Melissa Toogood

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New World is in Miami. Had you even been to the U.S. before?
Yes. I'd come for the High School Dance Festival three times. Two of them were held in Miami, so that also helped me make the move because I felt a little bit familiar with the school and some of the faculty, and the third one—where I actually seriously auditioned for colleges—was hosted by CalArts. The festival happens every two years.

When you moved here, what kind of dancer were you?
I was definitely aiming for modern-contemporary work. Before I went to Newtown I really wanted to be a tap dancer.

Well, that makes so much sense in terms of Cunningham's work. So you were a good tap dancer?
I thought so! Enough that I felt like I could really pursue it, but I didn't feel like there were so many opportunities, and then I was introduced to more serious contemporary work, so I left that behind. But I still took it when I could in college.

Did you like many contemporary choreographers in Australia?
Honestly, we didn't really see much. As great as Newtown was, it was kind of insular in that it tried to really focus us on what they were trying to teach us, and they didn't bring in many guest artists. I remember David Parsons came and taught us a class, and I was like, Oh, I should go and see the company. I never really thought that I should go see stuff, which is weird, but I think part of that, too, was that I didn't want to ask my parents for any more money—that was an extra thing. How much can I ask for? All the dance classes and camps I was doing was enough. [Laughs]

Right. Did Beach Birds strike you at the time?
At the time, I think it wasn't necessarily that I was thinking, That's the company I want to dance for. I don't know that I even really knew that the company still existed, because we were watching it in dance history class. It's definitely one of the only pieces I remember watching. There's a handful of pieces I remember: We watched two videos of the same piece, one by the Joffrey and one by London Contemporary Dance Theatre, to compare the fact that they were trained differently. And I remember watching Nacho Duato and a lot of Jir Kylin.

So you were in Miami for four years?
Yeah, I did the BFA program.

What were you thinking when you graduated? Were you wanting to move to New York?
I don't know. I think at that point I didn't really know how to enter a professional career. I did work with some professional choreographers at home in high school, but it didn't seem like it was a company, really. Every student in tenth grade does work experience, so you spend a couple of weeks in the field, and I did that with Sydney Dance Company. I loved that, but for some reason I just didn't feel like it was going to be an easy transition. I didn't really know how to go about it, and I felt like I wanted more time to develop. And, yes, when I was 18, I looked like I was 12, so I didn't really think I'd be hired as a professional at that point anyway. So I went to college, and New World was one of the ones I was more focused on because they were a more modern-based school rather than ballet focused. I didn't audition for Juilliard. I think I was already too structured, and so the fact that I ended up at New World—it's a little more loosey-goosey. I think it was good for me because it opened me up. After my second year, I wanted to leave because I was so frustrated that I didn't think I was being worked hard enough, but I was focused on the wrong things. Part of it was because of my training at home—like my anatomy classes and stuff like that. In college it wasn't anywhere near as much as what I did in high school. Once I focused on the stuff that I didn't have yet and really delved into that, there was so much freedom. We had works-in-progress nights and we filled all our lunchtimes with classes we made up for ourselves. [Laughs] Basically, two of my classmates were already professional tango dancers—people would bring them overseas to perform and stuff, so they started teaching us tango class. New World really had that creative vibe. Once I really let myself go—more than just like, I'm a technique junkie—it proved to be really beneficial for me. It was good. And that's how I ended up coming to Merce; it was through New World because Banu [Ogan] and Foofwa [d'Imobilit] came and staged a piece.

Which one?
Inlets 2. They really pushed me to come to the studio.

What was it like working with them and on that piece?
Straightaway I was physically like, Oh, this makes sense. I'd always loved every type of dance that I did. I wasn't really focused on a particular company or type of company at that point, I just liked everything. And I felt like I'd be happy going anywhere. After that first class, I was like, Oh, okay. This makes sense to me even though it's so complicated—it just made sense with my body. Banu thought I'd taken Cunningham before, and I was like, "No, never." She was trying to get me to leave school. It was really hard for me to decide not to leave, actually. I think it's because Foofwa sat me down and spoke to me seriously about it, and it gave me a really good perspective. Basically, he told me to just go for the summer and see how I felt. So I came to the studio for the summer, and I loved it. He said it could be a difficult place; he was there long enough to see that sometimes there were people that would have been great in the company, and it just didn't happen for them, so he was realistic with me. Spend some time there, and if things don't happen, move on. So I think that was really good for me in the long run based on the experience I had there afterward. Because I was at the Cunningham Studio for a while after I graduated, and there were a number of RUGs that were hired before me. I was put in the company class right away; it was hard. And then I started dancing for a company in Philadelphia which is a dance-theater company.

Called what?
Miro Dance Theatre. Amanda Miller and Tobin Rothlein—not the famous Amanda Miller. But I did two evening shows with them. And I had a conversation with Robert [Swinston] at that point, just, "Am I wasting my time here at Cunningham?" And he was like, "Yes." Not because he didn't think I was good enough, but I think he tried to push for me to be a RUG and it didn't happen. I danced for Miro for a while and then I was like, What am I doing? I stopped taking class at Cunningham, which was stupid because I loved it there. So I went back just because I really enjoyed the technique and knew it was going to make me a better dancer anyway, and I think Merce saw something different then. And hired me right after I came back.

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