Rashaun Mitchell



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They must feel really stupid now.

[ Laughs ] I'm going to be teaching there next fall. My second year, I was studying with Viola and that was even more foreign, but I was growing up so I was more mature. She was a very singular and amazing woman. She was really old and had had a hip replacement, but she had this shaved head and was really intense. She would show the combinations and her arms would be over here and I just could not tell what was going on at all . I really didn't get it, but I stood behind Anne Lentz because I was like, That girl seems to know what it is and Viola is saying yes to her. Also I thought she was gorgeous.

She can organize her body so beautifully.
Ah! So it was Anne Lentz and Lydia Mullin; they were the two star dancers. I hung out with them and I started to figure out what Viola wanted. It was mostly rhythm. It was always about rhythm. I guess, naturally. I have good rhythm, so she liked me, she liked guys. I had a really good time and then in the middle of my junior year, she died. She had a stroke and it was sudden. We went to visit her in the hospital, and then she died. They pulled the plug. It was hard. So the rest of my time that year I had substitutes: for my senior year, Sara Rudner came in. I feel lucky that I was able to study with Viola and Sara. Sara changed everything. It was much more noodly. Sara was getting us to move our spines and get deeper in our plis and the joints. And we did a lot of brainy work in class, like retrograding and doing weird things with phrasing. I still am really good friends with Sara. That was what my experience was like at Sarah Lawrence. It's hard because it's not a conservatory, but you can make what you want of it and I got a lot out of it.

I knew I wanted to be a dancer and I think a lot of people that go there and are in the dance department don't necessarily want to be dancers; they just are interested in dance or want to be choreographers or want to be dance administrators or dance writers or something dance-related. But I really wanted to be a dancer, so I had to choose my other classes around dance. Dance took up all of my time. I was in as many pieces as I could be. I took modern, ballet, improv, choreography, anatomy and dance history and when I graduated, I still felt like I needed a lot more training, which is why I went to Cunningham. I didn't go there right away, actually, because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to dance for Mark Morris. Looking back well, I don't really like his work now. It doesn't appeal to me. But his earlier work and his use of gender and his musicality and irreverence attracted me, and I don't feel like that's really so much there anymore. Also, now I see it as a lot more simplistic after being in Cunningham. It got ruined, I guess.

I graduated and I was in the city and I wasn't making any money and I was dancing for small choreographers. It was hard and I wasn't training and I thought, "I have to figure out how to take class." So I went and auditioned for a scholarship at Cunningham with no intention of dancing in the company at all. I just thought, Here's a place I can go and study for free. And I got the scholarship, so that's where it all began.

Had you seen much Cunningham at that point?
I had seen videos in dance history class. Points in Space or something. I worked as an usher at the Joyce Theater for a little while and that was really good because I got to see a lot of companies. I saw a Cunningham Event. But at that time, I still wasn't drawn to the work. I recognized the strength and ability of the dancers and I knew it was really hard. I was studying at the studio and never had any intention of being in the company until I was asked to be an understudy. Then I began to actually see the work and see the rehearsals and see the dancers. That's when I really started to understand and fall in love with it.

How did you become an understudy?
I was asked to be an understudy, I think, on a Friday night, to start on Monday. I got the call from Robert [Swinston] and I was really excited and nervous and I didn't really know what was happening. I came in and I had to learn three pieces in one week and then perform them at the end of the week. They were Septet, Winterbranch and Signals. I had small parts in each of them. I learn steps pretty quickly, so that was fine, but I remember doing the performance and just feeling like I just could not do it. It was so hard. Sara Rudner came and I said, "Sara, I don't think I can do this. It's just too hard." She said, "Just keep going." I remember doing a slow triplet across the floor—it was the hardest thing I had ever done. [Laughs]


Just the control. Moving slow is not really natural to me.

It's the closest thing to performing naked or something?
Oh absolutely. It's very vulnerable.

And it's true of Cunningham more so than someone like Balanchine because you don't have the music to help.
No. You don't get the movement tailor-made for you either. You have to make it work and that's part of the fun and the intrigue.

How long were you an understudy?
Way too long! [Laughs] Two and a half years. I was dancing for Pam [Tanowitz] and for Risa Jaroslow. I saw a lot of RUGs [Repertory Understudy Group] come and go. They kept reassuring me that they wanted me to stay and that they thought I'd get in, but no one was leaving. At that time, everyone kept telling me, "Robert's going to leave. You're going to replace Robert—he's getting old," and he's still dancing, which I think is funny. The good thing about it was that I was able to grow. I was able to train and I kept telling myself that even if I don't get in, I'm getting amazing training and experience. By the time I got into the company, I was ready. I was still the new guy so I had a lot of things to learn, and you always do, but I was really ready for it.

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