Rashaun Mitchell



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But during that two-and-a-half years, you were working pretty closely with Cunningham, right?
I was. I worked more closely with him then than more recently. I did Crises . The first revival of Crises was with our group. We did Antic Meet and he made some of his choreography on us for Fluid Canvas and for Split Sides .

How did it work when he was creating something new?
That was the best because you just never knew what you were going to get. You would come in and he would just start: "Step with your left foot here. Step with your right foot there. Tilt your back there. Put your arm here." And then it would slowly build over the course of a few days and before you knew it, you were doing this crazy running around. It always baffled me how it turned into something. You knew that he knew what it was going to be. Sometimes he would play and he would even say, "I don't know if this is going to work, but let's try," so I think sometimes he didn't know. But I got the sense that he had his notes and he was relaying them to us; he had already seen the computer image and now he was seeing it in person. The thing about it was that we all wanted to please him so much that we would keep going to exhaustion. I was young enough to do that. We would just jump and jump and jump and run and step—over and over and over again. And always with a slight air of competition because there was another guy or two girls, and who's going to get into the company? So we were trying to get his attention. There is that element of it. Everyone goes through that, "Do you like the way I'm doing it?" It keeps you percolating and that was always fun. And then we had to give it away to the company, always. It was hard, but then I had to be on the other side of it too, eventually.

Which side was harder?
Being in the company. As an understudy, you do get a lot of attention and they really groom you and Merce is really sweet and forgiving and supportive. Then you get into the company and it's not horrible, it's just, "Okay, you're in. That's it. Do your job." In some ways I really appreciated that because I was trusted and I didn't have to prove myself so much, but on the other hand, you really aren't given very much guidance or corrections. For the first few months, they drill you and you have to do things over and over again, but after that you're pretty much left to your own devices. It's great because what you see onstage is different people making different choices, and as an audience member that can be confusing, but I think for others it is completely liberating.

It can be confusing.
Yeah. Because you're like, what's the point? But the point, maybe, is the confusion. That was my sense. There were times when I felt like my choice was right, but I always had to be like, "No. That's also valid and I'm just going to do what I want to do and it's great that I can do that." As [Cunningham] was getting older and not as present, we naturally took it upon ourselves to guide each other. What ended up happening was it became a little bit more homogenous, like, "Okay, what's the step?  What's the focus? Where are we looking? What's the timing? Let's try to be together." And that was never, ever the point when I first joined the company. There were more squabbles and everyone was vying for the attention. I think he kind of liked that. I think he kind of was mischievously excited by that, and it brought something out in the work that he couldn't have made. Sometimes now I get a little bit irritated when it's too, Okay let's be exactly together. That's not what the aesthetic was. We did Pond Way and someone said that we didn't do it well when we revived it. And I agreed. The whole time I was learning it, I felt, This isn't right. We're too together. We're not an army. It's like nature, and it didn't feel like that. It felt controlled. I had this sort of rebellious energy sometimes where I would just try to be slightly off. Not to be noticed, but just to be like, This is what I believe in and I don't think that Merce would have wanted it this way. But I think everyone has their feelings about what they think Merce would have wanted.

Was he working from the computer for Fluid Canvas and Split Sides?
Ostensibly. Well, I don't know. His process was always a mystery. He had notes in front of him, on paper, and he really relied on them. Sometimes he would have to fuss and find them or he would lose his place and we'd have to wait. He had notes and I assumed that he did all that research with the computer by himself; we never saw any of it. We just got the verbal direction. I felt like he was working with the computer for those pieces because all the movements were completely separate. He would do feet, torsos and then arms and sometimes he would even do heads. We would learn them separately. It felt really disjointed and really unnatural. Then by the time he was doing Nearly Ninety , and I suspect he couldn't really deal with the computer anymore—he was too old or whatever—the movements were more whole. There were less arms. He would give the whole thing at once. With the solo that he made on me, I don't remember him looking at a piece of paper. I remember coming in and him saying, "Let's try something." And then he would tell me to do something, and it just seemed like he didn't know exactly what he wanted. He knew the spatial part, but not necessarily the steps. It was a different process from the time that I was an understudy to right before he died.

And how did he give you the steps?
He said, "Stand in second position, pli and move your hip from side to side and turn and face the wall and do this and that," and then, "I need to get you over there." So he knew where he wanted me to be spatially and then he made the steps go there. That was a weird process, Nearly Ninety , because I think it was really hard for him to manage all of it because there were so many of us and he kept getting confused about who was in what section. He even would forget whole sections. I remember going up to him one time and saying, "Hey, Merce, we've been running all these sections, but we haven't done that one section. Is that gone? Or do you want us to do that?" "Oh yes, yes, yes." And then we did it. If I hadn't said that, would it have just disappeared? That happened a lot. He was working with four understudies; I think in the past, he had taken what he'd made on the understudies and expanded it for the company, but with this piece, he kept things as they were and just recast them. So what you got was a series of quartets, trios, duets. I think the piece is like that because that was all he could manage, but within that are brilliant, amazing things. It's just not as complex spatially and with patterns and people.

What was brilliant and amazing for you?
The details of the movement.

I thought that was incredible.
Incredible. So the scale is smaller, but within that, there are all of these things.

They're like miniatures.
Yeah! Did you see the Nearly 90 2 version? It's without the set and video and crazy music. It's really meditative, actually. The costumes are different and it's just the dancers and music and light. I thought it was boring at first, but now I think it's better and more meditative.

We skipped too far forward. Can you talk about some of your repertory in the beginning?
I did GLO—Ground Level Overlay— and BIPED . They were the two big pieces for me.

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