Robert Swinston

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But it crystallized that idea of isolation—it was chilling to watch.
And I tell you, it's actually disturbing to do it. When we went to Nimes, we did it, and then we did Sounddance afterwards. It was like absolutely schizo—crazy. It was good to, you know, get out of it. But definitely it was depressing. I would come up out after that and sit on the side and watch Antic Meet, and all I would do is just record the laughter. How many times people would laugh. If it was a chuckle, if it was a guffaw, because I just had to giggle myself. So this is a culmination. I took a chance, I took a risk. I thought people should see it.

Especially now.
Because of the death?

Well, because of the death and the Legacy Tour.
Oh yeah. The endgame. Yeah, well, I'll tell you, when we did Second Hand, I started to feel queasy about it, because Merce was deteriorating. And this piece really was about saying goodbye. Second Hand really is about that. And of course even when we were doing it—I brought Sandy [Sandra Neels] up to do it. Again, we worked in the workshop with the students, with the RUGs, and then we transferred it. We did it without the music. We didn't know what the cues were yet, we were just trying to get the movement. But the piece definitely spoke to me, even without music. You could see the melancholy in the dance, and that was sublime to me. I thought, Oh my God, people have to see this. I mean, granted, it's a vehicle for me; I'm glad I have it, and the solo is quite amazing. [Pauses] I'm lucky. I'm still here. Work is there. Take advantage of it and do it, because this should be seen. I don't know if you went to the memorial [for Cunningham at the Park Avenue Armory]. I said, "It has to start with that section." That's Merce saying goodbye to all his disciples. And I'm glad we did it. We're not going to do it at the end at all.

Really?

No way. It's going to be totally different. We're not going to do any of the old things we usually do. No "fast dance" [from Scramble]. We're not going to do what we've been doing. We're going to do a lot of new stuff. Well, we'll do some old stuff, too. I mean, it's all old, but we'll do some stuff that people haven't done. Everybody will have new things to do.

Can you talk about what's happening with the school?
There were issues. It's a complicated situation because I'm both an employee of the Foundation and I'm also on the Merce Cunningham Trust, and their mandate did not include staying at Westbeth. My desire and initial goal was to stay there. I was permitted to try to find a way to do that, but I was unsuccessful. The logical thing was to try to create a relationship with a university. I wrote to different universities, trying to interest them in becoming our partner here at Westbeth. There was some interest in terms of Merce's legacy, but the logistics were difficult for them financially. Then I spoke to administrators of Trisha Brown's company and of the Jos Limn company. Each company has a similar problem. They have their office in one place, classes in another place and rehearsals in yet another. Unfortunately, everybody wants and needs the same hours. Trisha Brown's company was interested to rent by the hour, but neither group has the money to really finance this entire operation. It's quite expensive.

What happened?
I was in my office at Westbeth working late one night, and one of the students at the front desk asked, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm writing letters to people at universities to try to create a partnership." She had heard a rumor that the training programs at the studio were going to come to an end. And I told her that the Foundation had planned to discontinue them as part of their timetable for closure. And then she told the other students, and they organized  a committee, Students for Cunningham. They petitioned the Trust to create a Merce Cunningham Center at Westbeth, and they assembled 4,500 signatures. The students had prepared a huge book of all the signatures and all the letters they had received in support and presented it to the Trust. The Trust responded that it welcomed the students' efforts, but that it hadn't the resources to finance the Studio at Westbeth in a way that the Foundation had operated while Merce was alive and there was a company. I understand why they are closing the company and the Studio. There are definitely financial reasons for doing so, and there could be artistic reasons for doing it, too. I think without Merce being here, we definitely lack something. Without his new work and the financial support that came with that, there was bound to be difficulty. But, in the meantime, we have maintained his spirit and his dances pretty well. Even though for the last years of his life Merce was unable to tour and to participate fully in all aspects of the daily rehearsals, he was still present and motivated to make his dances. So, I understand that without him the Legacy Plan had to be implemented. Merce loved to come to his studio. He was dedicated to teaching his technique, even though he sometimes remarked that he hated doing so. It was a very important part of his life. The process of working every day, training dancers and creating work with them was part of his life. It's a dancer's life. So I'm sure he was conflicted in some way as to what would happen when he was no longer with us.

Right.
So it made sense that he did agree with what the Board and the administration had come up with, which was an earthshaking, precedent-setting idea. But, it created a lot more interest in Merce's work. I have to say that the Foundation has done a great job implementing the Legacy Plan. Throughout all this, I continued to work to try to maintain Westbeth. I tried to interest film people in it, to turn it into a center for film dance—a Silvercup of dance. [Laughs] It was a great idea, but it didn't go anywhere. Eventually I just wore out. Trish Lent took up the mantle and wrote a terrific proposal for [creating a] Merce Cunningham Center that would not necessarily have to be at Westbeth, but we realized it, too, would always have a shortfall financially. We made a budget; we tried to imagine that we would have higher enrollment and that we would create more income from the rentals and this and that, but it still would be financially risky. It would basically require the formation of another nonprofit organization. and that would require a Board and fund-raising. It would require all those things that we're stopping. It's ironic, because the company looks great now. In terms of working together it's one of the better ones of all the companies I've been in. The dancers are terrific. And you know, somehow we have kept our focus together and Merce's spirit alive. I feel fortunate that I'll continue to be employed and be able to go on sharing Merce's work. It will be very different though, because I won't have a dance company to be part of and, for the last years, lead anymore. But, I am looking forward to find other things to do with the work and to continue to teach it. Also, I'll be doing projects—licensing projects, staging pieces and teaching people to do what I do. For the past year, I have had an assistant, Jennifer Goggans, and we will continue working together to teach Merce's technique and his dances. To be quite honest, I'm concerned because I'm not young anymore. I'm 61 now. Can I continue to do this? How long am I going to last? This is a tremendous legacy. The only reason I came into it was because I wanted to. I was interested in it. And then Merce gave me an opportunity.

For you, this is a fulfillment and not sacrifice?
Definitely. I don't know if this kind of devotion to one approach is possible in the society we live in nowadays. People are interested in many other things. And Merce isn't here anymore, and I'm not Merce. But there's a trove, a treasure that he has left behind, and there's still plenty to learn from and with it. It's not just about learning the work. There's also a process to build on in order to accomplish it. The way we work here is that we all share an experience with the training that Merce provided; we all work together as a community. When I give the steps to the dancers, I try to give it to them in a way that allows their freedom. I don't want to give it to them and say, "Well, this is it, and it has to be this way only." That's not how we were accustomed to working with Merce. There's a big openness, and to create that can be difficult. When you give the steps to someone the first time and you demonstrate it, it can appear to be almost finite. That initial impression sticks in their head. But it's actually more intangible than that, and we need to provide room for that to develop. That's what I'd like to be able to maintain—that kind of approach. My real concern is to provide a means for enough people to do it, so that it inspires somebody, another person like me who wants and needs to do it no matter what.

You have to find another you.
Or you have to find a person that has that need. Or can find the fulfillment in it. I hope it's possible. Another opportunity has presented itself in the form of the classes we will hold at the City Center studio starting in April. It's a fresh start, or as Merce would say, "We begin again."

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