Krista Nelson

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Did you have any Cunningham at school?
Michael Cole came and taught a master class. It was my first experience with Cunningham, and I really enjoyed this class. I remember I was sitting on this grass lawn in front of one of the other dance buildings and Rene Wadleigh walked up to me and said, "Krista, I really think that you should go to New York and work really hard and get into the Cunningham company." And I was like, "Oh thanks Rene, but I really want to get into Mark Morris's company." And she said, "Well that's fine too, if you want to do that." But I think she totally called it. She saw the connection. I came to the studio—I think this was three years after the first class I took, and I felt like, I understand this. This is right. It was my dream to be in Mark Morris for a long time. And then Merce opened up a whole other world to me.

Had you seen many performances by the Mark Morris Dance Group?
Yeah. They would come to Illinois every year or every other year. I loved the company and the work. The Cunningham company came and I also remember that I walked out of the theater thinking, Well, I'll never be in that company. Because I saw Julie [Cunningham] and Holley [Farmer] and they were so amazing, I still remember them doing those Changing Steps solos. They were unlike anyone I had ever seen before. And I just felt like, I'm not going to be part of that. [Laughs] They really affected me.

Was Michael Cole the only connection with Cunningham that you had in school?
Robert Wood also taught one semester of Cunningham, but I think it was a more personal take. When I came to the studio and when I took Michael's class, I really felt connected to it and I didn't feel that so much with Robert's class. But it was still interesting and I remember some of the back motions were definitely what we do all the time here.

Coming from ballet, how was your body? Were you more used to using your legs?
[Eyes widen] I think a couple months ago, I learned how to use my abs. I know that that's an exaggeration, but I thought my legs were everything. And also Merce helped me discover that and I know it wasn't specific to me, but his work demands and gives you so many opportunities to explore the torso and arms and all those combinations of coordinations, and I really feel so happy to have experienced this. When I think back on the ballet, it was just not right.

Did you move to New York a second time with the intention of checking out Cunningham?
I came in 2005, and I moved to New York with no clear plan and no contacts except for my boyfriend Nic Petry who is also a dancer. He dances for David Parker and the Bang Group. That was my only access to the dance world.

Is he from Illinois too?
We're actually both from Champaign-Urbana and his mother was my third grade teacher. But we never met until we were both in school at the dance department. Which I think is perfect timing because if we had met earlier, I'm sure we would have blown it. [Laughs] We have the same birthday, which I think is also funny.

You moved here together? That must have been a completely different scenario.
Totally different. We kind of had a secret relationship the last semester we were in school; we moved to New York together and we lived together right away, which ended up working really well. The first year and a half was pretty hard for me; I didn't have a lot of luck finding a job. First of all, I could not find work very easily or work that wasn't something I didn't hate doing. I was having no luck with auditioning and classes weren't bringing opportunities.

Were you at Cunningham?
No I didn't go to Cunningham for about two years.

Oh my God.
I know. I had some funny weird thing where a friend from school really wanted to be in the understudy group and I was just like, Well that's kind of her thing. I don't want to go over there. I'm really into Mark. And I actually, I did do really well at one of [Morris's] auditions and they invited me into the company class. It felt like, Yes! This is right, this is what I'm supposed to do, but then it didn't work out and luckily I came to Cunningham. Actually, I think it was that experience and my feelings about how things wouldn't work out with Mark that brought me to go to Cunningham. I thought, That was my big dream and it's not going to happen so maybe Cunningham will help me take my mind off of how bad I feel about that. When I came to Cunningham, I was also dancing with Catherine Tharin, and she has kind of Hawkins-based work, and she was so nurturing to me. I think she kind of saved me because no one else really seemed interested in me at all, and she really took a lot of time and care and helped train me. She talked with Robert [Swinston] and said, "My dancer Krista went and took your class and she loves Cunningham. Can you please look out for her because she's great." And he did and I took two or three classes and he invited me to the company class. I was like, "Robert, I don't know the back exercises!" And he taught me them in the small studio. A couple days later I took Merce's class and I was so unbelievably nervous. I'm really good at pretending I'm not nervous in dance class, I think I stood at the back , but then when I started to feel more comfortable, I definitely stood right smack in front of Merce because I really wanted to get that job if there was one. I took class for less than a year and Melissa [Toogood] joined the company. So her position as an understudy was going to be open and the other understudies really were encouraging to me. So I really, really made sure to stand right in front of Merce the whole time. Robert offered me a position and it was the happiest day I had in a really long time.

What was it like working with Robert when he was teaching you the exercises?
Robert and I get along really well. It was great because he knows so much and he wanted to teach me, and I was really excited that he cared enough to pick me out and help me and invite me to class. It was really exciting and I learned a lot immediately from him. There's so much in his body that you can see; it's very clear. His back and his torso move extremely clearly and the dynamic reminds me a little of Merce. I feel like I really respond to a visual—trying to experiment with someone else's dynamics by watching and trying. Also, people just tell you if you're—

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