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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Are you going to work with him again?
I hope so. We’re talking about possibly doing that. I think for his next Joyce season, he’s considering doing Locomotor again and then investigating the idea of non-locomotor, which is really interesting. He has so much movement inside his body. That’s the kind of stuff that I started to really understand and get in me; I have no problem moving big and stretching out in space, but there is so much going on inside his torso. I want to do, even partially, what he’s doing in there.

How did you end up working with Sally Silvers?

She had worked with Dylan before, and after she saw us do The Spectators, she said that she had been really drawn to my hands and how I touched people, and I was like, “Yes!” Last summer, we just spent time in the studio. We would work one day and whatever we made that day, she would video it, and then we wouldn’t touch it again, and then the next day she would build a phrase in a completely different way, and we’d video it and not touch it again. I was like, This is so stress-free. I love it! She started to put it together once we did have an opportunity to show something, and we realized that some of the things that she had been talking about or reading about or mentioning naturally found their way into the work. She’s just such a giving, easy person to be with in the studio. We put this duet together for a show we did in February, and then we reworked it for a show at the Bronx Museum and now she wants to develop it into a bigger, group evening-length work for Roulette in November. I’m not sure how our duet will mix into it, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s more theatrical in a cinematic way. I wanted to do a variety of things so I wasn’t trapped into being seen in a particular way. I’m also doing a tap piece with David Parker.

How did that happen?
I didn’t plan it. Because I had no job after the company ended, I was like, I’m stressed out about whether I’ll ever get to dance again, but I have to have dance in my life—what can I do that I just love doing and not have any pressure on me? I decided to go back to tap class. David found out and asked me to be a part of his program; now it’s a show, and it’s so stressful, but it’s been fun. I’m getting things back, and I’m in a different atmosphere, with a different group of people, extending my network. Now that I’m in New York more often, I’m trying to see more when my schedule allows, but I also feel that I’m building more of a sense of community and have a better idea of what’s going on in the city, whereas before we were on tour all the time, or performing overseas when most things were going on in New York.

Do you feel transformed as a dancer?

I hope so. That’s the goal. There are certain things that don’t work as well as they did when I was 15 or 16, but then other things are much better. Partly why I enjoyed working with Stephen so much is that I was shocked at how much possibility there is still for me to change. Not that I never assumed I wouldn’t learn something from him, but you get to a certain point in your career or your age and you don’t always expect that kind of influence to be so great. But it was just like it was with Merce and other key teachers I’ve had along the way. I think I’ve matured. I can definitely look at a video of myself and watch it objectively so that it’s informative for me to make the work better, rather than being like, Oh my God, I can’t look at myself! So using those tools in the process, I can tell that I’ve evolved in a good way. I hope I’m generous as someone that other people work with. The push is different partly because I am working and not struggling. I’m very fortunate that I’m doing a lot; in some ways, I start to get worried: Am I doing too much? But I don’t want to say no to anything that I can possibly manage, because who knows when it’s going to run out? I enjoy being available to other people in the room and sharing the embodied language that I have acquired. I think it’s important because I’ve appreciated that from older or more experienced dancers. I like doing that even if it’s not necessarily about the work, but about managing your time or your injuries—stuff outside of just being onstage because you can’t separate your life from your work.

Who else do you want to work with?
I would love to work with Jodi Melnick. I’m a big fan of hers. I think it would be interesting to work with Dylan on his own work, because that would be a really different relationship for us again. Maybe that’ll happen at some point. I would like to do more straight theater, but I really don’t have the time to pursue that yet. Or more film. But I haven’t really thought about choreographers, because I have so many things I’m managing right now.

Was it a major adjustment to have to manage yourself as opposed to having a company do it for you?
Oh, that was huge. I’m getting better at it now, but last year I felt like I was really failing. I’m better at scheduling a day off for myself. It doesn’t mean I’m lazy; it’s actually better for everybody involved if I’m not overworked and cranky, and I’ll be happy if I’m also making sure that I have time with my husband and managing my personal life. I’m getting better at being more balanced. I have to be my own company manager, and I have to negotiate and basically run my own business. That’s not easy when you’re doing something that you’re extremely emotional about.

How do you hope to develop? Do you even think about that, or do you just try to stay in the present?
I go back and forth. I don’t want to get disappointed if I plan something that doesn’t work out, but also I always want to make myself open to a possibility that I may not have thought of. If I’m so focused on one particular goal maybe I’ll miss a better opportunity. But the older I get, of course I’m thinking about, Do I want to have a family? Do I want to move back to Australia? There are a lot of questions that come up, and I’m not at all prepared to answer them. You start working on your career as a dancer from a very young age, and now I’m at a point when I’m finally living it, and I have to keep reminding myself—Okay, you spent forever trying to get here. Just stay there for a minute and don’t start looking somewhere else. So I am trying to just be in the moment and not worry too much about what’s next even though the rent is always due. The question of moving to Australia is definitely on the table. My family is still there and my husband is very open to being there at some point.

How often do you think about Merce or the Cunningham company?

I’m always aware of that information in my body, especially if I feel out of control with running from one rehearsal to the other. I always think, When can I go back to Cunningham class? It’s the thing that stabilizes me. For me, he’s very much a centering force still. Often, it’s when people ask about it. I still get emotional about it when I think about it, because it was a very important time and influence on me. Beyond the work, he really was a person who was a big part of my life. He was the person I spent the most time with every day. I think about him when I’m working with other people. I don’t want to regret not asking something. There are definitely things I wish I’d said or asked; when he prompted me to open up to him, I was like, Oh my God, Merce Cunningham is asking me this! What do I say? I was able to open myself up and be intimate with Merce, but he was still Merce Cunningham. Now there’s a little bit less of that in the work I’m going into. Because I know what it’s like to lose that.

When you take Cunningham class, do you go to City Center?
Yes. It’s nice, because so many of the people I danced with are teaching. What was great about the Cunningham studio was that there were always people from different generations; now it’s great to see so many of my peers. They remind me of the things that we went through and specifically learned from him. Merce evolved the whole time. You take a class with someone who was in the company in the ’70s, and it’s very different from a class I would teach. You end up teaching based on the rep he made on you because you feel most validated in sharing it. You still feel connected to the experience.
Pam Tanowitz Dance is at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center July 25.

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