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Rashaun Mitchell

What comes after Cunningham? The book of NOX

Photograph: Robbie Campbell
Rashaun Mitchell

After Rashaun Mitchell performed his last show with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in December, he was on the cusp of not being able to move—literally. “For the first couple of weeks, I couldn’t bend over,” he says. “I couldn’t tie my shoes.” The company’s final performances were both mind-blowing and grueling, but he’s better now—emotionally and physically—with a vibrant post-Cunningham life underway. Beginning May 10, Mitchell presents his evening-length work NOX; the piece is inspired by Anne Carson’s book of the same name and created in collaboration with Silas Riener, also a former (and equally spellbinding) Cunningham dancer. Both Carson and writer-artist Robert Currie will perform in NOX. Recently, Mitchell spoke about the project.

This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Anne Carson. When did you begin NOX?
I started making this in the beginning of 2010. It was a continuation of my work with Anne; we also did Bracko [which was based on selected texts of Sappho as translated by Carson]. That was such a stressful experience. I remember telling her, “I don’t want to be a choreographer. I’m done.” And then she approached me again to do NOX, and I was immediately really drawn to it. She showed me the book that she had made, which is essentially a journal. In it are writings and musings and collagelike elements and scraps and notes—they are basically mementos.
Her brother had died, and this was her way of dealing with that. She didn’t really know him that well; he had run away from home and had been living in Europe and had a strange, slippery identity. So she made a beautiful artifact, and then she and her husband decided to try and make it into a book.

Essentially, it’s a book in a box. Could you describe it?
It’s a visual, tactile experience. The pages open like an accordion, and you can see the way she tore pages and photographs and pasted them onto the page. She starts off with a poem by Catullus, which is an elegy, and translates it word by word throughout the entire book. By the end, you get a full translation of the poem as well as her personal story.

How did you meet Anne Carson?
I met her through Robert Currie, who is now her husband. At the time, they weren’t married. He was a friend of a friend and a fan of Cunningham. He’s an artist and a real social person who likes to bring people together, and he introduced me to her when we were on tour with the company in Ann Arbor. I read [Carson’s] Autobiography of Red, and I immediately loved her, but I didn’t think beyond that. They decided that they wanted to work with me. She travels all around the world and does readings all the time, and I think she had gotten bored with the model of reading things she’d already written. She wanted to incorporate some level of performance. She decided to make a short dance film and brought [Cunningham dancers] Andrea Weber, Julie Cunningham and me to Michigan, and we made a silly dance in one weekend and filmed it. We had a couple of readings where we accompanied the film with snippets of movement. They were really lighthearted, low-profile, low-pressure situations. After that, she approached me for the Skirball performance; she wanted something else on that program because [choreographer] Jonah [Bokaer] was already working with her on a piece called Stacks. She said, “I want to work with this Sappho text,” and she wanted me to do a solo—but I’m not really that into making solos for myself. I thought it would be good to have a female presence. I brought Marcie Munnerlyn into it. That went relatively well. I had to get out some of my demons with dance in that piece.

How so?
It was just my frustrations with doing Cunningham for so long—feeling frustrated by the way the movement was so bound. As a dancer, I wanted to make something that moved and had no stopping at all. In that sense, it was reactionary. I also had trouble with the text; although it’s beautiful, it’s a little bit romantic and not something that I would have chosen on my own. I struggled. I kept having images of ropes so for better or worse, I decided to use rope, which is kind of a clichéd prop. We had the ropes tied around us as costumes, and we used them as props, and they also became ways of dividing the floor. That was that, and I thought, I’m never doing this again. But then she brought [NOX] to me. It’s so beautiful. I couldn’t say no. And I’d already been thinking about using a clothesline and a fan. Even when I’m not making something in the world, I’m making things in my head. Now it’s completely different. We’re not doing clotheslines at all.

Why did you want to use clotheslines originally?
There’s something nostalgic about them, and for me, this is all about nostalgia. It’s about memory and history and putting pieces together. I was imagining objects and how beautiful and precious they can be and was thinking about placing objects on clotheslines. I told her immediately: “I’ll do this, but are you interested in possibly being in the dance?” I wanted to incorporate her a little more. I said, “I’m not going to make you dance, but I would like for you to be in the space.” I thought it would be a really great task-oriented way to have her do things in the piece.

So how did you start?
I started making a duet with Silas. We worked slowly—whenever we were off from Cunningham. We had a residency at Mount Tremper Arts. We showed a version of the piece during the opening of the festival, and that’s where it took on its identity. Nox means “night” in Latin. The piece is dark. The festival programmed us at 2pm on a Saturday. It was opening day; they were having a pig roast—it’s like that. [Laughs] I had to figure out how to transition from day to night, so I decided that I’d leave all of the windows open with the blinds up and allow natural light to flood into the space. Silas climbed in from outside, through the window, and I slowly, one by one, brought every shade down manually. What was really beautiful is that occasionally the wind would blow and the shades would flutter and a flood of light would come in for a second, so this natural thing was happening. I performed a solo in the dark, and he banged on the walls from the outside. Then he returned in another doorway, in a flood of light. It was very ghostly and ethereal.

Did you use text?
No. Anne wasn’t there. The next week, we were going up to Boston to premiere it at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art]. Because I so loved the way the performance ended up at Mount Tremper, I was almost not wanting to do it again. I didn’t want to go to Boston. I was a pissy-pants about it.

But it sounds like it was perfect in nature.
It kind of was, and I couldn’t have necessarily thought of that if I hadn’t had those constraints. In Boston, Currie and Anne wanted to use overhead projectors. After the clothesline idea, there were chalkboards—we were going to write on them and erase things. So there was definitely the idea about making something visible and then taking it away or changing its place. The medium wasn’t quite set until we got to Boston.

What did you do?
We had overhead projectors, and we just played around with them—they projected and drew on us. I had made a dance against a wall, so we decided to have them draw on us on the walls. We were playing with tracing our shapes and then moving out of the tracings and then making new shapes. It was cool and visually interesting—we were playing with colors and representational drawings versus abstract drawings of slashes. What happens if I’m standing and you make a line here? The other feature of the ICA is that two sides of the theater are glass from top to bottom, and it overlooks Boston Harbor. It’s beautiful. Obviously you can’t climb through a window, so we decided to have Silas be outside the glass as the piece began. They had electronic blinds; it was super fancy. So we had the blinds come down slowly and trap Silas out of the space behind the blinds, and we recreated the door opening with an actual light outside of the door. So we used more high-tech ways of recreating something that was natural to begin with. I ended up loving that version, too.

Did you do it again?
Yes. A year later, we were asked to perform it at O, Miami, a poetry festival. They said, “We have a great theater,” and I said, “No—this is not a theater piece. It’s site-specific.” P. Scott Cunningham, the director of the festival, found a great old furniture warehouse—four stories that had been renovated as an events space. There was a balcony on each floor and a glass wall at street level. We recreated the glass-wall effect with Silas in the beginning and instead of having the audience sit, we created a performance that moved up each level as the audience moved with us. It was a cool perspective. It was fun to be able to reshape this work: It’s malleable, it’s dance, it’s living. I don’t really want it to be fixed. Then we got asked to perform it in an actual theater in New Jersey at the College of Saint Elizabeth. We took all of the elements and recreated them in a theater space. Now we’re trying to do it in a church.

Meaning St. Mark’s Church?
Yes. Originally I thought it would be perfect, given the material. Now I’m a little bit worried about that layer. It’s almost overkill: You have stained glass and the altar.

There are a few ways to arrange the space there. Where will the audience be situated? On the altar?
No. They’ll be on one side facing the other so they can see the windows. We’re using the long version of the space, and I think we’re using the balcony. We’re trying to use as much of the space as possible—the balcony, outside, the built-in risers, the windows, the walls, the altar, the floor. We’re really trying to use it all—not in a “look at me, I can do everything” kind of way, but hopefully in an intelligent way. That’s the challenge. In my ideal world, this performance would take place just as the sun was setting so you would see that transition from light to dark. You can’t get perfect black in there, and you can’t get a lot of light either.

How did your experience at the College of Saint Elizabeth’s theater help you with this transition?
I thought it wasn’t going to work, but we took the outside space and placed it where the audience was. So I was on the stage, and Silas was in the audience. We made it work, and it was beautiful; and after that I thought, We can do this piece anywhere.

So your hesitation at Danspace Project concerns the religious aspect?
Yeah. But I don’t really know if that’s there. When I go to that space, I don’t think about it—for me, it’s a performance space. But if you place this material inside of it, does that change its identity? I’m not really sure. Should we play that up or be simple about it?

Will Anne Carson be in the performance?
Yes. She’s in the piece. She stands, she walks a little bit, and she and her husband do the live drawing. We use the projectors in different ways—as a searchlight, as something that’s happening separately from what we’re doing, and then we use it in an integrated way. The text is recorded. There’s live music, and there’s a part toward the end when she speaks live.

Can you talk about your duet with Silas?
I tend to work with what’s in front of me, so it’s mostly inspired by Silas and his energy, his body. His facility can do a lot of things. He’s really strong and flexible. He has a really archy back. I wanted to play up all of those features. My part has always been a little more mysterious. I didn’t work so much with the content of Anne’s book, but I was drawn to the structure and the collage effect and the way time overlaps. Things happen simultaneously: There’s the poem, which is being translated throughout, and there are her memories and mementos and her present text. So I’m working with how to create multiple senses of time—what you’re seeing might be a dream or a memory. But it’s inevitable that when you have any kind of text that has a character in it, and you have a person onstage, you place that onto that person. I tried not to shy away from it. I said, “You’re the brother.”

What about you?
Maybe I am the brother, too. Maybe we’re the brother at different points in time. Maybe we’re facets of the same person. Or he’s the brother and I am some kind of spirit. There is a play with the text and with time and with facets of a person. In this book, Anne is trying to make sense of a person. She’s trying to build and compile as much as she can this person’s identity and this person is slippery and mysterious. I was able to use that in our characterization. Also, we’re extremely different, physically and in every way.

How would you describe Silas’s energy?
He has an extreme way of moving. When he does something, he fully commits to it, so you get this intensity from it. There’s also a kind of exacting focus, a sharpening of intention. Conceptually, he needs all of the information. I have to tell him, “This is where you are, this is what just happened, this is what you should be thinking, this is where you should go,” and then within that, he fills in the blanks. I’m definitely a little softer around the edges, and I like to find the circular pathway to something—and I don’t get there all in one piece. [Laughs] I’ll get there, but maybe it’s going to be a little bit early or a little bit late. I don’t personally need a lot of information. You can say one thing to me and that’s enough. I want to create my own experience and figure it out for myself. We come up against that with each other and it’s good, because it makes it go somewhere. It’s this way that things start to build—our chemistry allows for that. I play up those differences. Obviously, we come from the same company and we speak the same language. Whenever I felt like things were veering into Cunningham territory, I would say, “That’s too Cunningham,” and he would know exactly what I meant and be able to change it.

Is your choreography subtly or massively different from Cunningham’s work?
I don’t know. The comment I’ve heard is that there is a dialogue with what Merce was doing, but that it’s different. I’m not interested in rejecting what I’ve done. I learned a lot, and that’s how people know me. I don’t have a rebellious spirit about it; but at the same time, there are a lot of things that I’m interested in that I didn’t get to experience with Merce—to be able to have questions and not to just be relentlessly learning steps. As a dancer, I really appreciated the way that Merce worked because all I had to do were the steps. I had to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Everything else was up to me. As a choreographer, I don’t so much love to do that. I don’t want to generate all the material from my body. I want to set up these experiences and contexts in which we can find something that makes sense and to find a natural inner logic to what we’re doing. I can really do that with Silas. Creatively, we compliment each other. I’m lucky to have that.

What is life like now that Cunningham has disbanded?
I feel really good. I feel like my life is exactly where I want it to be in terms of the projects I’m doing. I get to work for other people and also make my own work and also have some time off. I’m trying to be smart about making sure that I have a life and that I don’t just become this crazy workhorse. Otherwise, it’s not really worth it for me. Wherever I go, I try to attach a minivacation.

You’re not under someone else’s thumb?
Exactly. I don’t think I ever want to be under a thumb, doing the same thing every day, again. I have freedom.

Rashaun Mitchell is at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery May 10–12.


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