John Heginbotham talks about his new dance company

Mark Morris veteran John Heginbotham talks about his company's performance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

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Dance Heginbotham, Lincoln Center Out of Doors 2013

Dance Heginbotham, Lincoln Center Out of Doors 2013 Photograph: not available


Former Mark Morris dancer John Heginbotham is establishing himself as a choreographer in his own right. Heginbotham's company will perform as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors this summer and then the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall. For his Damrosch Park program, the choreographer offers a new work—Manhattan Research—set to music by Raymond Scott, which will be performed live by the Raymond Scott Orchestrette, with costumes by fellow Morris veteran and Heginbotham's best friend, Maile Okamura.

John Heginbotham is having a year: Before his young company performs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall, he presents the premiere of Manhattan Research, inspired by the music of Raymond Scott at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 8. (The Raymond Scott Orchestrette will perform at the free show, which also includes Heginbotham’s Twin and throwaway.) Heginbotham, a veteran Mark Morris dancer, spoke about his new work and more in anticipation of his Damrosch Park evening.

Time Out New York: You’re going to be at BAM in the fall! Does it feel like too much too soon?
John Heginbotham:
What I would say is that in starting this venture I had a feeling some good things might happen—either just from a random psychic sense or because people have been so supportive. Like something nice could happen. I will tell you that I am very surprised by many nice things that are happening so quickly, and it’s wonderful, and I also don’t have the illusion that it will be like that forever, so I’m really enjoying this time. I’m really trying hard to enjoy what’s happening.

Time Out New York: Let’s talk about Damrosch Park—is the new piece set to Daft Punk?
John Heginbotham:
No, no. That little teeny-tiny Daft Punk piece is called throwaway. The whole point of that piece is that I had to make up something really, really fast. It’s a throwaway piece, but people request it. And I do like it, but it is now one of those things where I’m like, “Really? That’s the piece you want?” It’s set to “Technologic,” which also, when it came out, nobody knew what that was and now everybody does. So in some ways, the novelty has died. But that’s okay.

Time Out New York: What are you researching in Manhattan Research?
John Heginbotham:
The title of the piece comes from the name of the company [Manhattan Research Inc.] by composer Raymond Scott. He had two very separate lives. He was a bandleader writing what sounds like cocaine-cartoon music. It always has this kind of diseased undertone. I think he had a really incredible sense of humor. In fact, a lot of his music was used in Warner Bros. cartoons. Looney Tunes was Warner Bros., but he didn’t write any music for that. His music was appropriated—I detect maybe a little bit against his will. He was just part of the Warner Bros. kind of library, and maybe there weren’t music rights. It wasn’t as specific at that time. He has all of this—it sounds kind of like big-band music although it’s a little chamber band. I think he had a really incredible sense of humor. All of his song titles—well, now they sound kind of boring—are things like “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House.” “Siberian Sleigh Ride.” And the only reason that piece is called that is because it uses “Jingle Bells” at a certain point in the song. There are a number of funny titles, and the music sounds like something you’d recognize, but there is always something wrong with it, which is the part that I’m interested in.

Time Out New York: Of course—the diseased part?
John Heginbotham:
Yeah. [Laughs] And then his other life is that he was an inventor of electronic engineering equipment and of early electronic instruments. Similar to the Moog—it’s an early synthesizer. He invented the Electronium. So he has all this really early electronic music; in this piece, I’m trying to combine those aspects of his life, which have a through line in the humor. But they sound wildly different.

Time Out New York: How many dancers are in it?
John Heginbotham:
I have six dancers.

Time Out New York: Is there a narrative, even loose?
John Heginbotham:
[Pauses] No, no. There is no narrative. However, what I will say is…no, there is no narrative.

Time Out New York: Why did you hesitate?
John Heginbotham:
I guess because each of the sections has its own little world. So I feel like there is a through line within each section and that the structure of the piece is also contained in a way that makes sense; however, I don’t think anyone is going to emerge as a character, and I don’t think there is a story line. It kind of follows a musical-theater flow. There’s a big opening number; in the middle, there’s a ballad. The music is very tender and then the end is a huge balls-to-the-wall finale. But in the mix of all of that are these little interruptions that are all of the electronic sections, which kind of fuck that structure up. So I want there to be a little disease in the more traditional structure of the piece as well.

Time Out New York: How long have you been thinking about using this music?
John Heginbotham:
I have been thinking about it for exactly one year. [Laughs] I did some work with some high-school kids at Juilliard—they have a summer intensive, and I had to make this piece and through a YouTube hole that I slipped into I discovered Raymond Scott and was like, Oh this is great! I’ll use this. One of my dancers in my company—Lindsey Jones—came up to me and said, “Oh my God, you’re working with Raymond Scott? I love Raymond Scott!” She gave me this very comprehensive CD that included all of the electronic stuff. And from there it was like, Okay that changes everything. The little stuff that I did at Juilliard, I want to expand it. I want to make it into a different thing. I continued researching it by doing a tiny duet, which I have to say bears nearly no relationship to the Lincoln Center piece—it was for the MAD [Museum of Art and Design] Museum, where the stage is pretty much the size of a bar. You can only move side to side basically. It certainly gives you a boundary that you have to be creative with. I did a little duet, and I made all of these sections to Raymond Scott selections, but not all of them are appropriate for each venue. For this one, I’m not able to use much of the material that I’ve already created, so I’m using mostly new stuff, which is fine, because the music is so crazy and wonderful to hear over and over again. The band that I’m working with, the Raymond Scott Orchestrette, has its own arrangements. The Raymond Scott pieces are generally about three minutes long, but their arrangements are quite expansive. They’re in the four-to-six-minute range.

Time Out New York: Are you rehearsing with them?
John Heginbotham:
I will be and their arranger, Wayne Barker, who wrote the music for Peter and the Starcatcher, will be the rehearsal pianist, and then as we get closer to the time, I will be rehearsing with the full band.

Time Out New York: How did you find the band?
John Heginbotham:
This is what’s so beautiful about this piece: Every aspect of it has been extremely organic. I found it through YouTube. And then Lindsey was like, “You have to hear this electronic stuff!” Then, Bill Bragin, who is commissioning this piece, at first said, “What projects are you working on?” I had very recently finished the Juilliard thing, and I wanted to continue with it so I was like, “Well, I’m working with this Raymond Scott music,” and he said, “That’s so crazy—a friend of mine runs this band, the Raymond Scott Orchestrette, and we’ve presented them before. Would you be interested in teaming up and having it be live music?” I was like, “Hell yeah.” It’s like each piece of the puzzle has come from people outside of the project that then dive in. It makes me feel that’s a good omen.

Time Out New York: Have you ever thought about going the Broadway route?
John Heginbotham:
No, but that’s my dream. Well, I have a lot of dreams and some of them go in that direction and some of them go way far in the exact opposite direction. However, I see a relatively good amount of Broadway stuff and I find that I am mostly disappointed, and my expectations are very low, but I did see one show that I really liked within the last year and that was Once. That was cool, and it was very sort of not Broadway.

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