Neal Beasley talks about his career with Trisha Brown

The famed dancer talks about working with Trisha Brown, his time in Europe and his own choreographic experiments

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Time Out New York: He’s just lazy?
Neal Beasley:
He’s just lazy. It was multifaceted because I fell in love with pieces like Un trait d’union, which is a duet for men, and then Paysages après la bataille, when they were here as part of that original French Moves festival—when his work was super strange and theatrical. And one of his more recent pieces that I enjoy is Empty Moves.

Time Out New York: I love that dance.
Neal Beasley:
It feels like it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him as a choreographer be honest: He’s interested in dancing. When artists allow themselves to do the thing that they’re good at and you see them in their power, it’s like nothing else. So with Empty Moves, that’s my experience of his work—Oh, this is actually what you want to make, this is what you do well. So why are we doing Romeo and Juliet? Anyway, it was complicated. I got there and realized that my trajectory inside of Trisha had utterly altered the landscape of my interests. I was no longer the 18-year-old dancer who was doing Horton technique at Jacob’s Pillow with Milton Myers. My whole value system had been totally reconfigured about what was important in dancing and with the body; even phrases like “mechanical honesty” were a part of my body. The first thing I had to learn in two weeks was Les Noces, a piece he’s super famous for with the dolls and the benches. God. I just wanted to relax and there wasn’t any room in that work to relax. When you add to that—the piece I ended up being around for the making of was his version of Snow White. It was another attempt at making a blockbuster-story ballet. He succeeded. It was a piece for 26 of us with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. We used to tour with three 18-wheelers full of set and costumes and before it was even made, it was sold for six months solid of Broadway-type seven shows a week. He shat that piece out in three months, and I remember one day he walked in—and I was, among other things, one of the seven dwarfs.

Time Out New York: This is the most painful thing to hear.
Neal Beasley:
It’s so painful, I can’t even tell you. How can I translate this? He was like, “I know this is the most retarded  thing we could do, but this is what we’re going to do,” and he started to do this whole hand-game section. The dwarfs are sitting in a circle with Snow White, and we’re playing hand games. We were all shocked. I realized I need a creative process, and I was going to get none of that from him. What I got there was a rich experience of what it is to be in an old-school definition of a dance company. We toured constantly. We were all young. When I joined Trisha’s company, I was by far the youngest, but with Preljocaj, I was among my peers so we were partying, we were playing and running all around. I was only there a year and a half. When I told him I was leaving, it was the beginning of a whole wave of departures. I wasn’t crazy—we were all very unhappy with this piece. I remember sitting down with him saying, “It’s amazing that we get to tour and do this work and I know there’s something about it that you really love, but I’ve never had the experience of having an audience on their feet and me feeling utterly empty.”

Time Out New York: You really told him that?
Neal Beasley:
Yes. What was really interesting was that he put the word in my mouth. I was like, You get it. Also, even being fluent in the language, I had no idea how culturally estranged I would feel. I underestimated what kind of support structures that I had in New York that I needed to get back to in order to be happy and healthy and fulfilled. I think all New York dancers have this dream of Europe being the holy grail and when I realized this experience wasn’t going to be that and that it doesn’t even exist really. It made perfect sense for me to come back.

Time Out New York: Maybe if you had been in Marseille, which reminds me more of New York City, life might have been different?
Neal Beasley:
Right. There’s grit. And diversity. Provence is bourgie and white and it’s very old-money and all of that. So I moved back with two express intentions: I wanted to earn a living not doing dance, because I wanted dance to return to something of a sacred position in my life. I felt like something was happening when I was asking dance to be my breadwinner; it felt like showing up to the office every day, and I didn’t choose the career to feel that way. The other thing was I wanted to make work and somehow within two weeks of getting here, Yasuko [Yokoshi] contacted me about doing Dance and Process at the Kitchen. Also, a friend of mine from Idyllwild was looking for an assistant; she was a producer in a photo industry. I got to feel what it was like to put on a tie and shoes and sit in an office and work for a rageaholic. John Jasperse approached me. I was able to work it out that I’d be in the office part-time and dance for him. It was great. In making my own work, I wasn’t putting my own creative needs on the others. These are my questions: Why am I looking at others to answer them? And still being able to be physical with someone I respected as an artist and who has a thought process, but then also going to a J-O-B. It worked well for a long time. Also I felt lucky with the group I was dancing with for John: Erin [Cornell], Eleanor [Hullihan] and Kayvon [Pourazar]. That piece [Jasperse’s Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking and Flat Out Lies] felt really magical too. I think John is a complicated artist to work for, and I think that complication is part of his work. It was great to be back in a creative practice where part of what we did was talk. And part of what we did was to each contribute fully as artists. I felt like a machine in France. I had never had the experience being onstage thinking about what I was going to have dinner. In 2010, I had my first kind of real injury.

Time Out New York: What was it?
Neal Beasley:
A partial tibia tear. I wore a boot. That was the first time an injury put me out and I had to be replaced. The fall of 2010 was a real shit storm in my life. John and I decided it was probably better that I not work on the next project with him, but right before that conversation happened, out of the blue Diane Madden called me. A few months prior over dinner with Tamara Riewe, she said, “Todd Stone is actually leaving,” and I said, “It would be so funny if I came to the audition, wouldn’t it?” And she said, “Don’t tease.” I kind of wasn’t teasing; it felt so crazy.

Time Out New York: Eventually you rejoined?
Neal Beasley:
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to say out loud was when I told people I was returning to Trisha’s company. I was afraid of seeming fickle. It was really intense, because I remember having to sit down with Trisha to explain why I left and why I wanted to come back. The weight of that conversation is very present in my daily life—of my commitment to the work today and my role in the company as it changes. I’m sort of the prodigal son. I’ve gone, I’ve had other experiences, and I realized how good it was at home. I could trust myself and the choices that my body wanted to make because they had been formed by her. And that’s when we were making this last piece. We call it toss. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: Tell me about it.
Neal Beasley:
Without it being spelled out, it was very clear that Trisha’s ability to be involved had changed. That’s not to say that she wasn’t involved, but we were having to renegotiate ways to keep making with certain limitations that were challenging, and yet she was still participating and still dancing a little bit. It became clear that we had to work more collectively to understand what our overarching creative conceptual concerns were. In fairness, that’s always been the case. Let’s just say that we had to be more active in directing ourselves. Several concerns were on the table, creatively speaking; this interest in knotted bodies and calligraphy and sculpture being established and moved and displaced. The title comes from a really beautiful improvisation where she was walking around the studio and calling out instructions. One of the things she said was, “All right, I’m going to toss my arms and if you catch them, they’re yours.”

Time Out New York: It’s so Trisha.
Neal Beasley:
Also we had made a men’s phrase. In Foray Forêt, the base phrase is called the soft phrase; she was working with this idea of unconscious movement, the movement that’s almost from the id or that emerges almost before the editing process begins. It ended up being this beautiful hypnotic series of soft gestures. But the men never really get to do it in Foray Forêt—it’s a women’s phrase—so we were like, “Can we make a men’s soft phrase?” That’s one of the main phrases in toss. Trisha has always been a visual artist; she brought in her drawings one day and started to talk about the way that they moved, and we realized that she was constructing a list of action words: “This drawing curls, curves and backs up on itself,” and I was like, “That sounds like a phrase instruction” so we would make phrases that way. We ended up with a lot of material; Burt Barr made the sets and Kaye Voyce made costumes. It was always Burt’s idea: “What if the costumes just get blown away in the piece?” They’re made of Tyvek—FedEx envelope material, and there are big industrial fans and as we take costumes off, they blow across the stage. Working with her on this was a perfect homecoming for me: I feel very fluent in this language, physically, creatively and literally in talking to Trisha.

Time Out New York: Did you know that toss would be her last piece?
Neal Beasley:
We didn’t know at the time. But I, interestingly, have this weird feeling that for me I was arriving at some pinnacle of my career. [Laughs] My first performance was slated to be at DTW, and they decided that Watermotor was going to be the thing that rounded out that program, so I started learning that and that was totally fucking magical. It was also terrifying because it’s even bigger than Trisha. That solo is a part of the trajectory of contemporary art. Here is this perfect bite-size idea of the idiosyncratic body being freed and doing exactly what it does. Also, it’s really beautiful too; I remember when Juliette Mapp made Anna, Ikea and I and she describes what Anna is doing with all these metaphorical actions, she says usually when we make dances, it’s all filled with our personal mythology, and I think about that in relationship to Watermotor because the piece itself is literally this collage of Trisha’s personal stories. There’s a movement phrase that relates to an accident she had when she fell on a crochet stick as a child and had to have surgery and there’s this idea of her playing with the idea of anxiety. It’s not just the physical task, but the narrative tasks and being able to see her notes about that and hear stories from her about what that is—“Oh, that’s a crack in the glass over there in the corner of my loft”—it’s totally rich. The program in Paris was the premiere of Toss. Watermotor was also a part of it. I had a feeling: This is a big pinnacle moment for me; I get to do this solo and I get to be a part of this piece and I don’t know if it was clear to us that that might be the last choreography or not, but it certainly feels that way now. It felt great and complete. I feel very visible. Toss is one of the more comfortable things for me to perform, and I don’t know if it’s so much of my own body inside of it or what. Then it turned out I had two herniated discs. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: I knew you weren’t dancing, but I didn’t know why.
Neal Beasley:
I spent all of 2012 working in the offices. I thought I was done, but as of August of last year I’ve been dancing again. I feel lucky. I do, however, feel I’m in a curtain call of my own career. There’s a weird sense of a horizon. I don’t know what’s beyond it. I also think there are a lot of questions about where things are in the company and where it’s going.

Time Out New York: Did you have treatment?
Neal Beasley:
Oh yeah. I’d been doing nine months of physical therapy twice a week. I  hadn’t danced. I’d been off for the better part of a year, which was why I wasn’t in the Armory show. Now I’m a dancer again. [Laughs] I went from being this administrator/archival assistant and privy to all these administrative conversations that were happening in the office…which probably only solidified my role in the company of being a dancer and not a dancer—this bridge role between worlds.

Time Out New York: What are you dancing at BAM?
Neal Beasley:
I’ll be in the Les Yeux and Toss. I’m understudying in Newark and I’m not in Set and Reset. Vicky Shick is doing Homemade.

Time Out New York: Can you tell me about Les Yeux et l’âme?
Neal Beasley:
It’s a series of dances from the opera Pygmalion that Trisha made in the summer of 2010 in Aix-en-Provence, ironically. It’s similar to when she made L’Orfeo in 1998 and then she made Canto Pianto for the company, which are excerpted dances from that opera. Les Yeux et l’âme are excerpted dances from Pygmalion. They’re the moments in the opera that are purely choreographed dances so they’re easy to excerpt and string together. I was part of making the version that is Les Yeux et l’âme; building transitions, sewing everything together.

Time Out New York: That’s amazing that you were able to come back from that injury.
Neal Beasley:
It’s great. I feel lucky. I do, however, feel I’m in a curtain call of my own career. I remember reading a statistic that the average retirement age for dancers was 32, and I know that takes in ballet and everything, but I just turned 30 in October, and it’s like, Okay, yeah I feel that. Certainly, I feel the ways in which my body is not 18 anymore. I feel like the schedule that we hold is really demanding; there’s a lot of dancing and the longer that you stay in a place where you’re demanding that of your body, the more work and upkeep it actually takes to keep all those things working. I feel very lucky that I did recover enough and have remained healthy enough to keep performing. Like I said, I also feel like there’s a weird sense of a horizon. I don’t know what’s beyond it. I also think there are a lot of questions about where things are in the company and where it’s going.

Time Out New York: Do you know?
Neal Beasley:
It hasn’t been explicitly spelled out. I can tell you that I’ve heard a lot of rumors that the company’s closing, and that’s not the case. It’s Trisha’s express wish and the company’s wish to find a way to continue. I think it’s a question of finding a model that feels appropriate to Trisha. The thing I keep saying to the powers that be is that I’m not going anywhere. 

Time Out New York: How did this opportunity to choreograph a piece for DNA happen?
Neal Beasley:
Jack Ferver actually curated me into one of the LateNite at DNA programs, and it was when I was freshly injured. I made a short solo that was very much influenced by the limitations of my body so it’s actually not very dancey at all. I remember that Chase Granoff saying to me, “I’m somehow surprised by what you’re making—this is not what I would have expected from you.” I take that to mean that people see me as a mover and as a dancer and that my work is proving to be this really weird ground of myself as a thinker and as a person existing with this very storied relationship to the body and to performance. This little solo that I made was an attempt to examine ideas about different identity things. The different hats that I felt myself to be wearing, being southern, being queer, being a man, being a dancer—all in eight minutes, right? [Laughs] And using that very obscure and abstracted by the body onstage, but Kate Peila, the director of DNA, saw that and curated me to share this evening with Bradley Teal Ellis. She wanted me to develop that solo. Neither Bradley nor I are interested in making a half-solo evening thing—here’s the Neal show and here’s the Bradley show.

Time Out New York: What will the format be?
Neal Beasley:
Both of us are interested in the aesthetics of something more quiet and intimate, so we agreed we were both better suited to make a series of vignettes that would be interwoven with one another. Also, the name of the series is Splice so we’re taking it at face value and splicing our work. It’s a whole other creative challenge. At this point, that’s where most of my worries remain: How successful will the evening as a whole be because of the ways we’re choosing to deal with that? But I also think we don’t want people to sit in the seats and watch and clap and watch and clap and go home. The thing about Bradley and me is we have a lot in common on a personal level—we’re both from the South and are little gay guys—we’re on the same page. I don’t know much about his work, but I think that’s where the curatorial gaze of DNA comes in and I trust them to place us together. We’ll see. I think the premise of the evening is potential friction of the juxtaposition. I’m really excited.

Time Out New York: I think they’re trying something different with this series this year.
Neal Beasley:
I think DNA is trying something different period. I think it’s trying to shift their programming. You feel the effort. It’s true they have an identity as a school and a very particular aesthetically inclined school within that. It’s a lot to break out from under. Kate is genuinely excited about artists and she really wants to support and she wants people to dream big and that’s really great to have that kind of support. It’s great to be able to talk to a presenter about ideas and not necessarily about needs or struggles and all these things. To feel that they are creatively engaged with you, and I’m sure that’s often the case, but this is the beginning of me tasting that in a sense.

Time Out New York: Maybe it’s also good to be under the radar. What do you think?
Neal Beasley:
I love it. I have to say that the reason I said yes to this. DNA is such a loaded place. But for me, I needed to create a space for myself. The idea I’ve struggled with throughout the trajectory of my career is chasing the love of this art form. Because I still love everything about this form somehow and it’s a real bitch to make sense of that. Why do I still love this thing when it makes no sense? I have tried to leave many times over. People can tell you about when I was going to go to law school. For me, the reason I said yes was that maybe this is just challenging enough because it’s got a little meat behind it—I am actually being presented, there’s a structural support, there’s a date and yet it’s low-key enough for me to still feel like I’m not answering to the cool kids. I’m not sure that I want to play that game. I’m not sure that I’m good at it. I think we’re all scrambling and it’s ferocious in this city. The resources are so limited and the numbers are so great, and I think it’s hard to make this form make sense so I think there’s a certain idea around making, too, for me that ultimately needs to be about—words like permission comes to mind. I am the kind of person who wants to figure something out before I do it. That’s not the way creative process or anything functions. I wanted to create a space where that could feel real for me. I feel that in what I’m making. It feels raw. I hate that I take myself so seriously, but the work is quite serious. It doesn’t have that levity that Trisha has. To be fair, it’s not critical theory. I’m not substantiating my ideas by a thesis, but I’m a thinker as well. I’m not dumb. I wrote that “there’s a stubborn belief in the expressive body.” To believe that the body can actually say something in today’s world feels like a naïve and stubborn idea and yet I believe it. I’m curious about how that will manifest as I continue. I’ve taken part in really rich, storied physical legacies and part of my reason for working the way that I do is about negotiating a relationship to those things. What role do those play in my life? I would have thought that there’d be this necessary process of digesting all of Trisha and spitting all that out and moving beyond it, and I feel there’s a different crowd that I can taste their influence more in my thinking about work. Miguel [Gutierrez]. Jeremy Wade. It’s just me trying on new hats. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to do. Why not? It’s a new decade. A new hat.

Trisha Brown Dance Company is at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Jan 31–Feb 2. Neal Beasley performs at Dance New Amsterdam Feb 6–9.

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