Robert Swinston

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That must have been hard.
My whole career here's been sort of like that, to tell you the truth. In the middle.

Between?
Either between the dancers and the administration, or between Merce and the dancers, or between working for the administration—being on the Merce Cunningham Trust and perhaps having different ideas about things. Life is a lot of compromise. I've learned how to compromise and deal with those kinds of things and to weather it. And that's a big part of anybody's career in dance anyway. It's really about survival. It's all about survival. I had to wait all those years when I was a young dancer—all my friends got jobs and were dancing with companies, and I had to wait. I waited. Someone finally left a company. I got in. Eventually people left and I stayed. It's about survival and staying healthy and being able to do the job.

The last man standing?
Sort of. But at certain points in my life I had to make some real changes about my life in order to last. When I was younger, I would, let's say, burn a candle at both ends. So I had to change.

Did you have much of a personal relationship with Merce?
I ended up having one.

How did that happen?
It happened gradually. After Chris passed away in '96, my work relationship with Merce became more obvious—that I was there to assist him. That it wasn't Chris going to talk to him—because that's how it mostly was before that. And eventually I took on responsibilities like making the schedule and basically saying, "Well, we have to do this or that." But at that time Merce mostly knew exactly what he wanted to do all the time, and it was a matter of him allowing me to do things until in '97, I started to do reconstructions. He let me be responsible for it. So I can't remember exactly what I did, but things like Torse or RainForest. I did a reconstruction of RainForest, and then in '99 I did the reconstruction of Summerspace. And then it kept going. It took time to build his trust.

Did he care about these reconstructions?
I would say no and yes. More no than yes. Reconstructions were always a necessary evil to him, I guess. I don't know if he really looked at it like that. He was always more interested in planning his new work, but the grants were always written for revivals. And how that was decided, I can't really remember all of the time—I think most of the time he would say what he wanted to do. And then Summerspace came about because of our performances at the State Theater with the [Lincoln Center] Festival. In order to perform at the festival, first of all, Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov] danced Occasion Piece at every performance. And on opening night at the gala, New York City Ballet performed Summerspace. So I did the reconstruction of Summerspace on the company in, you know, an hour here and there. That's how we used to do it. You don't spend a whole day on these things when you have a whole repertory to build and he's making a new piece. So I got my little snatches of time. I found new footage. I happen to be very interested in this kind of thing.

Why?

Maybe because I had been in other companies where we revived things all the time. Or I saw the value in older work.

And simply you wanted to see it again too.
Well, I thought it was worth seeing. People should see it. This piece wasn't really my choice, but I found other footage of it—some very early footage and Margie Jenkins's notes. I found Merce's notes. And of course, I got Carolyn Brown to come in. And this was the beginning of bringing Carolyn Brown in, I think. Or no. After Chris passed away, I brought in Carolyn more. She wasn't coming in much until '97. And I really got along with her and I consider her a mentor. So this reconstruction was made and basically tightened up the dance, because the dance as it had developed over time—it was still being performed in the 1970s. I would go down to the archives and get the footage, and the dance had gotten slow and some of the steps also—like, for instance, Carolyn's part when she looked at it she said, "These aren't the right steps," so I got her notes as well. And then I started to work on the piece. I made a really strong reconstruction of it. Merce's notes were not really that helpful except in terms of understanding the circular nature of the entrances. Mostly they're interesting for seeing the process; how he came about doing it.

What was your process?
I made my notes and then worked with the company to get this much and then rewrote the notes. And then I went to [New York] City Ballet, and I had 13 hours to stage it.

No! On dancers who had no idea.
Yeah. Thirteen hours, and that was just the reconstruction. Then they went to Saratoga and Carolyn worked with them up there. And then they came back and did it the first time. Then the next season they did it again, so we got to work with different kids, different dancers. I mean, we had some of the same ones, but that's when Benjamin Millepied came in and did the second boy. I enjoyed it. And then we went off and did it with Zurich Opera Ballet—Carolyn and me. We had a really good experience there. They gave us a lot of time. So that experience was the beginning of Merce seeing the work I did—because we didn't really talk about it. If you were insecure, you were going to have a problem around Merce. [Smiles] So at a certain point, you have to say, I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm not going to be insecure about this. I'm going to go ahead and do it. So then, I can't remember what happened in 2000. Maybe nothing. But in 2001, that's when Rashaun [Mitchell] came here and that's when I wanted to do Crises. I got Carol Teitelbaum to stage the reconstruction. And Carolyn Brown. With this kind of thing, usually they would do it, and then I'd end up rehearsing it most of the time. So I sparked a lot of these things. Now Merce did not particularly show a lot of interest in this. At all. In fact, if you were insecure, you could really start to doubt yourself, because he never looked particularly happy about it.

 

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