Fri Dec 9 2011
I actually managed to graduate and had to do my senior project and I ended up joining the company in June and replaced Maydelle, and Mandy replaced Jean Freebury a month in. It all worked out.
What did you do your senior project on?
I actually ended up performing a Cunningham solo and duet, both from Scramble. And then I had to choreograph a piece, which I'm sure I would be ashamed of if I looked at it now. It's kind of a contemporary-ballet piece that I would never show anyone. [Laughs]
Wow. That was fast for you.
Yeah. A lot of people are taking class here at the studio for years and then are understudies for a couple of years. That was not my experience. I walked in and, "We want you to start Monday." [Laughs] I had been around, but it was actually a bit awkward because the company members—and even Merce—didn't know me very well. There was definitely a feeling of, Okay, I've been handed this position—not only am I competing with my very close friend for this contract, but I have to prove myself. So it was a very stressful time.
What was good about being thrown in then, with all of your perspective?
Well, it was really sink or swim, so there wasn't any time to wait around and get depressed about, Am I? Am I not? I just had to do it. I had to learn it. I had to get onstage whether I was ready or confident and just go. I feel like that was the best thing for me. And at the time, that happened a little bit more often. You would see people grow a lot in their first few years in the company because the understudies weren't that involved; they didn't work with Merce like they did later. I was sort of the last group that simply got thrown in. Even though you were replacing a particular dancer, you didn't necessarily inherit all of their roles. Some of those roles would be divvied up among more senior members; you had to gain Merce's trust. He had to see you and watch you, and then he would make things for you, and you would be given roles within the new works and all of that. I feel like the people that joined within that year that I joined, that was the last time that that happened. There was a big shift in how Merce worked and the whole integration into the company through the understudy program.
Why do you think that happened at that point?
Well Merce was flying to California with us and got a blood clot in his leg and then couldn't travel. And he had traveled everywhere with us, always; having him stay at home and work with the understudies was a way to keep him motivated, creating. It kept him from getting depressed. And it worked, but there was a lot of upset in the company because of that. All of the sudden, you're learning roles from the understudies. If you would tell most professionals that, they would look at you cross-eyed because that's not the normal progression of things. It was, as with any life change, can you go along with the change? Can you find something in it that is still positive for yourself?
So how did you reconcile that?
I felt like I was still young enough as a person and also in my experience with the company that it was a difficult change, but it wasn't something that I was completely against. Because going into the studio with the entire company and Merce standing at the front of the room and teaching you these excruciatingly long phrases—we were all scrambling to learn. That, in itself, was so stressful and then having that thing of, this person sees one thing, this person sees another thing—Merce looks at this person and says, "They're right." There's this sort of level of interpretation, which is beautiful and special, but learning things as a group in this very high pressure situation was not something that I enjoyed.
You explained it well.
So we're working one-on-on with him, learning a phrase, learning a solo, having that moment where you could say to him, "Can you please repeat that, Merce? I don't really quite understand—do you want it like this? Like that?" That kind of interaction was amazing and really where you felt that you were a part of the creative process. You were figuring out the movement. As he was giving it to you. He would adjust things. That was truly a special gift. But being in the room with the entire group, trying to figure out if the arm is bent or straight or front or back, that was so stressful. At that point, Merce was explaining most of the movement verbally; he wasn't able to actually show things physically. He did a little bit during my first couple of years—he would stand up and you would try to decipher what he was doing, but four years in, everything was verbal. It was such a slow process. I much preferred looking at a body and someone I was able to ask questions of—I would ask as many questions as I wanted, and ask them to show me again and again. It was far less stressful for me to just work with a young dancer and say, "Listen, you have to show me again. I don't have it yet."
When did you first work with Merce in a one-on-one situation? Can you talk about that?
Yes. For Way Station, which was the first piece he created after I had joined the company, he called Mandy Kirschner and me into the room to work on this little duet. We were absolutely terrified, completely terrified.
Yeah. Things changed a lot over the years, but we didn't really ever have one-on-one time with him. It was, usually, you learn your part and you do it, and everyone's in the room. But we were alone with him, and he was standing in front of the room at the barre, and he was showing us these steps. And we couldn't figure it out. So we kept trying different things—we were like, "Like this?" It was this very little, small, like [In a bright whisper], "Step forward, step back, step forward, step back." We weren't sure. "Merce, do you want us to jump?" [She deepens her voice.] "No, no, no. It's like this." And we'd try it again. "No, no, no." There was a lot of no, no, no. We were so unclear about what he wanted. And he wasn't able to show it, obviously, quite so clearly, so he worked with us for a little while and then we left, and then we came back the following day to work on it again and he said, "Okay. I think this will be more clear. This is what I want you to do." [Laughs] And, of course, what originally looked like a shuffle forward and a shuffle back became a little jump together, jump together, jump together. So Mandy and I had a very nice little moment as friends and as new people doing this little duet at the beginning of the piece. I remember him looking at me as I paused in some position. He wanted me to turn my torso and do this arm movement. I looked at him, and he did three fast arm positions so quickly, and I just looked with my mouth open and said, "Like this?" And I sort of did what I thought I saw but wasn't sure and he said, "Oh, yes, oh yes." And that's what it was. [Laughs] It was very sweet.
What other pieces did you work on like that?
There was a quartet that he made in Loose Time. It was a little more of an intimate group working with him. And Fluid Canvas. Up until Way Station and Loose Time Merce taught us every step, either as a group or [he] would work with us. And then, the next piece was Fluid Canvas and most of the group material he made and taught the company as a whole, but that's when he had actually begun working with the understudies. There was a quartet and a trio. The trio was the first thing that I learned from an understudy. I learned it from Rashaun [Mitchell], Andrea [Weber] and Marcie [Munnerlyn]. And then by the time we did Split Sides, which was the next piece, the majority of it was made on the understudies—even the group material. There were a few duets and solos that he worked with individual company members on, but most of the piece was made on understudies. We lost four dancers after the piece premiered.
Cheryl Therrien, Ashley Chen, Paige Cunningham and Mandy Kirschner. For various reasons, but it was all just after that piece.
You've seen a lot of people come and go. Have you ever thought about leaving seriously? What has made you stay?
Yeah. I have gone through several periods where I asked myself, Should I stay or should I go? But ultimately, there was never anyone else's work that I was drawn to enough. And that was sort of it. I went through a period where I would go see every dance performance, everything I could. Every choreographer, looking—is there something? Is there something I could see myself doing, that I'm appropriate for? And something that I really want to do? Ahhhh, maybe. But nothing that ever drew me in. And then I think at a certain point, especially when Merce really started to decline, I felt, Who knows? He could be here another year, he could be here another five years. But I've been here this long, and this is what I know, and I love to do this work. It challenges me every day, and I want to be here as long as I can. It just so happened that things played out the way they did, and I'm here. On December 31, it will be almost exactly 12 years from when I started as an understudy in January of 2000. I joined the company in June.
How does something you've done for 12 years continue to challenge you?
The movement is so difficult. You can always do something better. I think for some people that could drive them insane and drive them away from it. But I'm stubborn, and if I'm not challenged I get bored. So in that way, it keeps me engaged. I have to keep going to class or I can't do it—or I can't do it well. I have to keep training; I have to keep pushing myself, and even when I don't have that much motivation, I have to find it somewhere.