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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You’re in France working with Kimberly Bartosik. How long have you been dancing for her?
Last year I went into the duet [You Are My Heat and Glare] that was made for Joanna Kotze and Marc Mann; she had an opportunity to show it in Paris, which was the same week that Joanna had a show at St. Mark’s, so I went in at the last minute. I got really comfortable with her and Marc, and based on that interaction, she saw a different opportunity to use me. In the fall, we started working on a trio for Marc, Dylan and me. I love working with Dylan, but it’s been really exciting for us to realize that we can go into a different situation and do something different together. As much as I trust him, and we’re very familiar, it’s possible for us to have a completely different experience, so that’s been very nourishing for me.

How is it different?
The content is very different. Sally Silvers also made a duet for us, which is much more theatrical and cinematic. Working with Dylan with Pam is more similar to [how we worked together] with Merce, yet with a different sense of freedom. And working with Kimberly—the physicality is different, even though there’s an understanding, because of our shared history coming through Merce, in how we approach movement. [Bartosik danced with the Cunningham company from 1987 to 1996.] There’s an underlying willingness to try things or understand a different way of exploring space and time that doesn’t need to make sense in a typical way. Dylan and I have been able to access a different intimacy in her work.

Do you feel you and Dylan are being cast together too often?
No. Because it’s very different in each scenario, and it doesn’t feel like I’m going into a situation that I already know. I think being able to trust someone the way that we do allows you to keep going deeper. So at this point I’m not over it. [Laughs] We’re both doing other things as well.

It’s interesting to see that kind of partnership in contemporary dance. It doesn’t happen that often.

Yeah. We’re like the Torvill and Dean of the modern-dance world.

Or Fred and Ginger. How did Petronio happen?
I think he messaged me on Facebook after the Armory performances—just a short note saying he appreciated the work that I did there. It was a huge compliment. I just reached out and said, “I’d love to take class,” and he said, “We don’t really do company class.” That went away and then, unfortunately, a good friend of mine [Petronio dancer Emily Stone] became ill, and they needed someone to fill in for her on a couple of tours last fall. [Petronio dancer] Josh Tuason has been taking Cunningham classes for a while, and we’ve become friends; he brought my name up to Gino [Grenek, Petronio’s assistant] and Stephen, and Emily was like, “Yeah, please. That’s a great idea.” We had worked together when I was a student at Cunningham; we had danced Cunningham works, and she seemed as excited as I was to get the chance to work together—even though she was teaching me her part.

What did you perform?

I danced Underland, which was originally made for Sydney Dance Company—being from Sydney, I liked that connection. I really enjoyed dancing with Stephen Petronio dancers. Their physicality is intense, but in a very different way, and it was great information for my body. I didn’t expect to be so altered by it and really wanted more. Stephen responded to me being the studio and so did the other dancers, and we wanted to continue the conversation about what our different histories bring to a collaboration, so he asked me to be in the new work. He wanted it to be more integrated than what he had done with Wendy Whelan when she was a guest artist. It wasn’t easy. It took me a while to get into it. My instincts were not exactly in line with his or the other dancers, which is partly why he wanted me in the room, but it also had to work. He gave me a lot of space to figure out how to dance his work; I knew I wasn’t figuring it out at first and was frustrated, but it hit a point at one rehearsal where I was like, Okay, I think I’m getting something. He noticed it right away. He said, “I really like the conversation you’re having with this solo now.” Then there was something else where he was like, “I’m not quite sure about that—I need to fix it.” And I was like, “No, it’s me.” And he said, “No, I don’t think so— choreographically, I need to do this,” and then a few days later something happened and he was like, “This worked great,” and I was like, “I told you it was me.” He said, “Oh—I guess it was you!” I had a great experience working with him. He’s very good at getting you to do what he wants, either just by touching you in the right place or saying the right thing at the time you’re ready to hear it. It’s definitely made the other work I’m doing better—I have access to a different type of movement in my body. So that’s been great.

Everything you say makes sense with what I felt was going on as a viewer. What did you have to figure out? Was it an energetic approach or was it something more physical?
Partially both. I’m usually super aware of what every part of my body is doing and when, and part of it was figuring out how to allow a certain reverb or to let my body go where it wanted to, which is really different for me—because my body goes where I tell it to. [Laughs] Prior to working with him, I had no problem fully pushing myself physically—it’s a different type of…

Recklessness?
I think that’s a good way to put it. But also choosing when to do that, because I didn’t want to completely lose things that I’m attached to. I was like, Okay—how do I manage the information I have deep in my body with wanting to take in as much new information as possible? And how do I mix those two things together? I feel pretty good about where I ended up, but there’s definitely more of an investigation there for me.

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