Rebecca Serrell Cyr talks about her best role yet

Rebecca Serrell Cyr talks about her Bessie-nominated role in RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something

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Rebecca Serrell Cyr, RoseAnne Spradlin

Rebecca Serrell Cyr, RoseAnne Spradlin Photograph: Ian Douglas


Rebecca Serrell Cyr talks about her best dancing role yet in RoseAnne Spradlin's beginning of something. Performed at New York Live Arts September 26–29, the dance explores the female psyche in rawest of terms. Rebecca Serrell Cyr was nominated for a Bessie for the role—her first as a dancer with Spradlin.

This week, Rebecca Serrell Cyr—wearing an astonishing headdress and little else—will reprise her Bessie-nominated role in RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something. The work, originally shown at the Chocolate Factory in 2011, will be performed at New York Live Arts through September 29, as part of its Replay Series. In beginning of something, a work for four women, Spradlin explores the female psyche, and Cyr—raw in her intensity—takes it all the way. Cyr, who trained at a Mary Wigman–inspired school in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was a member of the Tennessee Children’s Dance Ensemble, has experienced a lifetime of dance. She was raised on lines like, “If you don’t feel love when you dance, no one else will.” How does such a person end up in the experimental dance world? She spoke about her experiences, including her cherished time working with Spradlin.

Time Out New York: Where did you grow up?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee—eastern foothills, the Smoky Mountains, a little Appalachia. My mom is three-quarters Chinese. My dad’s American. My mother’s dad is from Beijing; her mom is from Shanghai, and they have crazy family histories. She was born in Vietnam and raised in Cuba and she moved to New York. My grandpa was a Wall Street banker. Her grandfather, on the Beijing side, was an ambassador for the emperor of China to Belgium, and on the Shanghai side, her grandmother was a silent screen movie actress.

Time Out New York: How did she meet your father?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
It was the old Northeast college kind of thing, where the boys went to the girls’ school, and they all hung out and they went for a hike…. And then they moved to Tennessee, and that’s where we all grew up. I have an older brother who’s an actor. His name is Robert Serrell and he teaches voice work at the Actors Studio and is the director of education at the Barrow Group, which is a theater company. He coaches me from time to time. He has a lot of information to share. And then my sister Lise danced; we grew up dancing together and then continued making stuff together.

Time Out New York: Does she still live in New York?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
She left for a while and lived on a farm for three and a half years, and now she’s back, doing urban farming type stuff. She shifted everything. And then my youngest sister is living in Boston and wants to go to medical school.

Time Out New York: Why did you start dancing?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
I wanted to do everything I saw. I wanted to do music, gymnastics, dance, tennis and soccer—everything. But dance is the one thing that stuck. It’s what I really loved. I think it’s because it wasn’t so competitive. I loved playing tennis, but the minute we started keeping score, I would just bomb. I could not handle the scorekeeping and the dominating-the-other-person thing. I stuck with dance because it was the perfect combination of athletics and art. I started taking class when I was about six.

Time Out New York: Was it ballet? Or a combination of styles?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
It was very special. It was called the Dancers Studio, and it was a Mary Wigman–inspired dance school in Tennessee. It was really unique, and they had a company called the Tennessee Children’s Dance Ensemble, which I keep in my bio sometimes. Lise and I ended up joining that dance company. It’s noncompetitive; they do really serious modern dance for kids and they take it on tour and try to show it around the world. So by the time I was 12 and joined the Tennessee Children’s Dance Ensemble, dance was all I did in terms of extracurricular activities. We weren’t allowed to join other clubs that took up too much time after school.

Time Out New York: What did you grow up performing?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
We didn’t do any of Mary Wigman’s works. The artistic director was a very powerful, eccentric lady and she would make dances for us, and so would the assistant director of the company. They would also buy dances from Hubbard Street. We’d be like, Jazz! Oh my gosh, it’s the only time we get the most exciting thing in the world! But normally, we were doing really serious dances. These were children 8 to 18. One was called Seeds for Planting, and it was about nuclear holocaust. I was on the inside of it, but I’m sure that being in Tennessee and seeing dances like this for little kids was wild. We had dances called A Child’s World or Night Dream—they were very fantastical. The artistic director was also a child psychologist, which is another side of the whole thing.

Time Out New York: Did you stay there until you were 18?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
I did. Basically, when you’re 16 you’re allowed to leave. You kind of make a promise when you get in. It’s intense. You, on your honor, give your word that you will be a member until you’re 16, and you really aren’t allowed to leave. If you do leave, you’re asked to not come back, ever. They have a year of apprenticeship where you get to see if you really want to do it and, of course, if you get in, you’re so happy. Almost everybody stays. I had a little stint when I was 16 where I was like, I’m done, and I went to ADF [American Dance Festival for a summer]. After that, I was like, I think I want to keep doing this. Going to ADF and seeing all of these different bodies and people and choreography opened up my mind to what dance could be. At that point, I had only seen whatever came through Tennessee, whatever we did and Stomp or something.

Time Out New York: Where did you go to college?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
Connecticut College. I was there from ’97 to 2001. Lan-Lan Wang was the head of the dance department, and we were very close; she sent me to China after I graduated. Dan Wagoner was my main teacher and George de la Peña was our ballet teacher. Jeff Rebudal, who danced with Sean Curran, was our teacher too. For me, it was perfect. I wanted a liberal arts school. I was loving dance, but was also wanting to study other things, like language and art. I was a little wary of a conservatory, just because the dance ensemble was really intense. I wanted to keep dancing, but get away from that strict stuff. I could study the history of Chinese medicine, but I could also do a ton of dance, and I did a lot. I choreographed every semester and would be in five pieces every semester. I was a dance major and minored in fine art. I was mostly doing collage and printmaking. I think that really helped with dance and assembling dances. I studied mostly language aside from that.

Time Out New York: And you got to go to China. Was it your first time?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
No, I had gone with the dance ensemble, TCDE. We went to Taiwan when I was 12 and to Indonesia and Singapore when I was 17…we had little uniforms. I studied Chinese language and Lan-Lan was an incredible connection, so she set me up teaching modern in the folk-dance department at the Beijing Dance Academy. I got to take folk dance classes, too; it was amazing. They had this whole thing where they were sending teachers out to very remote parts of the country and collecting the dances and bringing them back. Then, they would create stage performances of them at the highest level. The dancers were hand-plucked.

Time Out New York: Like they are in Russia?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
Right. It’s based on that system. Seeing what the dancers were doing was pretty mind-blowing.

Time Out New York: How did it affect you in terms of your own dancing or choreographing?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
It’s a whole thing with me: my relationship to China and Chinese dancing and the fact that I have a crazy family history from there. I just know it made me want to keep dancing. At one point, I was in northeast China—no running water, you could only take a shower twice a week, with all the other students in one big, giant room. Eating piglet and bugs and sucking the marrow out of bones. It was right around September 11, and I just remember wanting to go to New York and dance. There were so many teachers that I’d had in college, or people that I’d seen making work, and I was just excited to come back to it.

Time Out New York: Which choreographers were you intrigued by?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
I studied with Jeremy Nelson in college, and I’d seen videos of him dancing for Stephen Petronio. I barely had an e-mail address when I was in college. It was before the Internet, so I feel like I hadn’t seen that much. I was the one student in our not-so-fancy dance library of videos trying to find cool things. There were guest choreographers that Lan-Lan would bring in: Heidi Latsky, Eddie Taketa. I just knew that these people were based in New York, and that they were doing exciting things that I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t know what was going on, and I wanted to. I came to New York, and Jeremy gave my number to Donna Uchizono. I auditioned for her, and she put me in her State of Heads piece. It was really fast. State of Heads was a special experience. The tasks Donna was giving us were different from what I was used to. There’s this long part in the beginning where we’re just staring, but she asked us to look the way a really old person would—or the way an infant would before it even knows what it’s looking at. To be able to add elements like that into the performance was exciting.

Time Out New York: When did you start making your own work?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
I started collaborating with Lise when she came a few years later. Sometimes it was a collaboration or it was billed under her name. We were never brought on as [an official choreographic] team. We just worked together. I only now, for the first time in a decade, have worked with somebody else: Aretha Aoki. I made a piece that I showed a couple of weeks ago at Catch. I know she likes to improvise, and it wasn’t improvisation, but I was interested in a certain openness in finding movement. I just told her, “Hang with me, be in a state of unknown,” and she was. The piece is called An Echo Stomp. We had at least 100 pieces of fabric and clothing and costumes and masks and objects and strings and sticks and whatever, and then there was choreography that we had to accomplish within this world of obstacles. It was lyrical. The piece became about saying yes to everything as opposed to editing, because that’s what I’ve been doing for ten years. It was set to this very luxurious, beautiful, sonorous piece of cello music. The second half was a little more wild. Hopefully, we’ll do something with it. I really want to work with men, too.

Time Out New York: Have you?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
Just in college. That’s the last time I told a guy what to do. [Laughs] A lot of the choreography I’ve been a part of lately is all women, and I think I’m just interested in looking at something between men and women.

Time Out New York: What other choreographers have made an impact on your career?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
Dancing for Amanda Loulaki and Jeremy Nelson was a good preparation for RoseAnne’s work. Jeremy has this incredible, kinetic virtuosity in his dancing. It’s just like flying, and you kind of are a tiger doing it, and with Amanda, it’s an open process of trying to find material. Her stuff is very theatrical. It’s pretty emotional, at least what she asked us to go through. And RoseAnne is not a combination of the two at all, but on a body level, the dancing is so intense. You have to be an animal: You have to fly into it. At the same time you’re going through these extreme states and physical experiences, and that’s a little more on the Amanda side of things.

Time Out New York: Did you audition for RoseAnne?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
No. She saw me in a piece of Amanda’s, and she was looking for new dancers to work with. She had a little try-it-out kind of thing. I remember lifting my legs up really high. [Laughs] We worked on some BMC [Body-Mind Centering] ideas. I felt excited to work with her. Did you see Nova? That piece, which was performed in her studio, really caught my attention. She was going underneath something that I was interested in.

Time Out New York: What was the process for this piece?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
She had already made a preliminary piece, which was totally different and performed outside at a park downtown with Natalie [Green] and Rebecca Wender and Sandy Tillett. For this piece, she started working from there, and that’s where Molly [Poerstel] and I came in. She didn’t keep the structure of it, but she kept the very first part, which was walking back and forth.

Time Out New York: You made an impression in beginning of something. Could you describe your role?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
There are two parts, and in the second, we’re all a little more equalized. In part one, we’re wearing extremely different costumes and what we do in them is very different. There is a feminine aspect in this piece—not just in terms of male/female, but a kind of consciousness or way of participating with the world that I think is important right now. In rehearsal, we don’t go in with a strict plan for how we are going to use the time. There is space to listen to what is needed. We use language a lot, but in a way that is not so controlling, dictatorial or clear. It is a complicated place to wade into, and I think this aspect shines through in RoseAnne’s work. The wildness makes it work.

Time Out New York: What are you thinking in that first section when you’re wearing the headdress?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
It’s so rich. I was reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead at that time, trying to make sense of it. [Laughs] RoseAnne specifically talked a lot about people from a past life, or a past memory or experience, and that we were embodying them. I was able to trip out a little on some of these images from the book and the idea that I was embodying somebody else. I really have to. Otherwise, I’m just prancing around onstage half-naked. I think RoseAnne gives us a lot of responsibility and space to bring our personal, intimate experiences to the characters we’re creating. So for part one, I take on this regal being who is continually reborn from one embodied state to the next until I am left a sweaty, embryonic mess from which I can emerge equalized with the other dancers, the audience and my own sense of self. Every perception of me is a makeover in itself; finally, I cannot be made over. I think each dancer goes through their own personal trajectory like that.

Time Out New York: How does nudity inform the role? 
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
The nudity is a really liberating experience, and for me it’s a little bit of a meditation on my body and what it is, what it could be and what it’s not. The naked body feels like any other costume I have ever worn, though it’s liberating and quite sensational. And it’s just a chance to continue to become something else—to try on different experiences. I’ve been naked onstage, but I’ve never danced around like that. And it feels kind of awesome. I feel like that’s important with all the people that I’ve danced with. It’s a constant chance to keep diving into what they’re asking for and to continue to become whatever they ask me to become. I might be an extremist. Sometimes I feel a little Clark Kent–like in my life. I do my office work and then I go to rehearsal and I become an entirely different creature. The rehearsal side is much more exciting. I’m sure that’s the case for most dancers, and that’s why we continue to do it and love it. A lot of my peers in dance are like that—tutors, therapists, waiters, accountants, teachers, hairstylists, the guy next to you on the train reading The Hobbit. And then they have these heroic performance habits that they are working to support all the time.

Time Out New York: Is this piece cathartic? Do you start out somewhere and come out the other side?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
Definitely. It’s a ride. It feels like you’re trying to tame a beast that just isn’t going to get tamed. That responsibility that RoseAnne gives us—we have to bring it. That’s an intimate thing to do, and it’s a very complex thing to do and it’s so layered. I’m not thinking about if my leg is looking good; there isn’t much space for mental chatter in that piece.

Time Out New York: Why?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
There’s one thing we do called the serpentine, where we’re kind of walking, going on one line back and forth. But on a physical level, we talk about the weight of the brain, the movement through our side bodies as if they’re gills and that we’re being rushed down a torrent of water, and that our eyes are doing a pendulum thing. You’re putting so many layers on this that if you don’t just do it like an animal, it doesn’t work. You have to experience it. In the process, RoseAnne would give us an idea or an image, or she’d say, “I like what Rebecca Warner’s doing,” and it felt like being thrown a bone, and we had to be wolves and devour it and make it part of us. We aren’t just doing it.

Time Out New York: You were nominated for a Bessie for your part in the work. Did it feel like an important piece for you at the time?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
It was a really important piece for me because I was on the verge of getting foot surgery or taking some time away from dance, which I had never done. This opportunity came up, and it gave me a whole other push for dance.

Time Out New York: What’s wrong with your foot?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
I have a few extra bones in each foot, and that’s something I’ve known about since I was 12. Doctors are like, “Before you have the surgery, make sure that you’ve done all the athletic stuff you want to do, because it might not be a hundred percent.” So I just keep putting it off.

Time Out  New York: That’s interesting, because it means that all this time you’ve been dancing because you really want to.
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
Definitely. It’s a little bit of a crazy place to be in. Dancing can be very ego-based, just because it’s what I’ve been doing for a long time, and somebody told me I was good at it when I was ten. So sometimes it feels like a fight with my ego: Why do I have to keep doing this? But I have to keep doing this, not just because I love it or because it’s important for dance. I guess it’s a little bit of that animal thing: I can’t stop, and if the opportunities come and I can still do it, I just keep going. It’s actually been getting better. I’ve been doing a ton of acupuncture. 

Time Out New York: Are you working on anything else right now?
Rebecca Serrell Cyr:
I just cleared my future for right now. I was thinking about if I wanted to have that surgery, or if I wanted to make my own work. It’s hard for me to balance a lot of things at once. I like to focus and give what I’m focusing on everything I have. That’s definitely what I feel like I’m doing now with RoseAnne. And it’s crazy, because I’ve never made the space since I’ve been here. Making space is exciting. I know I spent ten years saying, “I’m just going to watch people make dances. I’m going to think about making dances, but I’m not going to focus on that.” Now I feel like maybe my voice is ready.
RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something is at New York Live Arts Sept 26–29.

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Chris Chapman
Chris Chapman

A beautifully candid, raw and intimate conversation with Rebecca Serrell Cyr. She shares her story with a compelling honesty that tells us her voice IS ready, and we are ready and anxious to listen. Bravo.