Tell me when you started dancing and why. Did anyone push you into it?
No. I went to boarding school for high school, and it was really a fluke, it was kind of an accident. I had to take a sports requirement. My first year I was doing soccer and lacrosse and I was trying to be an athlete. I wasn't bad, but I didn't care. I used to walk by the dance studio because it was at the front of the building, and I would get caught looking through the window at the dancers.
Where was this?
Concord Academy [in Massachusetts]. Now they have Summer Stages Dance in the summer, but this was way before that. It was just a small studio. It's funny because there was one moment when they saw me looking in the window and they stopped the class and were like, "Come in, come in!" I ran. I didn't even know at that point that I was interested; I used to dance when I was in the streets and at parties, but I didn't know anyone who did any formal dancing. In my second year, I decided that I was going to take a dance class because it met twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes as opposed to sports everyday for two hours. I was thinking about my time. So that's really why I started dancing. I thought it was completely silly. I used to laugh the whole time. I didn't understand anything about wearing tights or a dance belt. I think I wore boxers. I wanted to be an actor, so I was taking theater and I was in plays. Then I went to this summer-theater program at Wesleyan, and it was terrible. I met these dancers and I saw a dance performance—I don't even remember what it was—but it just blew me away. It was a moment of, Oh! That's what it is, and that's what I want to do. So my junior year, I devoted myself to dance.
What kind of dance did you study there?
I was studying with Richard Colton and Amy Spencer, they were from Twyla Tharp and Joffrey, and Sara Rudner. I had really good training right away. We had ballet and modern and I was in a dance company. We would improvise and perform. Then I went to college.
Why did you choose Sarah Lawrence?
I knew that I wanted to be in New York, but I was a little bit not ready for the city and I didn't want to do a conservatory.
Well, my parents didn't want me to do that. They wanted me to have an education and I was fine with that. Sarah Lawrence had a good dance program and my teacher, Amy, had studied with Viola [Farber], so she said, "That's going to be a good place for you."
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Atlanta. I was born in Connecticut.
Did your parents want to get you back East? Is that why you went to Concord?
They didn't really want me to leave [Atlanta], but I was determined. I wanted to do something else. I didn't know what it was at that point, but I just wanted to leave. I kind of did it all myself. It was kind of crazy.
But you wanted to be a performer, it seems. Like you wanted to go into acting originally?
I knew that I wanted to do something with my life. At 13 I didn't really know, but I had a sense that I wasn't thriving in Georgia, so I just went to the library and researched schools and suddenly I was being interviewed and filling out applications and before I knew it I was getting accepted and I was getting scholarships. So it happened really fast and my mom and dad were like, "Okay, whatever" and then when it finally happened they were like, "Oh, you're really leaving." It was intense.
It shows the determination of a dancer.
I know. I had it already. [Laughs] God.
How was Sarah Lawrence?
It was really foreign at first because the movement was Cunningham-based and I didn't understand it. It was very awkward and I was the only guy in the advanced class. I actually tried to transfer to Tisch. I auditioned and they said they liked me but they didn't have enough money, so I stayed at Sarah Lawrence. And then, it got better. I think I just grew up.
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.
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.
Whose part did you do in BIPED?
Tom Caley's. And in GLO . I do a lot of Tom's parts because I replaced Ashley [Chen] who replaced him. My first show was in Berkeley, and it was GLO and BIPED , which were two huge parts and I was crazy nervous, but I did it. We did Fluid Canvas, Split Sides, Ocean, Native Green, Suite for Five, Pictures and How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run —I didn't do that one for very long. Views and eyeSpace . I wasn't in eyeSpace 20 , which we did at the Joyce, because I was doing Crises in that same program, so Merce left me out of it. But I did eyeSpace 40 , which is beautiful and I don't think anyone ever saw it in New York. We wear these beautiful silver unitards and there's a set by Daniel Arsham and the music is really pretty. No iPods or anything like that. It's a really nice piece.
How did you become acclimated to being in the company?
With the process or the lifestyle?
At first it was just mentally hard because there were just so many steps and to coordinate them all was insane. It's a skill just like anything else that you can develop, and I feel I can pick up steps a lot faster now, but at the time I thought, How are they getting this so fast? I remember when I first started feeling like I didn't know what I was doing. I had two weeks to learn all my parts from Ashley, I had videos, I had Merce, and that was it. There was some attention given to the notes, but I remember having that feeling of, Okay. I'm supposed to just look like I know what I'm doing and then I'll be fine. And that's what I did. I just faked it. If I didn't know it, I just did the step with emphasis, and that's what the step was until I could start to really do it right. And that I sort of picked up from Merce, because I sensed that from him. He just wanted some kind of clarity of intention. That was always the thing I joked about with Andrea [Weber] and Marcie [Munnerlyn] because we all joined together: Just pretend you know it, just do it. And then eventually it becomes second nature.
Traveling was really exciting. I didn't know how to balance my life at all. I would completely lose touch with everyone and everything when I was gone because it was all so overwhelming. I did that for a really long time actually. [Laughs] Out of sight, out of mind, now I'm back—hi! I'm better at it now. I remember my first tour was to Berkeley, and I didn't know what the protocol was; I didn't know what the schedule was like. We'd show up at the theater, and we'd take class and then we'd have a break and then run pieces without sound or light, and then there was a four-hour break. I didn't know what to do with myself. I remember feeling so out of my body—we'd flown across the country and the next day we're in the theater and then I'm doing my very first show, and I remember turning to Holley [Farmer] and saying, "I don't know if I can do this. I feel so crazy," and she said, "You're gonna be fine. Go to your hotel room, order some food. Take a bath and then nap, then come back." So I did that. And then I came back and I was totally a different person, and I started to learn, Okay, this is what you do. This is the way the day works. You have to go rest and start over again. I would see every new person come in and have the same shell-shocked experience.
Do you help people along now?
Why are you laughing?
I'm thinking about Silas [Riener]. The rehearsal ended and he said, "Where's everyone going? What do we do now?" and I was like, Okay, I'm going to be Holley for a minute. I did pass it on.
When you talk about Merce, you could sense that he wanted clarity. Would he talk to you about it? How would you get that from him?
He never used those words, but it was through my observation of what he chose to redo or to check after we would rehearse something. And the way that he would use his own body: Even when he was sitting, he would just move his body, and his face would change and he would make a guttural sound, and it was like, Okay, he wants it to be sharp and clear and exact because maybe you need to see it from really far away on a proscenium stage. So I thought about all those things and why he was always so intent on having the shape be clear and about moving big and about the sharpness of a movement, and I came to understand that it was because he was thinking about the theater and the audience already. If someone's in the back, they need to see it. He never said that to me, but it's just what I gathered. And I saw the other dancers who were older than me and how they moved. You don't want to be singled out in a bad way, ever, so it's like, How do I blend in?
But you didn't really blend in.
I guess not. [Laughs] There's no way I could have blended in. No. There were no other black people. And I thought about that a lot. I was happy to see Michael Cole when he came around. And Gus Solomons Jr. Yeah, I always thought about the color and the race thing because there was never any woman of color. Ever. And I don't think it was because of him not wanting. There was an understudy who was gorgeous from Barbados with really dark skin, and I think he was immediately just enamored of her; she was so beautiful. But she just wasn't strong enough, and she didn't get stronger, and it didn't work. I think it's something culturally; maybe some people are not drawn to the work. I wouldn't have been drawn to that work either if I had stayed in Georgia. I went to boarding school. I went to Sarah Lawrence. I was exposed to it, and it was foreign when I was first exposed to it. I didn't like it. I had to begin to understand it intellectually before I could want to do it. But actually, physically it makes so much sense on my body in a lot of ways, in ways I didn't know. And it is very physical. People think of it as this really cerebral, abstract thing, but what we do is actually really physical. So I'm always excited to see anyone of color come into the studio. There's a black guy right now who is doing something with the RUGs. So I was excited to meet him. We all see each other, we notice. I didn't really ever feel like it was an issue. I never had any kind of problems with my color in the company, except Carolyn Brown did call me—what did she call me? I think she called me Ulysses or Gus.
No. But, you know, she's old. I let it go. But I was like, Really? Come on. I don't actually look like those guys. They're from a different era, you know. Definitely. But Merce never mentioned it to me. He never said my name right.
What did he call you?
He called me "RAH-shaun." Always RAH-shaun. And it didn't matter that someone would say my name right before him and he would hear it. He still would say RAH-shaun. I think he thought I was some exotic thing, and it was actually just Ebonics or whatever.
Would you talk about performing Cunningham's roles? How did the others react when that started happening?
I think it happened, first of all, by chance a little bit because I was an understudy and I was the only guy and there were four other women. Robert thought to bring back this piece, Crises, because it was the right number of people. What happened with that was, I was able to do what I think I do better, which was something more dramatic and idiosyncratic. I did do a lot of theater.
You're not afraid of that.
No. And bringing a certain presence is always what I've been attracted to. I've always been more interested in his more animalistic pieces, so it worked for me to do his part in Crises . It was a successful showing of the piece. I think they weren't sure how it was going to be received—this was before I was even in the company. Whether Merce would like it, whether the piece would be good—no one else had ever done it. After that, it put me in that place of, "Okay, he can do Merce's parts," and it sort of snowballed. Merce did like me and did give me a lot of attention in the beginning. He always gave me good parts in the new pieces he made. I guess it was a natural thing for me to do the parts. So when I did Crises , I think his way of dealing with that and me being singled out was to not put me in eyeSpace , and at the time, I was upset because I wanted to be in the new piece. I want you to make something on me that is new. That's why I'm here. And I didn't understand the weight of doing a historic role; I wanted to be in the new piece, and I was sad that I was being punished for having been given an opportunity, sort of. And then someone talked me down and made me realize that I was being stupid. I think that was his way of saying, "Well, we're going to give you this, but we're not going to just give you everything and make everyone feel bad." We performed Crises a lot; once I got into the company, it was like, "Okay, let's do the piece now." So I don't think anyone really felt negatively or they didn't express that to me because they had already seen me do it as an understudy. It seemed natural. And I think I'm friendly with everyone, and I'm supportive of everyone. I'm not competitive. I love watching everyone. I learn from everyone. And I feel really positively toward everyone, for the most part. So anyway, we performed Crises a lot in conjunction with eyeSpace . Then I didn't have any other of his roles until I think he died. Right before he died, he did cast me as himself in Square Game , but we weren't doing the whole piece, just sections of it. I think they already knew that they were going to revive Square Game before he died, and I probably would have been doing that anyway. But, yeah, it was after he died that we brought back a lot of the pieces that he's in. I never did Suite for Five , and I never wanted to. I don't feel like it's a part for me anyway. It's too pristine and kind of erect and princely or something.
It's like Apollo instead of the kind of spookier stuff that you can do, where you're, Is it scary or funny?
Exactly! [ Laughs ] What's going on? I saw Tom do Suite and I saw Cdric [Andrieux] and Ashley do Suite , and they did it so well. I mean Cdric did it amazingly. He just looked so big. He looked like a god. So it was never a part that I wanted. And I was okay with that. I don't have to do everything. And also it would be a disservice to the work and to me and to other people. It's nice to see other people do things. I do feel like it's too bad that Silas didn't get to do any of Merce's parts. I think that it would have been nice to have seen him in at least one thing.
Will he get the chance?
Really? Because this is set?
Oh yeah. It's one of those things about timing too, if the company was continuing and I was leaving—the natural progression of things. When I first started, I wasn't in a lot of the pieces. And then a couple of years later, someone left, and I got more parts and then after a while you're the senior person and you have a lot of parts, and that's the way it is. So for people that are new, it's sad a little bit because I don't think they'll ever get to grow in the work and sink their teeth into something. Robert tried to give everyone a moment, but it didn't spread completely fairly. The Merce parts are just now the Legacy Tour. It's weird sometimes. When I did Square Game , we did a studio showing of it. It was soon after he died, and I really felt so strange doing this piece because, unlike the other parts that he does, people are just sitting onstage watching and that's weird. I felt weird. I felt like I was removed and maybe it was just in my head, but I felt judged. I'm doing the solo and I realize the importance of it in some way, but I look around and I see these other people sitting there and that's not really fun for me. What are they thinking? And also, just the fact that it was Merce's part, I felt like I was really under a microscope. You know: Is he like Merce? Just all of the judgment. It was hard at first. I'm past that now but it was so soon after he died that it was really emotional for me to inhabit the role because of all those things. Now we just revived RainForest , and it's awesome. I'm so excited to perform it. It's my favorite piece.
I saw it before I was in the company at City Center. It's everything. And I'm such a huge fan of Andy Warhol so to have the fucking silver pillows? [ Gasps ] When I became an understudy, the company was doing it, so I got to see them rehearse it a lot. And Ashley fucking Chen was fucking brilliant. Just like this sexual demon. I remember always, always wanting to do it and then right before I got into the company, it left the rep. So I thought maybe by some chance it will come back and I'll get to do it. That was always one of the reasons that I stayed, the possibility of doing RainForest . And I remember when the whole talk of the revivals and what we were going to do came up and RainForest wasn't on the list. And I went to Robert and I said, "Robert, why aren't we doing RainForest ? We have to do RainForest ," and he was just like [ Mimics his sardonic tone. ], "Oh, oh yeah okay, well I'll try and see if we can do it." And we're doing it now. I'm really happy about it. It's a perfect, round way for me to go out.
During this tour, how did you feel going into it? How do you feel now? How do you survive not only the physical part, but the emotional part?
Well, it's funny because the whole idea of the tour is actually a myth because I'm here in New York a lot actually [ Laughs ] It's the same as it always has been in terms of the schedule and the touring. We're going to a few new places, but mostly we're going to the same places we always go to. They were really careful to build in rest time and rehearsal time for us. They didn't want us to break. So it's really the same in a lot of ways, but obviously it's not. I'm trying to be in the moment because I know that it's a special time and I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life. When I'm there, I'm there. It's weird because we're ticking off the cities and we're counting down, "Okay, we have seven more performances of this piece, three more of this," and every city we say goodbye to. Every time we have a curtain call, it is emotional, actually, in a way it wasn't before. And the crowds, you can feel it from them; they're really appreciative. So it's infusing us; it's energizing us. At first, it was really hard and no one knew how to deal with it or what to make of it. I don't think I could even talk about it. People would ask me how I was doing and what it was like, and I didn't have the words. I hadn't sorted out my feelings. As dancers, we take grief and emotion into our bodies. I remember having a conversation with my physical therapist about the fact that a lot of us were getting injured and the administration was like, "What's going on? Why is everyone having these problems?" And she said, "You know, the body grieves, and this is the way that it's manifesting itself." It blew my mind. I was like, "Oh my God!" Because I haven't been grieving. I haven't been talking about it. I haven't been even really able to think about it, and so my body is taking it on. And I did get really injured—I hurt my back and I was out for three months. I didn't do the City Center [Fall for Dance]. I'm not saying that Merce's death caused my injury, but I do think that the body deals with these things in a way that the mind cannot understand. So I did eventually hurt myself and that was really hard for me to be out and to not know if I was even going to be able to come back. I thought I was going to have to have surgery.
That's what I heard.
It was so crazy. And they left and they went on tour and I missed a whole six-week European tour and the premiere of Antic Meet and all of that.
Yeah, which I had been gearing up for from being an understudy. I sat in New York and I wasn't allowed to exercise or do anything for three months. Can you imagine?
You must have been so depressed.
I thought I was going to go crazy actually, but it was ultimately the best thing for me because I got to do things I don't normally get to do. I got to go to shows, I got to just really get some perspective on what I was doing and what I felt about being in this company and the rest of the time that I had. I got to see my friends. I got to live a little bit, and I read up a lot about the body and healing and psychosomatic things and it really intrigued me and started getting me thinking. It's part of the research for the next piece I'm making, and it's a whole new direction for me. I felt like I was able to come back to the company and now just feel really lucky to be here and doing it.
Maybe a little too beautiful [ Laughs ].
It's so interesting how an injury sometimes comes at the right time.
Yeah, and I had been feeling it coming for a while and I had been struggling and pushing and I just snapped.
How did you heal yourself?
I did a lot of acupuncture. Physical therapy. I tried to really just live and to be happy. Because I felt like if I was right emotionally, I would heal faster. I quit smoking.
Really? That's great.
I was determined. The doctor told me best-case scenario [that recovery would be] ten to twelve weeks, and I was like, "That's my goal. I'm doing it." I didn't dwell on the negative part of it. I was like, Okay I'm really happy. I would Skype the company every so often. They would get together and Skype me. I think they were all like "How are you doing? Are you okay ?" and I was just like, "What's up guys? How's it going?!" I was just trying to be really positive and I think it really worked. Mind over matter.
You got healthy.
I got healthy. And then I came back and it was scary because my first performance was of Nearly Ninety in Hong Kong, which is such a ridiculously hard piece. That's the piece that I hurt myself in. So I got on a plane for however many friggin' hours—different time zone, different culture. I had been there before, but I was really nervous. I didn't do my entire part for the first few shows of Nearly Ninety . I was allowed to wean myself back in. And I remember right before the curtain came up, I was in the wings with Andrea and we started the piece and she told me afterward that she looked into my eyes and she had never seen fear in my eyes before, ever, but that she saw it at that moment. I remember feeling like, Oh my God. I really hope that I can do this, that I can get through this. I knew that if I could just get through that one first show, I would be okay because it was mostly about what I was feeling inside. I just wasn't sure. Because I had a different body actually. I had a different back. It's still different. I'm still dealing with it. It's like someone else's back. It doesn't bend as much. I was looking at a photo of myself and I was doing this crazy back bend, and that was before my injury. I can't do that anymore. It's okay. I don't have to, you know, bend my head to the floor; I had to let that go. I had to deal with, what does it mean to not be in control of your body? It's controlling you, and I'm getting older and things are changing and it's just life.
What are you going to do after this? You're going to continue to make work?
Yeah. On my off time I'm making work, which is kind of crazy, but it's good for me to keep busy. I'm doing a show in April at Judson and I have my whole year and a half pretty much planned. I'm going to be dancing for Rebecca Lazier. That's my one thing, and I might do another project with someone else if it feels right, but I really want to focus on my own work. And so far it's going really well and a lot of doors have already been opened because of Cunningham. I'm going to be teaching at Tisch, and I still want to travel, and I think I'm just going to live on unemployment for a little while and have the time to focus. I'll just really give it my all, and if I fail at being a choreographer, it's my fault. If it really doesn't work out after a while, I'll just go back to school or dance or something. I'm not that concerned about it.
Do you all talk about what you're going to do?
Yeah all the time. I mean, Silas and I are working together, so we're doing a lot of the same things. Some people are applying to school, some people are moving out of the city, getting married. I don't think there's anyone who has an actual dance job as of right now. Some people want to continue dancing. But no one else is making work, I don't think, except for Silas and me.
We were talking earlier about Cunningham's movement and making it work on your body. Could you talk about that process a little bit more?
I think that there are a couple of ways to approach doing the movement. For anyone, even the greatest dancer ever, there's a struggle. It doesn't make sense sequentially a lot of times. The momentum that's needed for turning from nothing, without preparation, jumping and landing and holding—and then, from there, doing something else. Coordinating your back against your legs—all of this stuff is something that is foreign to anyone, I think. I always try to find where there could be a flow in it and I try to smooth the edges. But some people don't do that; they have different priorities and really believe in the awkwardness of it and actually just allowing that to be. I try to make it less awkward, but without changing the steps. I really believe in not changing the steps. Some people do to make it easier for themselves and that's always really frustrating because of the challenge of it. You're trying to do this thing that's being asked of you that's impossible, but you find a way to do it in a way that is presentable. And you see someone else cheating? It's kind of sucky. And that happens. But everybody's body is different, and sometimes your body just isn't going to do it. There is the element of laying that struggle out for the public to see. It was interesting for us to have that class in front of everyone at Lincoln Center [at Merce Fair]. It was actually horrible. It was really awesome for the audience to see how it works, but that's like our sacred time. It's our time to try things out and to fail without being observed. I think after a while you get more comfortable with the struggle and with laying that bare. The ego gets lost because you're just constantly losing the battle, so you just kind of go, Okay, well, this is the best I can do. And it's never going to be perfect. I'm always going to be searching for something else and there's always a way to grow technically, but it's never going to be perfect.
Earlier you said how everyone thinks they know what Cunningham wanted. Can we come back to that? Do you feel that way?
Ummm... [ Laughs ]. I do feel that way. I think I was talking to you about this.
For Antic Meet?
Yeah. We had this process where someone from the original company came back and set this piece on us and she taught the piece in a way that she felt was right. And her experience is completely valid and she was obviously there and there are videos of her doing it, but I also remember what it was like to revive the piece the first time we did it when Merce was still alive. I remember how that process changed when we did it after he was gone. Without his authority, the only thing left is our authority. So it's inevitable that someone's going to say, "This is what it is," and, "This is what I think," and, "This is what's wrong." I did, and maybe defiantly so. I don't think I was disruptive or an asshole, but I did feel like I had this voice in my head while I was learning that piece again that was saying, "Merce wouldn't have wanted this exactly the way that it is." Or not that he wouldn't have wanted this, but that he would have allowed for more freedom within this. I remember Merce as this person who really liked to see people do things the way that they did them and to see his movement look different on different bodies and to see different interpretations, and the freedom of that was more than, "This is the step and this is exactly what it should be." I remember those processes with him when he was relaying steps to us; they were coming out so fast that you'd think, "I heard him say this thing," but someone next to you had a different experience and they thought they heard something else. Who's right or wrong? But, ultimately, maybe there's room for all of these versions to exist, and maybe he wanted that. And maybe that's why he was so fast in his process. He wanted to see what you would do, and that was more important than the step. Is it in pli, is it straight, is the arm 90 degrees or 75 degrees? That stuff doesn't matter to me as much as the intention behind it. So in my way, I think that I know what Merce would have wanted.
Because you don't want to kill it.
Right. It would be nice to set a piece at some point and to be able to keep that spirit alive. I always try and remind people of that when I teach class: That they really should just go for it. And they should be themselves. Obviously, you want to be detail-oriented and specific, but you can make choices. The point is to make a choice.
Did you have mentors in the company?
At the beginning Robert, because he was my boss and he hired and trained me. And Jeannie Steele a little bit. We were friends, and she would occasionally help me with something technically. But you know, for the most part, everyone was on equal footing. I started to sense after a while that people started to come to me for those kinds of things more than the other way around. And I decided to accept it. I mean people tend to come to me if they have a complaint about something: "Can you do something? Can you talk to him?"
Because you had Cunningham on your side?
I don't know. I think it's just really a personality thing. I didn't ask for it. It's just at some point you look around and think, Okay, if no one else is going to stand up and say this, I guess I will. And I tend to do that.
Has it been difficult, all of the attention you've gotten in the press?
Yes and no. Positively speaking, its opened certain doors for me for sure, and it's great to be recognized. I've worked hard and, you know, everyone wants to be recognized for what they do, so yes, that's great. But also, I do worry about some kind of backlash or when the criticism comes—because it always comes. I do feel self-conscious sometimes. Especially around the other dancers who may not get as much recognition for whatever reason. But I also think that a lot of it is just the place that I'm in right now. Like I was saying before about me being the senior man in the company other than Robert, I have the experience and at this point, eight years into the company, it makes sense. Whereas somebody who's new, they're not going to get that chance. Maybe if this had happened a few years ago, it would be Cdric or. Do you know what I mean? I think a lot of it is timing.