "Everything's okay. Just go make mistakes." He was okay with imperfections. He liked them. It's scary. You feel clumsy. But that's nature.