Robert Swinston

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When did that happen?
Years. [Laughs] I don't know! It took so long to understand it. Of course, there was never anybody telling me, really, that I was doing something wrong, except maybe I'd get a couple remarks from a few people—a few dancers. Caustic remarks, but it was okay. I mean, I was happy here. I was getting to dance with Chris, I was in the older group with Chris—because he had the group separated a lot, and I was in the older group with people my age and so I was happy. My first partner was Karole Armitage and she was great to dance wish. Super. Very exciting to dance with. They seemed to accept me.

Did you have any idea that you would be here so long?
Not really. You know, I went through a period where I was having some doubts. I can't remember exactly why. Sometimes the work could be punishing and I wasn't really close with Merce at that time. I wasn't really connected with him, and I didn't feel really connected, although I didn't really know why I wasn't. It's just that he wasn't really communicating. I was afraid of him. It was hard to talk to him. I didn't know what to say. Some people could—there were a few dancers who could always make small talk with him, but I don't think I was one of them, so I always had this great respect. Of course, it's trying to do this work, because you're pushed to the edge. I mean at least at that time, you were really pushed physically and technically to the edge. At least at that time, we were pushed physically and technically to the edge. The first couple of years, we always had long layoffs, so I worked with Charlie Moulton, Jim Self, and I kept working with Kazuko. After a couple of years, I couldn't do that anymore. I couldn't manage it physically. But I was always studying a lot, and besides studying at Cunningham, I would study ballet.

Really? With whom?
Well, different people. Around the time when I joined Cunningham, everybody was going to Maggie Black a lot before we came to class here. But I studied with [Gabriela] Darvash for a long time, I studied with Ben Harkarvy. I studied with Nanette Charisse for a very long time. It was a long career so there were a lot. From '75 to '80, it was Madame Darvash then Mr. [Igor] Schwetzoff. Then I started to study with Maggie Black. I went back to Nanette Charisse, and then went back to Madame Darvash. I would study with Igal Perry and Ben Harkarvy. So that pretty much covers it. I stuck with the same people a lot. I studied with Janet [Panetta] for a while. But my tendency was more towards the Russians.

Drama?
I don't know. I had had Cecchetti with Mr. [Alfredo] Corvino at Juilliard, but somehow the Russians seemed to make more sense to my body. I appreciated it more, I liked it more. Again, I don't want to characterize it like this. Each one has value. I kept studying ballet until about five years ago, really. Then I pretty much stopped.

Why?
I didn't have the teacher I wanted to study with. I figured I'll stay here. This is my place, this is my home.

So you were talking about that transition when you were thinking that maybe things weren't working out for you. Could you elaborate?

It was around maybe the mid-to-late '80s? I don't know. I was interested in Pina Bausch. I had gotten married in '83 and my wife's German. For a period of time, I thought maybe I should go to Europe. That was the person I was interested in. Of course, the work is completely different from Merce. I knew some people in the company. It was sort of closer to my first experience.

What happened? What turned it around?
I don't really remember. In 1992 I became an assistant. In 1991 my daughter was born. That experience changed my life. Up to that point, if I ever had a problem, I would always go to the studio. I could always work everything out in the studio, in the class. I could characterize that as I was a self-absorbed, egotistical dancer. And in spite of the fact that I had been married for about eight years, I was definitely self-absorbed to that extent that I had that space that I would go to. And I don't really think that that's really uncommon, but having a child really changed the focus. It put things in perspective of what was important in a good way. And I think that probably changed my dancing. I'm not sure how it did, but it certainly changed my perspective on things. And then when I became an assistant, that changed things too because I was allowed to work in a different way with a different perspective. Although we had a lot of problems in the company at that time.

Like what?
Well, Merce called it the malaise. A lot of people left. I can't really pinpoint exactly what it was, if it had something to do with me getting the job, or if it had something to do with Chris [Komar], or Chris and Art [Becofsky, who was Komar's partner and the former executive director of the Cunningham company] or the dancers or the union or what. It was all those things probably, everything all mixed together. And we had a big change in the company. Dancers left. Art left. Chris passed away. All that happened within about four years of the time I got the job. Up until that point, I was the union rep. I was relieved of that duty by some of the dancers because I was... I have to say, I had done administration with Kazuko. I know the administrative point of view about things. So of course, I had very little problem with any issues, because I thought we were always treated right. So I wasn't really an advocate for the dancers' union. I wasn't doing anything to advocate for them. If they had an issue, I would say, "Well, I don't know if that's a union issue really." [Laughs] So anyway, that all happened in a period of time and then they were doing a union negotiation. So that all changed. [Sighs] I feel very contradictory about a lot of those things with the union. Although, you know, I've been a member for all these years and I have health care and all kinds of stuff, but basically, I never danced for the money. We were all treated very well there. I always felt that way. And I was happy to be able to make a living. So I didn't come to the studio as a job—ever. I still don't. The people I associated with when I started to dance were all lifers. So I think my influence was that. And my reason for dancing was for life. I didn't know if I could make a life out of it, to tell you the truth, but I knew that there was a whole generation of people that devoted their lives to it.

No matter what?
Yes. I think I'm the tail end of that generation. It was just how I was raised. And the people who I worked with, I idolized, to such an extent. Like Mary Hinkson or Bert Ross, Kazuko, of course, and at Juilliard, Martha Hill and all of my teachers there. And the people I went to work for at Limn were the same way. I worked with Lucas Hoving and all those people. They were all old and they made a living. That's the way I chose the people. They were devoted to dance as their life.

How did you get the job as assistant? Did Merce ask you?
It happened because around that time—the early '90s—they were also discussing legacies, although in a different way. John Cage was still alive. Merce was only 70. They were discussing the future at that time even though they had a different perspective on it. And this was also the beginning of the Repertory Understudy Group [RUG] to become more formal. We had understudies before, but this time it really became more of a formal thing. Chris was responsible for that and there was discussion that the reason that the RUG group was actually created was that in case Merce did not go to tour that he could stay and work with the RUGs. That didn't really play out until the middecade: 2004 or 2005. That's why it was planned. That's why they gave it a bigger budget, and I'm not sure how much was known about Chris being sick. I'm not sure how that came out, but the fact was that they needed an assistant, and to be perfectly honest, I was more Chris's assistant than Merce's, for sure. And I was probably chosen because I got along with Chris. He might have had some say in it or Art. But there was certainly some hard feelings about that, I'm sure. Because I didn't have seniority. There were people who had more seniority than I did. I think Alan [Good] was still there. All the others had left, I think. To tell you the truth, I never talked about it with these people because we all made amends afterwards, like you do in life. There were some tough times. And then I started to teach the company class as well amidst all the problems. I was definitely on the wrong side. I was definitely in the middle.

 

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