Q&A: Melissa Toogood talks about her post-Merce Cunningham career

Melissa Toogood talks about her successful life as a freelance dancer

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What was the process like for the duet with Dylan?
Dylan and I have such a strong trust in each other, and because he’s been working with Pam for a long time, she really trusts his instincts, too. The three of us work very fast. Dylan and I have gotten past any kind of awkward stages and nothing ever gets personal, so it’s easy for us to try things and disagree and get to places that make it great. The duet changed a lot for The Spectators. Pam said, “I need to take out all the repetition.” We’re like, “Cut out five minutes of a six-minute dance?” [Laughs] It was a little unsettling for us at first; you get attached to things. But once we tried it, we realized it helped it grow in a new direction.

Since Pam’s choreography is so much about movement creation and steps, could you talk about how you approach that side of it?
It’s definitely getting harder, and I get tired quicker—but I think that’s also just because my schedule is not consistent. It’s really important for me to be doing work that’s really physical while I still can. When I’m doing her work, it’s important for me to keep training, so it definitely requires an accessibility to my physicality that I can’t just pull out; I have to be doing relevés and tendus every day. But there’s also a freedom in interpretation with her that is not based in drama—it is based in physicality and in the way she allows us to play with space and time. For me, those instincts were developed very much by the way I worked with Merce. It’s a little bit different from just studying Cunningham technique: He would ask you to change little things, or you might have three steps forward, and then he would ask you to take one of them a little bit bigger to see how that affected you. When I do her work, I don’t consciously think about those kind of choices—they just start coming to me, and it works for her. Even though it looks physically hard, and there are a lot of relevés or big movements, she really does take time to focus on little details. I like that, maybe because I’m overly analytical too; those little moments are the texture that makes it human. The human moments are also quite crafted and stand out against of the formalism of the rest of it. That contrast is really interesting and, for me, isn’t a contradiction.

Can you give me an example? Something I was thinking about a lot when making The Spectators were my hands and how you touch somebody—the timing of that or the pressure, and where your focus is. I usually have an inner dialogue behind why or how I’m looking at a person or how I’m imagining that person or imagining myself looking at that person. It then affects the physicality in a subtle way. She’s much more open to me doing that.

Do you have freedom with how you approach transitions in her work?
Definitely. But she is very clear when she doesn’t like something, so it’s not a free-for-all. She’s open to seeing whatever idea you want to put forth, but ultimately she’ll make the decision, which is great. I love the freedom I have in her work because I feel comfortable in the choices that I’m making with her. If I’m just thrown into a room with a choreographer for the first time, I’m not going to do whatever I want; I’m not a big fan of improvisation. I actually like to really interpret somebody else’s vision, and because I know her so well, I feel in tune to what that is. I’m more likely to offer ideas—it takes me longer with someone I don’t know so well. I definitely started to get there with Stephen Petronio, but it was helpful to have done his work prior to being in the process of making a new work with him.

The other work on Pam’s program is Passagen. How would you describe the process for that duet with Maggie Cloud?
It was a much drier process. As much as Pam’s more comfortable working with women in general, it took us a little longer to figure out what our relationship was and how to connect to each other. It really started when she blocked out chunks of movement that we then worked on together. Pam and I worked at Princeton and at Dickinson College, and we used that as an opportunity to flesh out some ideas for the Passagen trio—I think of it as a trio, because Pauline [Kim Harris, who plays John Zorn’s Passagen] is really integrated. But it was kind of like this chunk and that chunk, and here’s a new phrase, so we pieced it together from beginning to end and then went back and worked through how to mix it up. She really wanted it to be a mini-retrospective, so she pulled specific chunks from earlier works that she felt represented her habit of making duets for women. She had never isolated them before. Maggie and I had to spend time figuring out, What is it for us to do a duet? We’re both different. We had to manage dancing in unison and allowing each other to be different. We didn’t want it to clash and look weird that we were onstage together. That was a fine line. It’s hard when so much of a duet is frontal. I mainly had a peripheral sense of her. But it’s also one of those things: In crunch time, you come together. Once you get onstage, you realize how much you need the other person and I think that solidified it for us. We’re looking forward to doing it again at Lincoln Center.

How do you and Maggie negotiate the space? Can you feel each other in a way?
Yeah. That duet in particular feels very peripheral, because we’re often side by side, so part of it was learning phrases from an old piece—we’d dance it the way that it was set in the other pieces—and then Pam would make changes. We would talk about things like, “I’m traveling too much here—can you push it further this way? And if you can’t, I’ll hold back here.” Even though she started with movement phrases she already had, Pam still wanted to put something on us and then, like always, really deal with the structure of it and how it moves, and she would play with complicating it a little bit more and throwing things away or pulling other things out and dealing with the space. It was great to bring Pauline in early on.

How early was she in the studio?
Pretty early actually. Since the phrases were already built, we were able to learn a lot of the material quite quickly. Because of the spatial arrangement, Pam was looking at how that would then change the choreography. Pauline has such an amazing energy; I think she wanted the challenge of not having to read the music off a music stand.

How would you define that energy?
It’s similar to having another dancer onstage. Some people have the tendency to go faster or slower when they get nervous. What really helped Maggie and me connect is that we had to start reading—together—what was going on with Pauline. For me, that’s what’s exciting about live performance and what’s even more exciting about having live musicians. Not that you want to be like, Oh my God what’s happening? There’s a slight chance that something could go wrong, but how you deal with those moments can sometimes be even more amazing.

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