Melissa Toogood

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Is there another time that you would have loved to have been in the company? What do you fantasize about?
Well, I think there are two periods. Now, it's the '90s, just because of the repertory. I don't really get to do those types of pieces. It used to be around the time of Viola [Farber] and Carolyn [Brown]—just because I would want to move from that type of place, but I've been getting to do those types of pieces [from the '60s], so I don't crave that as much anymore. I'm doing RainForest and I did Crises—pieces where it comes from more of an animal place rather than one of technical proficiency. It's a different physicality. But that's why I wanted to dance for Merce, too; there are decades of range in his work, so you don't really feel trapped in the work of one person. He constantly evolved.

Could you elaborate on some of those differences?
Some of the physical motivation is different. Like when I was trying to learn Carolyn's solo from RainForest, I was figuring out the footwork—so that it would be clear, but more so that I could just forget about it, whereas working on Nearly Ninety or XOVER, which he made on me, the actual direction of the steps and whether it's fifth or fourth [position] is more integral to the point of what it is. With Crises and RainForest, it wasn't. In the opening duet with Rashaun [Mitchell] in Crises, I didn't have to figure out exactly how many rib movements there were. Or is it forward, back, then side? It was more about constantly letting each body part move at a different time, and I didn't have to set it in that way even though it was very clear to me what it was I was trying to do.

It's slightly more wild, right?
Yes. And the steps: I tried to figure out how many steps I needed to do to make it look a particular way and also trying to be, Okay, what is Carolyn doing as far as the footwork? But it's really obvious to me that that wasn't the most important goal. Whereas with other works, a lot of the rhythm is in the feet. He really started to play with the size of steps, and that specificity became more and more important to him.

I wonder if it's because he was not moving.
I think part of it was that. After I became a RUG was the point where he really started to become fully in the wheelchair, and the fact that he wasn't dancing and couldn't physicalize anything first, I think he kind of enjoyed pushing someone else. [Laughs]

How did he make the movement in Nearly Ninety and XOVER? Would he dictate the positions?
Yeah, he made every step. He always did. I was so shocked by that. When we premiered it at BAM, someone asked me about it. I think they assumed, which is fair because so many people work that way now. Dancers make phrases. It's a big part of what I'm scared about in trying to find another job where that isn't the case, because I love working the way that I did with Merce. I think I have just as much to offer that way. I don't have to make the dance to be able to interpret it in a unique way. But a lot of people assumed that we made stuff up because he couldn't move, even though he made every step. I'm sure you saw Cdric's show [Cdric Andrieux by Jrome Bel]; it really is just like that. I worked on Nearly Ninety from beginning to end as a RUG and premiered it as a company member. I went into the company while it was still being made; he made a lot of stuff on me as a RUG and then continued to do that while I was in the company. Then the stuff that he made on the company, I was also involved in, so I got to the point where he would make another part on me and would be like, "Okay, do the four and then the three and the two and take it in this direction," and that's all the information I needed, whereas the others didn't all know what the four was. I already had a set structure—he reused certain modules that he made throughout the piece, so we were able to get things done really quickly.

What else did you work on as a RUG?
My first piece was eyeSpace 20, then eyeSpace 40, then XOVER, then Nearly Ninety, then Nearly 902, which was really just, "Chuck a bit here, make a transition there, done." But that was his last day working in the studio. He made new steps the last day he was in the studio.

What were the steps, do you remember?
It was the transition between the first half and the second half. So he made a transition for Brandon and I to get off, and the part was originally Julie and Daniel, but Julie was injured again, so he made it on Marcie [Munnerlyn]. Marcie and Daniel were the last two people he choreographed on. So he made that transition to link the first half and the second half of Nearly Ninety for Nearly 90 2, and then he cut some things here or there. But the four of us were the last.

What was it like when you went to visit him?
The first time was hard. We went to see him twice. Now, I would be even more open with him, but at that point I was like, Okay, try not to cry because I don't want to upset him. But I was crying. It was hard. I just didn't know what to say, really. [Her eyes well up.] It's okay. I cry all the time. [Laughs] He was so okay with where he was. He wasn't...he really was at peace. And he became even more open about how grateful he was to us and told us he loved us. That was really nice to have the experience to say goodbye to somebody, because you rarely get that. And the second time we came to see him, I had taken a bunch of photos of birds in my front yard when I was at home in Australia a few months before. I was like, Okay, I'm going to bring these to him. I'm glad I did that. He looked at them and was like, "Oh, wow, look at the colors!" So I'm glad I shared that with him. We were trying to think of things to tell him about, and we had just gone to this Bollywood class. He wanted to see it, so we were dancing for him and everyone was laughing and Daniel was explaining that it was from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and how it was very popular right now. Merce said, "Oh, it looks very popular." [Laughs] We were the first van to stop there on our way up to the Pillow—when we left, we were all laughing and having a good time, and the next group came in and they all looked so depressed and sad. We were like, "Just have a good time!" So I'm glad I got both. I got to kind of be sad with him and tell him I loved him, too. And then the next time we just had a laugh, which was nice.

That's great.
Yeah. I think I left thinking that I would probably see him again, so I think it was good to go to the Pillow not being depressed and thinking about that, even though we were. We were all thinking about Merce. On our way home from the Pillow, he passed away during that huge, crazy storm. Of course. [Laughs]

So how did you hear?
The company manager at the time called me early the next morning. As soon as I answered the phone, I kind of lost it because I knew. I'm like, Why is he calling me? It's a free day: Of course, Merce died on a free day. And we had a free day the next day, so we didn't have to miss any work because we went back the day after. [Laughs] We had the wake on a Monday, which was a free day, and went back to work Tuesday.

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