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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Time Out New York: I need to have a cheese plate at the end of the day. 
John Heginbotham:
 You can totally have a cheese plate at the end of the day. Anchorage is a very ugly city; however, there are some lovely holes in the wall, both in the greasy-spoon direction and in the hyperfancy direction, so there is that. And you do have the option of day trips. The glacier cruise, I would definitely recommend. 

Time Out New York: Was dancing a good fit for you because you weren’t an outdoorsy kind of person? 
John Heginbotham:
 Yeah. [Laughs] No, we were, like, freaks in Alaska. My parents are very artistically focused. Neither of them are artists in any way, however, they’re both teachers. We went to see everything—everything that came through we saw. We never traveled in Alaska when we lived there. We would always leave Alaska for a family vacation, and I was always urban in my heart even as a really small child. The fantasy was always to live in a skyscraper. 

Time Out New York: Same here. I wanted to live in an apartment—not a house. 
John Heginbotham:
 Do you live in an apartment? 

Time Out New York: I live in a loft. 
John Heginbotham:
 Okay. That totally counts. You don’t live in, like, a brownstone. 

Time Out New York: No. But I have never lived in a skyscraper though. 
John Heginbotham:
 I think I would still like to. Would you live in a skyscraper? 

Time Out New York: Sure, maybe. If I liked the design. 
John Heginbotham:
 Yes. I’m more interested in the inside now than the outside. As a kid I was more interested in the outside. For one thing, it has to be very soundproof. Good walls and relatively high ceilings. And I don’t want to live in a doorman building. I want it to be a super, high-tech skyscraper, but without a doorman. 

Time Out New York: How did you get out of Alaska?  
John Heginbotham:
 Well, I always wanted to live in a skyscraper. There was no question that when I graduated from high school, I would go to college somewhere in the lower 48, as it’s known in Alaska, and it ended up being Juilliard. I auditioned in New York, and it was such a great trip. I came with my grandmother. We saw one of the greatest things that I’ve ever seen, which is Jerome Robbins’s Broadway. I really enjoyed that show. See, that’s the kind of Broadway that excites me. That’s the cool stuff; that’s the inventive stuff and timeless. Occasionally I’ll see something where it’s not bad choreography—it’s fine. But it’s just sort of like if that person did blah-blah-blah Broadway in 30 years, the retrospective, it’s just not very inventive. I actually just sawFancy Free for the first time months ago on video. I really liked it and even though I like Jerome Robbins, I was like, That’s going to be the popular one. But I was like, Oh it’s really complicated and he tells the story and each sailor—it’s all about one-upping the other one. Each part has a distinct personality, but the personality is through the choreography, which I think is really hard to pull off. 

Time Out New York: Did you want to stay in New York after you graduated from Juilliard?
John Heginbotham:
 Yeah, for sure. Although I was fresh and open. I think my first audition out of Juilliard was for [Quebec’s] La La La Human Steps and I made it pretty far in that audition, and I was like, Oh, maybe my future is going to take me away from New York. But I was okay with that at that point. I was very young. I really do feel this is my home and I feel even if I left I would come back. But I’m not interested in leaving. I like it. There was one moment where I actually thought I might wind up in Pilobolus.

Time Out New York: Whoa.
John Heginbotham:
 I know that sounds crazy, but see they set a piece on us at Juilliard, and it was a really long and involved process—and really fun—and then they put that piece in their summer season at the Joyce. Let me just say this: I am not Pilobolus material. I’m not a lifter. But I went to the audition, and I think it’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever successfully done what I would call a hydraulic lift where you pretty much dead-press someone over your head. I’ve done it other times with assistance. Actually, Maile is an amazing partner. In L’Allegro, we had to do this bird-lift thing, and I always felt very good doing it with her. But she’s basically doing the lift herself. In this Pilobolus situation, I had to press-lift and I did it at the audition and I was like, Oh, maybe I’m going to get a job in Pilobolus. [Laughs] That didn’t happen. But you know when you’re fresh out of school? I took a [Stephen] Petronio workshop. I was up for whatever was going to happen. 

Time Out New York: How did you hear about Mark Morris? 
John Heginbotham:
 My first year at Juilliard, I saw L’Allegro, which was a life-changing experience. When I saw that piece—I say I was up for anything, but I loved the Mark Morris Dance Group. I had never seen anything like that before. And I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, but I can articulate it now: I had never seen a long-form massively produced nonnarrative modern-dance performance. I’d never seen anything on that scale. I had seen quite a bit of Cunningham, which I loved. But even that was not on that scale. 

Time Out New York: How did you end up dancing with the company? 
John Heginbotham:
 One of the great things about Juilliard is they have a senior juries program, where they have a budget for hiring dancers and choreographers to make work on the students as your final exam; I was able to do a Mark Morris piece, and that’s how I got in contact with the company. The company has a whole supplementary pool of dancers for L’Allegro and The Hard Nut, so I was in those for six years. I thought it would never…he did not seem interested. I gave up. When I say “gave up,” I mean I really gave up. It wasn’t like, Oh, it’s never going to happen—maybe it’ll happen—it was like, Okay you have to move on with your life. And it was that week that they called and said, “We would like to offer you an apprenticeship,” and that’s when my whole life veered in a different direction. It was really weird. And beautiful. The week it happened, Nancy [Umanoff, MMDG executive director] called me and said, “Mark wants to have dinner with you,” and that had never happened. And what it was, was dinner and a show: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had just opened and was the hottest ticket in town. At the end of the night, I went to my friend’s apartment and he was like, “How was your night?” I just burst into tears. I didn’t see it coming. It felt like the end of a journey I guess, and I had a breakdown. It felt very cathartic. It was an intense week, and Nancy was like, “Come on in, we want to offer you something.” I was like, What is happening? What a good company to work with. Whatever anybody says about Mark, it was a great time. 

Time Out New York: What makes it so great?
John Heginbotham:
 It’s a very lively environment where everybody in the organization, from the intern to Mark himself, is extremely engaged and very serious. Everybody is very serious about making the best product possible, and it comes from Nancy and Mark. Nancy is a fucking hard-ass. She’s a genius. And the organization is so well considered and thought out. And also Mark is so prolific. There’s always some new thing, and he’s always trying to surprise himself. How does he keep coming up with new things? Of course, he repeats himself; he’s one person, but he’s always searching: What have I not done before? That’s a good example to follow.  

Time Out New York: How do you step out of that shadow? 
John Heginbotham:
 To be honest, I’m not really trying to step out of the shadow. I do think there is certainly overlap in some of my work. I am aware of that. However, I honestly feel that my choreography is in essence so different from what he is doing. I think they are related, but are ultimately different enough that I’m not concerned. There are specific examples in the studio where I will make up something and question if it is too closely related, but when that happens, I will either change what it is—I don’t want to be the knockoff. That does not help anyone. And I don’t want to be lazy. I don’t want to be, Oh that’s the first impulse to go in that direction. I will say that when I have to make a change, usually the thing that comes next is a better solution to the problem and if after several tries it is not a better solution then I accept that I am doing a tribute to Mark. [Laughs] And I leave it, and I tell everybody that this is from Mark’s piece and what piece it is and I give him full credit. It is not unprecedented for artists to borrow or use the people that have influenced them. It’s very natural. But there’s a difference between plagiarism and influence, and I never want to stray into the realm of plagiarism. I think that would make me very unhappy. It would be like, Why did that happen? You couldn’t come up with anything else? It would be like, Maybe you should reconsider what business you’re in. 
Dance Heginbotham is at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center August 8.

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