Did you start dancing in Illinois?
Yeah, at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
So you were older. What did you do before dance? Were you involved in sports?
I did some sports when I was young. Basketball, baseball, soccer, golf in high school. Golf was probably the most intensive sport I got into. I was competitive in it. Played it in high school. We actually won our state championship in high school. Also, in high school I got into theater—first in musicals, then straight acting. I did that through college. So dancing was a natural extension of that. I remember at Christmas I would watch Holiday Inn with my grandpa and Fred Astaire danced in that, but I never thought much. And then in high school when I started doing theater and musicals, it related a little more. Like I thought, Oh that's really cool. I wonder how they do that? So for musical-theater, I took tap dancing lessons when I got to college and watched tons of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies and wanted to be like them. I started studying jazz and a little ballet. I took a survey class of modern dance my second semester of college for an academic requirement.
Were you a theater major?
I was in general engineering as a freshman. But after my first year, I tried to move to theater education. I probably would be a high-school theater teacher right now, but they didn't have a program for it at Illinois. I got into math education instead. I wanted to get out of engineering, and I was going to get a certificate to be able to teach theater at the same time. But halfway through my junior year of college, I had been taking more and more dance; modern dance resonated with me. So I auditioned for the program and got in. By that point, I had taken enough math that I was four classes away from having a straight math degree. So my plan was to finish the math degree while I did the dance degree, which meant I'd have to stay in college two more years. By year five, I'd finished the math, had one more year to go in dance, but realized it was better for me to go to New York. That last year, we had done a Cunningham MinEvent. Banu Ogan came and set it—we had Cunningham class that year. Paige Cunningham, also from the company, was a grad student then, so I was exposed to the work and realized it would just be better for me to study in New York at the studio. I had traveled to New York during summers and saw the RUGs [Repertory Understudy Group] working and it was like, Oh that's exactly what I want. I had a degree anyway. Why spend the money on another year of college? So I studied at the studio for a year while I was also dancing with Randy James Dance Works. I became a RUG for two years and then got in the company.
Did you have a mentor in the modern department in Illinois?
Sara Hook. She's probably my dance mother. I would go to dance concerts throughout college and I'd bump into her and she would say, "You should be a dance major." They're always looking for guys. But this is what made me audition—I happened to bump into her at a concert my junior year, and I was at the point where I was open enough to the idea. I wasn't liking wanting to be a math teacher. I was just into dance so I made an appointment to talk to her. I auditioned two weeks later to get into the program for the following semester. That was really a narrow window and how it happened was strange luck. I wanted to go see a movie playing on campus, but they had sound trouble, but there was a play. I was waiting in the lobby and Sara came in and that's how I bumped into her. Had I not—because the audition was two weeks away for the next semester—it would have been another year until I would have gotten into the dance department. That would have meant seven years in college, and I would have walked away from it.
What did you like about modern dance?
The freedom of it—the fact that the movement could be anything you wanted. It can be anything in space and time. You can put any idea up there. You're expressing it with your body and movement. That's challenging. The experience of taking class resonated with me—the musicality, the physicality. There was a lot of possibility.
You were a serious golfer. Is there any relationship between golfing and dance?
Absolutely. Especially in how you work every day to figure out one movement. In golf, it's even more tedious. It's just one swing. There are slight differences, like a sand shot and putting, and there are different techniques. But basically, it's this one movement you're trying to get down. There's mechanics, there's alignment—like your feet have to be parallel to the line of your ball and your target. The proprioception—just a lot of alignment principals—you do this, you initiate with this. Constantly looking at other people and learning from them. What are they doing in their body to make that happen? Oh, it's more from the hip. So it is about breaking down and analyzing a movement very meticulously, because a very small change in how you're trying to hit the ball can make a huge difference. It's the difference between hitting the fairway and slicing out of bounds, and that's everything in golf. So really small, minuscule differences canmake big differences and that's similar in dance. There are some big-picture types of steps that you don't so much analyze; you just do them. Then, there's a lot of minutia in dancing: You have a little tension in your hip, and that's causing you not to be able to lift your leg as easily. It's this lifelong process. You're never gonna get a perfect golf swing; you're never gonna get a perfect arabesque.
So that's the physical side. What about the mental side? Is there a relationship?
I haven't thought of that. I think the mental game was harder for me in golf than dance actually, because of the competitive side of golf. You're in a tournament and you want to win. If you make a mistake, you don't get what you want, whereas in dance, the stakes aren't as high depending on what the mistake is. Maybe it has really big consequences—maybe I embarrass myself or maybe it didn't look so good, but more often if I make a mistake in dance I'm able to let it go and move on to the next moment because all is not lost. You can't dwell on it, and this is a creative endeavor, not a competitive one. The idea of being in your head is similar—especially if you think too much, and that's a huge problem for me. That math major. I'm a left-brain person. It gets in my way. It's one of my big challenges and it was something that was also my problem in golf—being in my head, thinking too much, micromanaging and being too analytical. In dance, I'm figuring that out. But in golf, I don't think I ever won a tournament on my own. [Laughs] The closest I came was third place. I was okay. I never played in college where the stakes are big.
At the University of Illinois, who thought you had an affinity for the work? Did Banu Ogan teach technique class?
She taught us class and set the MinEvent. Janet Charleston also was in grad school. She was faculty at the [Cunningham] studio, and she and Paige taught class the rest of the semester when Banu wasn't there. But for the time Banu was around setting the piece, she did and I remember that her classes were great. Now, I love her classes. They're so difficult, and I think she's a really gifted teacher. I felt encouraged by my experience. There weren't that many guys in our program so I got their attention and I got the Scramble solo. Just having to figure that out was really hard [Laughs]. Banu had to work with me. I was hungry for it at that point. I loved it.
How did your parents take all of this?
I remember telling them when I was deciding to switch to dance. It was after a musical I did in college; we went out for dinner afterward like we always did. My dad was a high-school math teacher, and my mom, a high-school Spanish teacher. But at the time my dad was doing education finance for the state; he's a math kind of guy. I told them, "I'm thinking of switching to be a dance major—there's an audition next weekend and I think this is something I want to do." I drop this bomb and I remember that my dad's reaction was to say, "Oh my God." Not in disgust, but, Oh this is a headache. Why would you do that? It's gonna be hard. He was just more concerned—not against me doing it, but concerned as a parent that it might be a hard life because in the practical sense, it's a bad move to go into the arts. It's really tough and not a lot of people make it. It's not nearly as stable as being a math teacher and getting a job and making a living. He was concerned, but then they were both very supportive and have been nothing but supportive ever since I decided to make the change.
So you moved to New York. Were you a scholarship student at the Cunningham school?
Yes. That was in 2006. I flew to New York—it was on August 20th, right before the next quarter started at Cunningham, because I wanted to do the scholarship audition. The day after I arrived, I was taking class. I wasted no time. That was my intention: I want to go to Cunningham. The way to do it is that you have to be around him and take class every day, so that's what I did. I think that was a great approach—to just throw yourself in, be seen, show enthusiasm, show interest. It ended up working out, with a little bit of luck involved, too. [Laughs]
You had not really been dancing for that long. Did you feel the competition?
By then I had been a dance major for two and a half years, and another two and a half of just classes every now and again. I always felt like I was behind, and I always felt I wasn't up to standards or up to par, but somehow I had people fooled. Or I was a guy so athletically I could just go through it and I suppose that's what I did: the monkey see, monkey do. I felt competition like I always had—it motivated me to work on myself, on my dancing. And there were a few other guys at the studio who were great—we were kind of friends, even though there was a little competition for parts in the workshops. But there wasn't an opening for a RUG for a year so I didn't feel like I needed to be competitive every day. I was just more focused on myself and doing the work.
How did you become a RUG?
There were some shifts in the company. Daniel Madoff and Joe Simeone were RUGs for the year when I was a student at the studio. And then the following summer, Joe was kind of in and out. He left for a bit to go do another project, but then it fell through or something so he came back. Then there was going to be an opening in the company. Cdric [Andrieux] was leaving, so Daniel—not Joe—was going to go in for Cdric, which made Joe leave and Dylan [Crossman] filled in for Joe. So it was Daniel and Dylan as RUGs for a bit in the summer. And then Daniel went in for Cdric, Jonah [Bokaer] also left and Silas [Riener] went in for Jonah, and I substituted for Daniel as a RUG. So there were a bunch of switcheroos and Dylan, Silas and I all moved into the organization—a couple of us as RUGs, one straight into the company, but there happened to be three openings all at once. And then after that point, there weren't openings for another couple years.
How long were you a RUG?
Two years. Two years and one month I think. [ Laughs ] And two days.
Well, I mean you start to wonder.
I think that's right. It was September 17 of 2007. I was a RUG and October 19, 2009, I started as a company member.
I love interviewing a math major.
[Sheepishly] I think other people remember that stuff, too. It's not strange.
What was your RUG experience like?
Merce made Nearly Ninety basically the whole time I was a RUG. I believe we started in November and he finished a year and a half later in April. Merce also watched us do the other RUG material. Robert [Swinston] would first work with us and then Merce would give comments. It was really the two of them that trained us. Robert mostly in more technical ways, like, "You get your leg up there to do this movement" and Merce saying some things like that, but it was more about the choreography—I feel like he continued to work on the choreography depending on who was doing it. If a new RUG came in, he might see something and have them do it slightly differently than the person before. I felt like he really did see who was in front of him and work with them. But yeah, what two great teachers to train you to dance. [ Laughs ] And Merce's last dance was really special to see—to be involved in his process, to be inside his process was amazing.
Tell me about that.
Well, what struck me about him was how patient he was and how patient he was with his own choreography—how he just did it every day and then the next day and the next day. He'd work on it and edit, throw this out and add this new thing. But there was never a sense of rush. He would give an instruction: "Step here, move your arm this way, move your torso this way," and then the next bit of choreography in a very sequential way like that. Or maybe start with the rhythm. "The rhythm is 1-and-2-and." and give you legs for that and arms and torsos. So in this whole process, it was a very patient but steady thing. Over time, it accumulated to a nearly 90-minute dance. And that was just cool to me—it was such a mature process of an artist to see a 90-year-old making a dance. Just that word patient strikes me. I feel like if I were to make a dance, I'd be like, I have to make something really great, all of a sudden, but he gave himself a year and a half to make a dance. He just kept plugging away.
How did you find teaching material to the company members?
It was a little nerve-racking and awkward. If I were in their shoes, I could understand how you wouldn't really like it so much. I didn't want to step on anyone's toes. And there were stories the other RUGs said about how the process was in the past, like working on XOVER or eyeSpace —that sometimes there were problems that came about. So that was in my head. If there was a disagreement among the RUGs about a step, that's problematic for the company. So I felt self-conscious; the company members were just fine. It was more in myself.
For Nearly Ninety, Cunningham was working with dancers, not with computers as far as you could tell, right?
I guess so. He always came in with ideas. I think Robert said he didn't use the computer. I'm not totally sure about that. But he always had ideas. I don't know if he used us as inspiration for the movement he came up with. I kind of doubt that. [ Laughs ]
Oh, I don't know. I didn't notice anything where it was like, "Oh that movement's so good for you, Melissa [Toogood], or for you, Dylan" or for me. I don't think that was his process, but in looking at what it was he created, maybe he did, to an extent, change it to make it work based on the people who were attempting to do it. And that strikes me as a limitation of that way of working. If you're making movement on the RUGs and not company members, they may not be quite as able to do some of the things you're asking for. But that was his situation and that's how he preferred to do it.
As a RUG, what was your relationship like with him? Did you interact with him?
He liked to tell stories. Maybe once a week or so there would be a time when we'd take a break and come back in and ask him what he wanted to do and he would just start talking to us about something. We would just sit down. It was amazing.
Were they dance stories?
Mostly dance stories or if he'd gone on tour, he might say something that happened like, "I was having lunch at an outdoor caf and this bird came up from the bushes" and he would describe having been so taken by it. He seemed to have that kind of mind where details that most people would dismiss or overlook stuck out to him and he really was interested in that little thing—like how that bird hopped over to him. He gave his attention to that, it took his mind. Whereas most people, if they came back from a tour, wouldn't have said, "There was a bird at lunch..." It would have been, "There was a bird there—move bird, I have to eat." But Merce found it special and interesting. So he would tell us stories like that sometimes.
I know he loved old movies. Did you ever talk to him about stuff like that?
He did like them. I know he did. But I didn't personally get to talk to him about Fred Astaire. I should have done that. I don't know why it didn't occur to me. He probably would have loved it. I didn't always feel comfortable talking to him—just going up and having a conversation—which is really sad and unfortunate. That was, again, just my own mentality—thinking that somehow he wouldn't like it or I wouldn't know what to say and it'd be awkward. Or other people would not like it for some weird reason; they'd be jealous or competitive. So I didn't. I remember when Nancy Dalva was doing her Mondays with Merce interviews, she was thinking about material and she came into the small studio one day before class when everyone was warming up and she asked, "If you could ask Merce anything, what would it be?" A couple people had some answers, but generally, not many people had much and I thought, That's so weird. We have this legend, this genius Merce Cunningham, who's so important to all of us and if we had to ask him a question, it was somewhat difficult to think of something. I did think about it. Merce was just sitting there. Why didn't I walk up and ask him things? No one seemed to. Like every now and then someone would, but no one went up to Merce. He wasn't the most personable guy. If you started trying to get too close to him, he wouldn't like that. That might have its consequences. And maybe that was the reason he set that up, that protection about himself. That was the way he was.
What reconstructions were you a part of as a RUG?
There were a few. Right before I became a RUG, we did Second Hand and Beach Birds.
I wish you were doing Beach Birds again.
I know. I love it. Melissa and I are going to do the duet at the Armory.
Oh good. Did you choose that?
We both did. Banu reconstructed that right before I was a RUG. Sandra Neels did Second Hand . While I was a RUG, we did Tread , Rune . Square Game was kind of a workshop. And then I think more just Events as opposed to full pieces.
Were you concerned during that period of, Am I going to get into the company? What am I going to do if I don't?
Definitely. It was really tough for me actually. The financial crisis was happening and Merce's health was declining and three company members were let go [Holley Farmer, Daniel Squire and Koji Mizuta]. A period of time went by before they announced what they were going to do so we, as RUGs, were really nervous—speculating, planning, thinking. And then they announced that Dylan and Jamie [Scott] were going to replace company members and so that was really tough for me because another male company member had left, but they didn't replace him. It had been almost two years by then, and I felt like I could have gone into the company. I didn't feel like I was such a great dancer or something like, Oh I can't believe that they wouldn't have taken me, I'm so great.
But you felt ready.
And I certainly wanted to. There was a lot of back-and-forth information at the time about what was going to happen. So I didn't get into the company immediately and then Merce passed away. Another detail about that is that Julie [Cunningham] was injured at exactly the time when Dylan and Jamie got into the company, so Krista [Nelson], the other remaining RUG, substituted for Julie. For the next show of the company, all three of them performed with the company and I was the only RUG that did not.
So the three of them were in the company and two more RUGs were on their way in. Merce passed away and all of the people I worked with were in the company and I was the one left out. I felt pretty isolated; it was just very difficult. I wasn't in the Rockefeller Park show. I just felt this disconnect. And I started thinking, Is Cunningham going to happen? How long can I wait? If they're not going to replace the other guy that left, when will another guy leave? Eventually, in October, I got in.
Had you talked to Robert Swinston?
I did. He gave me the best information he could—but nothing was really decided. They were going to do reconstructions where they would need another guy. He basically said, "You're probably going to have a spot," which helped. But it was a hard road to get there. Especially with Merce's passing.
So you weren't a part of going to Merce's apartment to say goodbye to him? Or were you?
Well I did go to his apartment, but that was another thing. We went in groups of four and just the way it happened, I didn't get to go with any of the dancers; I went with the production members who I didn't really know at that time. I was with kind of these strangers to say goodbye. So that changed what that experience was. So that was another kind of sad point to deal with.
Where was your first performance as a company member?
We did a six-week European tour and it was Charleroi, Belgium. We did Square Game and Split Sides . Square Game was the first piece. I remember looking at the bags. I touched one because I wanted to remember the moment.
Was it everything you wanted or hoped for to be in the company? Or had too much time passed?
It was pretty cool. [ Laughs ] It was great. It was a six-week tour, and I had never been out of the country so that was the first time. It was all this new stuff and having gotten that thing that I had wanted for so long and getting to do all this performing that we didn't get to do as RUGs—seeing Europe, having some more money to be able to spend on things. Lots of big changes and it was just awesome.
How did you adjust to performing so often?
I didn't have a big problem with it. I'm kind of an oddball. I was talking to some other of the dancers about getting nervous before shows. I don't really get that nervous. Unless it's a premiere or someone is in the audience that I really care about—his opinion somehow matters to me, then I'll get a little more hyped up. But in general, I just go to the theater and do it. There's a heightened energy and your focus clarifies and there's a little bit of adrenaline to help you in a good way, but it's generally a positive experience for me. How rare a job to get to perform so often in modern dance? It's what all of us want to do. Now after two years, I'm starting to see how the older company members feel about being tired of it and how being on tour is hard and stressful. That's starting to affect me a little more. Sometimes you don't feel so much like dancing and you'd rather have a day off. Whereas before, having started in college, I had so much enthusiasm because it was so new, and up until pretty recently, that has carried through. As for taking a day off—who would want to do that? Why? But no, oh no. A day off is needed and good. [ Laughs ]
How long have you been dancing?
I'm 28. I guess since I was 18. I took my first tap dancing class in college, at the recreation center of Urbana with 40-year-old women. [ Laughs ] It wasn't a college class. It was at a recreation center and it was way far away from my dorm. I had to take buses to get there. It was on Saturday mornings.
Wow. You wanted to dance. During this Legacy Tour, what has stood out to you?
Travel is definitely one of the biggest perks of the job. Doing the work, too, but we've been to pretty amazing places: London, Paris, Geneva, Barcelona, Rome, Jerusalem, Moscow, Hong Kong, Mexico City. Those are significant life experiences. Some are more special than others. It seems like if we go to a city and we have a good time together as people, the tour sticks out as being really special. Santiago de Compostela, Spain sticks out as one of those. We had a great day going to a beach. We rented a car, we found this beach, it was kind of isolated and unlike any beach I'd ever been to before. There was a river sort of carved and a big rock you could climb out on the coast and it was our old RUG group—the four of us—that went. That was a great day. I liked experiencing Hong Kong. Paris is always amazing, of course. And then I'd say dancewise, my best role probably would be in Square Game . I get to do Merce's part.
Who taught you that part?
We learned it off video, I believe. We did a workshop when we were RUGs and then Robert reconstructed it with the company. There are a couple of solos and a duet. And they're kind of quirky or not—they aren't just regular rhythms and shapes that you can write down on paper easily. You have to study the video and mimic to get something in your body and then figure out what your interpretation of it is. That freedom and ambiguity makes it so valuable and so different from a lot of the other work where this is the rhythm and you could write down what the sequence of shapes are. A lot of the work is carefully defined, but this solo and duet are different. You have more play, more freedom; it is not super clear what he was doing because of the two videos that exist, there are obvious differences so the task of deciding for yourself what it is you do is a little different. And a Merce role is, in and of itself, special.
Do you know what you're going to do after this?
Well, I kind of do. I'm interested in Paul Taylor, but I'm not sure what to do about that because you never know what Taylor's attitude is toward Cunningham. They're kind of at odds in some ways. A lot of people are very strongly for one and not the other.
I love both so you're talking to the right person.
I doubt I'll get a job of any kind immediately. So having off time in January really appeals to me. Time to do whatever—I'm interested in acting and comedy and writing. I've done a bit of that in New York. When I was a RUG, I was able to take classes. I'm curious just how interested I am in those things, so I'd like to take more classes. I have all of these ideas I'd like to sink my teeth into and explore, but momentum seems important. Whenever I work on it now, I feel like I make progress and then something distracts me and that's disheartening. So I want time to explore other art forms.
Do you find the styles of Cunningham and Taylor so different?
I think they're similar in relation to Graham. They both came from Graham and that era. There's the use of the back that's somewhat similar—and different—in small ways, but pretty similar. It's different stylistically, but the principals of movement are similar. Then, Taylor has these additional things he puts in: the acting, the characters, the comedy.
What are your favorite Taylor pieces?
Esplanade , Cloven Kingdom . I remember seeing Sunset at ADF [American Dance Festival] and loving it. I think because it reminded me of Gene Kelly. The turns the men do... Last Look and Aureole is, of course, classic. 3 Epitaphs is amazing for the quirky niche of movement he found. Just a simple idea, but it turned out to be so beautiful.
It's just such a world of dances.
Yeah. So diverse, which is what appeals to me about it. He says something in an interview like, "I only make three dances really; I just dress them up differently every time." And you can kind of see that, but he's able to make a repertory so diverse based on that mentality. He must have a pretty well developed process of how to make a dance. There are ones that I really love and ones that I don't and that's true of any choreographer. He seems like a good one to learn from and especially having these other interests that I mentioned like comedy, acting, writing. To be inside his mind, to see how he makes a dance, like I did with Merce, could be super beneficial and interesting.
Did you read his autobiography?
Private Domain . Yes. He's a funny guy. Giving himself an alter ego to be a costume designer? And the documentary, Dancemaker , where he told some journalist that he found that music for Company B in the trash.
And it turned out to be a lie.
And he was just laughing about it. I like that.
When I interview him, I'm always thinking to myself, Is that a lie? Is that a lie?
Is that a fun interview then? I'm sure.
Do you think the Cunningham company should disband?
That's a complicated question. Well, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had they not made that decision because it seemed like a very responsible decision or one that made sense. Like when they rolled out the legacy plan, I remember thinking, Oh, okay, that makes sense. So you don't think you'll have funding to support the company without Merce around to create new work? Yeah, I understand how that would be really difficult. So it made a lot of sense . But not having the Cunningham company around will be a sad thing and who knows? Maybe it could have survived. It might have been really difficult and had to change a lot or scale down, but maybe it could have survived. So much of it does deal with money. I don't really know the nuts and bolts of the financial situation. What is the trust really able to do in that way of keeping some type of group going on? It would be nice if the company would not disband. The company is going to disband regardless, but just as a dance fan—not even as a dancer—I wish it wouldn't.
Is this a difficult time for you or are you just trying to enjoy it?
It's not so difficult. I don't tend to be super sentimental, and having these other things that I'm so enthusiastic about doing after the company—being able to think about that makes me really happy, actually. It will be sad not to be able to perform Cunningham dance stuff anymore, but when one door closes, another opens and I'm kind of looking at it that way. It's sinking in more—we're inside three months now. I'm in a pretty good place for myself within the company. I'm not in any negative place. I'm just kind of taking it pretty slowly right now or in small increments. I'm not stressed out about the future.