Krista Nelson

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Not doing it right.
Yeah. He is very, he's not going to beat around the bush and that is fine with me. [Laughs].

When you became a member of the RUGs [Repertory Understudy Group], what were some of the dances you worked on?
When I came in, they had been working on some sections of Nearly Ninety. I think they'd done a few of the "wind" sections. That's the only new material that I worked on with Merce, but we did work on that a lot. And we also would do sections of dances. There was a Signals suite and there was a Doubles suite and we did some Scramble. There were tons of sections. Solos, duets, trios, quartets, and then sometimes, like with Signals, we cut the septet for four.

How would it be decided what you would work on that day?
Merce would tell us when he was there. He would just say, "Okay, well Doubles." So we'd do Doubles. He'd sometimes say, "There's something in the beginning" and so we'd start at the beginning and he'd never say to stop and we never felt like we should stop because Merce Cunningham was watching us, so we'd just do the whole thing again. [Laughs] Many times. And so the day would go like that: We would run some repertory and he would ask for things. We'd do them for him, we'd work on them, we'd run them again and at the end of the day we would start working on the new material, Nearly Ninety. When I first came in, it was just sections and he would say, "The seated section" or "Wind number one."

How many "wind" sections are there in Nearly Ninety?
There are four in the piece. There were a few sections that got cut, but he would have some kind of name for the sections and then we would just run a section, probably do it a few times. We would just run material constantly. A lot. Over and over and over. And he would take the timing and work on it.

Did that suit you, like running work over and over?
It was amazing. I've never worked like that before. And he would teach us things one step at a time. I'd never learned anything like that also, just verbally being instructed. It was really fun because you got to use your own creativity and try to interpret the instructions exactly how you thought he meant them, but then you would look over and see, Oh wait, that person's doing something else. It was fun to see how it played out for each individual.

How many were you?
When I started, Melissa was an understudy for about a month so there was an overlap for that time. There were five and then when Melissa joined the company there were four.

I've heard from other dancers that instead of giving breaks that he would tell stories.

Yes. I loved Merce story time. He really loved birds and nature, and I feel like I remember several stories about a bird. Or when they came back from the performances in California where they were in a warehouse—he really talked a lot about the light and the natural surroundings and the view out onto the water. It was really remarkable to him. There were lots of windows.

He really must have needed that contact with you.
Probably. He couldn't come to any of us and I remember [former Cunningham dancer] Sandra Neels told me once that whenever she went to the studio, she always made sure to go up to Merce—to give him a kiss and talk to him. I mean it took her to point out to me that he couldn't come over to anyone if he wanted to talk.

How isolating.
Very. And I think he had already passed when she told me that, but it made sense.

Did you ever go over to talk to him? What was your relationship like?
No, I did not go over to talk to him by myself. One time my parents came to the studio and I introduced them to him, but he was kind of—but he didn't seem very happy that day so he didn't seem interested in meeting them. [Shrugs] His interaction with student groups was also really interesting. He would often give answers that I felt surprised children or were clever in a way that would be really interesting for the children. A lot of times the same questions come out: "How old are you?" "How long have you been dancing?" "What's your favorite dance?" But then sometimes there would be really insightful questions from a child and sometimes he just seemed to have fun interacting with them. But sometimes he just wanted to work and you could tell he was like, Okay, let's finish this outreach. I want to work on Nearly Ninety.

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