Robert Swinston

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Photograph: Anna Finke

What brought you to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company?
I had friends in the company. I was in the Limn company at the time and Chris Komar was my friend. [Komar was a dancer with the Cunningham company and the assistant artistic director at the time of his death, in 1996, of AIDS.] I met him in 1972 at Jacob's Pillow; we were both scholarship students. He had just come from Milwaukee and I had just finished one semester at NYU School of the Arts, which is now Tisch. He went to Cunningham right after that, and I ended up at Martha Graham. But he invited me to his performances when he was still an apprentice, so I saw the '72 season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: Walkaround Time. That was the beginning of seeing Merce's work, basically. And then I had a number of other friends who were Purchase graduates, like Alan Good and Susan Emery—particularly them—and the summer of 1980, they came back from Sadler's Wells and Robert Kovich had resigned. I started taking class regularly at the studio. Up until then I had been watching the concerts and had become very interested in the work. Then Merce came in. I met him. And then they had a workshop, which was really sort of like a competition. There were 12 boys—there were a lot of boys then. We had a lot of students here at that time.

So there was a workshop?
Yes. I was on tour with Limn. I disappeared from the Limn Company, actually. We finished our last performance in Ireland, and I took a midnight train to Marseilles and bought my ticket back to New York to take the two-week workshop. At the end of it, I had to ask if I was going to become one of them, if [Merce] was going to take me, because I had to start working from Limn again. So he said he would. It was like, "Well, let's try it." And then I did my last performance with Limn—Moor's Pavane and all that kind of stuff. [Laughs] And then I came over here.

What about his work interested you so much? 
It was completely different because it was totally anarchic. I'd been in Europe then ten years. So I had had the Graham work and I went to Juilliard after I was at Graham, and that was, of course, a great relief to be at Juilliard after being at Martha Graham. But at Martha Graham, I had a great experience, because the dancers were just my idols. So I was trained as a more dramatic dancer, and at Juilliard I got to expand my vocabulary. To get more training in ballet and other forms like Limn.

Aren't you from Pittsburgh?

Yes. But there was no dancing in Pittsburgh. Nothing. I went to Middlebury College, and I actually took dance as a way to get my PE requirement. That's how I got the bug. Of course, we just made dances. Our technique was a Graham kind of technique with the teacher playing the piano, and we were doing triplets and mostly we made dances. This was the late '60s—society was changing, and I got the bug. Actually, it was a real strong decision to do it, because it was not what my father would want me to do. Getting into dance really did cause some chasm in my family relationship, because it was not really accepted at all. So, you know, that made me more determined. And I had to be more self-reliant. I was very lucky. I had a mentor, Kazuko Hirabayashi, so my training then was mostly this kind of dance that had a direct expression. I did enjoy it. It took a long time to try to get the Graham thing out, because it was so strong psychically in its intensity. And actually, I don't know if I really ever got it out, but I was able to at least put it in its proper place.

Can you ever get it out?

I don't know. [Laughs] Probably not.

Look at Merce.

Well, that's true. There were things that I could relate to, which was helpful because at first people were...well, I really did look like I came from another planet when I first joined the company. I had to learn to make an equanimity between movements and the way I felt about them so that I could survive, because the movements were so demanding and there were so many of them. Then I realized when I was watching Merce dance I could see that there was obviously an expressionist inside of him when he was performing. He was reaching for something that was sort of sublime and that was an expression. Very direct. And then technically, the more I studied the work, I realized that there were some same principals that I had been studying with Graham with the use of the torso and the way he would describe it. When I met Carolyn Brown, she definitely talked about it in ways that could relate to my earlier training. But I was really fascinated by the work. It took me a while, and I didn't immediately come to it, but I became a real fan, and I would go to all the shows. At that time, it was much easier to get into theaters.

Do you remember watching particular dances?
Sounddance. At the Minskoff Theatre. I was blown away. Other dances: Exchange was very powerful. All of them, actually. The first Inlets; I even remember Travelogue, more for the decor than what they were actually doing. I saw some Events. I saw them do Torse. I liked what they did because it was so rigorous, and when I came over here to study, then I realized it was really what I wanted to do, because the work I had done with Kazuko was similarly based in terms of teacher and choreographer developing material in the class, or the class work would relate to what you would do in the repertory. And Kazuko's work—she had a strong ballet influence, so there were a lot of legs. We used our legs a lot. Merce was the master and he had a great deal of intensity, and I would do anything. It was very powerful. It was exactly what I wanted to do.

And where you wanted to be?
Exactly. Even though I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't care. I mean, I figured it out as I went. Just the physical experience was great. And then, there was also the intellectual aspect with John Cage around. It's not that Merce talked a lot about it, but there was all of this. I had been introduced to John Cage's work when I was at Middlebury in my music class and Bucky Fuller and Marshall McLuhan—all these kind of things that they were into—and visual arts. That was just fascinating. It was another world that was fully developed and that I didn't know much about. And also coming to the Cunningham company after all those years as a dancer, there was an instant credibility in the world. Whether people understood it or liked it, it didn't matter really, but when you went to different places, there were always people that did appreciate it. I received credibility as a dancer after ten years. I was feeling like I was basically nothing, which you can be in New York. I didn't get a big job like everybody else right away.

Well, you started late.
I started late, but I didn't get a full-time job until '78, so it was already seven or eight years in New York. And I had been working with Kazuko, and we weren't really received. We had started: We did Dance Umbrella, but it was very difficult. So I had worked in a situation where it had been very difficult and that you put everything into it, 100 percent all the time and you keep trying. So going to Limn was great because they were a wonderful community of people and the work was very pleasant, but the artistic standard here I felt was different. I can't [make] categorical judgment there, but it would definitely push me technically further than where I wanted to go, where I didn't know how far I could go.

When you first joined the company and Merce was trying you out, what were you able to master, what were you good at? And what did you have to work on?
Well, the work I had been doing was less with the legs. With Limn, hardly legs at all. Mostly with the back. But my training really was Graham. I was really more of a Graham dancer, so I had strong use of the spine. And I had had a lot of ballet training. I had studied a lot, but I wasn't loose or anything like that. I don't know what I was good at, to tell you the truth. People said I brought something else to the work, but I don't know. It took me a while to start to feel that I was really blended in.

 

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