Robert Swinston



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And I understand why—he still had his own memories about it. And Merce, in spite of the fact that he was already 80, still thought of himself first as a dancer. His last performance was Occasion Piece in '99. But he thought of himself as a dancer. So I started to understand that. And the fact how it was a sensitive subject—I didn't really realize the full impact of that until later when I heard him talk about it with Laura Kuhn; the fact is he only started to make dances to give himself parts. And he had that kind of drive. And he was well known as a great dancer, so obviously he had a fair amount of ego there. So whether these memories would be good—seeing someone else futz around with his part, a young kid. He didn't say anything. And he would say, "I'm not saying anything because I don't want to get in the way." And I think that's partially true and partially because he was working on his own thing, and partially because it was annoying. It was irritating. Though he would never say it. Eventually, like for that piece, he did warm up to it. He actually helped Rashaun in Crises when Rashaun was a RUG. Rashaun wasn't in the company. He wasn't developed at all. But there were things like this boxing thing, which is not easy to do. You really have to have a character already there, you have to have something going on inside you to make that work.

The RUGs were and are so young.
At that point, they were kids. They were inside of this vehicle and I always thought that was a good way to learn: You get inside the vehicle and start to drive it. And you learn how to drive, so to speak. You don't wait until you already know how to drive and then get into it. You learn how to drive. So we fleshed it out. And then it was done, and we did it for a year—one RUG cycle, basically. The next one was How to [Pass, Kick, Fall and Run]. Why? Because I had seen it. I looked at the one video we had, and I thought it was terrific. Most of these things I did in a workshop with students. This is not the kind of piece that's really going to excite kids in the workshop, because it's all bits and pieces. I was putting it all together from an already edited video—big holes. So again, I was using the workshops to flesh it out. I also sent DVDs to all the dancers in the piece and asked them, "What was in that hole? Do you remember?" Finally Merce said, "Okay, we can do it." But the only way we promoted it was because we needed Merce to do the talking; that's how we convinced him to do it. We needed Merce onstage. So it's a little bit of tricking him in a way, because you're appealing to his vanity in a sense, but we did need him on the stage. It was a good idea. And it was a fun piece. It was a different kind of piece than what people are used to.

It was terrific.
And that was my idea. Let's do something that this generation doesn't expect of Merce. They don't know that part of him. They think of us just as robots or machines, mechanical. But look at this. It's not. So I went to him to talk about it, he said okay, and then I went to talk to him about the casting. When he did the casting, he had me down as second cast for the fourth boy. And I was completely shattered because I thought, I'm a generation older than all these kids. This is a part that I could do. I didn't say anything about it, but I was definitely depressed.

You were shattered?
Yes. I went home that weekend. I called Carolyn; I had to just get it out. Then I called him on Sunday and said I had reasons that I thought that it was important that I do this part. Number one, that it would be easier for me to reconstruct. Practical. Number two, I'm still in condition; I need to keep challenging myself, and I think I can do it. Well, he didn't argue with me. He said, "Okay." I was definitely a tempest in a teapot before I calmed down and talked with him. And learned how to talk to him. I had to learn to talk to Merce as a person instead of just as my mentor, my idol. That was a changing point. And I had to do the same thing about Second Hand. People liked How To, people said to Merce, "Isn't it great?" Then he could begin to start to believe it. Instead of just think back to what it was like and how it reflects on him. I'm not sure how he was thinking about it, but it got enough of a good response that I think that was when he finally trusted me. I never have any idea how he felt about me to be perfectly honest. Except that he started to show his appreciation more. Maybe it was both ways, he was showing his appreciation more and I was being more forthcoming. I don't know. It was a slow evolution. Because I hadn't even been to his apartment until 2000 or something. In 20 years, I'd never been to his place. I think it was only because of Trevor [Carlson, executive director of the Cunningham company] that I actually went there.

He set that up?
He probably did. I said, "I've never been to his place." He said, "You haven't?" Because Trevor had become company manager around 1998, so he was spending a lot of time with Merce, helping him and taking care of him. It was this kind of process. It was slow. At least I thought it was slow, because I was very respectful. Always. With what I said, how I said it to Merce—how I came to approach him. Very paternal. Old-fashioned paternal.

I'd like you to talk about performing Cunningham's Quartet.
What happened was a couple years ago Donald Byrd asked for Quartet for his company in Seattle. For himself to dance the part. We basically said, "I don't think so." But anyway, we gave his group Landrover. After Merce passed away, I suggested [Quartet] for the Legacy Tour. Nobody knew anything about it, really. Except for David Vaughan—for people who had seen it, it made an indelible imprint in our lives. As it did for me watching it. Now, I knew it was a risk, not because of getting the choreography, even though we had not very good footage. Carol Teitelbaum had been in the piece. Not in the original, but shortly after that in 1987. She did it a couple of times. I was gonna do the reconstruction and said, "Look Carol, I want you to help with the reconstruction." So she actually basically did it, except for Merce's parts, which I did myself. That was a relief to me to have. On many occasions, I've asked people to do these reconstructions so I don't have to do every one. It's really too much. But I knew doing Merce's part was a big risk because people remembered him especially doing it. Also because of the content of the piece.

How so?
That it's depressing. It's heavy. It's not that I didn't think—I knew I was capable of doing it, but you never know until you're out there on the stage. There was a reaction against it when we first started doing it—people were upset. I heard people were upset that this was being done or that I was portraying Merce, that I was mimicking him. [Sighs] I was working very closely with his mannerisms, but the piece has mannerisms anyway. There's hardly any real movement. It's very gestural, but you have to go deep in the body, in the legs, and I knew I could do this.

You were going back to your own dramatic roots.
I was going back to my roots. And I knew how to make weight on the floor. After we did it at the Joyce, we waited a month and did it in France, and by that time it became really my own. Even over the seven performances, it changed. I think it changed.

At the Joyce?
Yes. That's how it should happen. It was something I felt very deeply about. I have lots of things I could use about that—being older, and also everything that was going on around here was, of course, upsetting to me. So to be isolated, to feel in isolation was not difficult. It was not really a stretch. I was able to use that, and I had people giving me tips or making comments to me. There's one woman in France who is a wonderful person, but can really be too much. She always had something to say to me about it. Right after the performance even. You know, you come out of the theater and she'd already say something: "Well, you didn't do this and da, da, da!" I'd go, Ahhh [Moans]—wait a second! I can't take it. I'd try to listen. I'd listen and listen and then I would really take it in and try to use it. I mean you need it.

Yes. You need someone to be able to tell you [something] from another angle. So I took it. Because no one else was really giving me—Carol could give me a few notes about this and that, but...she went into the steps or the timing or where my focus was, but not so much into the internal things.


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