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Emma Desjardins
Photograph: Anna Finke

Emma Desjardins

By Gia Kourlas

When did you start dancing? 
I'm originally from Rhode Island, and I started dancing when I was very young. Ballet at five. I started in a sort of community center ballet class, and pretty soon thereafter my mom was hearing from teachers and moved me into the company school of the Festival Ballet of Rhode Island. So I studied there from elementary school, and by the time I was in high school I had the opportunity to be in the junior company. That meant some performances of the standards: The NutcrackerSwan Lake.  

You were really on a ballet track?
Yeah. I did some modern dance at summer programs, but it was at Barnard College where I discovered Cunningham and Cunningham technique. And it was the technique that really hooked me. I hadn't seen much of the work before I started the technique. I wanted to keep doing it and learning more. Before graduating, I was already taking classes over the summers at the Cunningham Studio, but after graduating I was in the scholarship program. I graduated in 2003. In January of 2004, I was a RUG [Repertory Understudy Group], and in 2006 I joined the company.

Had you taken much modern dance before Barnard?
Not much. Every summer in high school I did a program that had a little smattering of—they wouldn't even really call it anything specific, but modern. Just a little bit of something different.

Where did you go?
One summer I went to the Joffrey [in New York]; we didn't do much modern. Another summer I went to Virginia School of the Arts and actually, I have this funny connection with Jeff Moen, who teaches at the Cunningham Studio. He was never in the company, but when I was at Festival Ballet, he would guest in our Nutcracker. So I knew him then, and as kids we were always very in awe of the people who came to guest. Jeff Moen also taught at modern at Virginia School of the Arts' summer program. I took his modern class and understudied a piece of his for the final performance. And then I went to Barnard, and he was the teacher of Cunningham technique. At the summer program, he didn't teach Cunningham per se, but now, in retrospect, it was really based in Cunningham. And then at Barnard he taught Cunningham; of course, he teaches at the studio, so I feel like everywhere I go, he keeps coming up. [Laughs

He's your through line. Why did you decide to go to Barnard?
I knew I wanted to go to a liberal arts college that had a good dance program. I actually didn't want to go to Barnard at first because my cousin had gone there ten years before and my aunt, her mother, had gone to Barnard. It was an all-women's college—and I had gone to an all-women's high school. It sort of was everything I didn't want, but then I came to the dance program to visit, and it was just the right fit. None of the other schools had quite the same academics. I wanted a dance program, but if I was going to go to college I wanted academic rigor and a good education that could take me somewhere else in the future. 

Were you a dance major? 
I was a dance major, but I studied a lot of sciences. I did premed requirements. 

When you were at Barnard, whose pieces were you in, or who did you study with? Who was in charge at the time? 
When I was there it was Janet Soares, and she was there the whole time I was there. Sandra Genter was still there, Katie Glasner—and she's still there now. Donlin Foreman.

He taught Graham technique?
He taught Graham. And then some other people were sort of in and out. We had Lila York for a little while—I did a piece of hers. I took her class. We had Risa Steinberg, which was fantastic. I did a Limn piece with her. I did a piece with Sandra Genter; I did a piece with Jeff Moen; I didn't do the Cunningham piece. It happened when I was a freshman and it wasn't on my radar yet. I was always hoping that they would do another one while I was there, and then they didn't. It was Winterbranch, and that was the first Cunningham piece I saw live. 

Were you also studying dance history with Mindy Aloff?
Yeah, Mindy was there and Lynn Garafola. And they were great; they were the academic side of the dance department.

Were you interested in other choreographers?
In terms of seeing work? I was. But for some reason, the Cunningham technique really drew me in, and I was searching for something that wasn't really in ballet, it wasn't in what I was getting in Limn and Graham and what I thought modern dance was. Cunningham technique had that rigor and codification of a ballet class, but it still had so much more grounding and use of the torso. And I liked that it was so challenging and you could almost never get it right, but you just keep trying and keep trying. I think for me that physicality was the connection. And then it was being intrigued about everything about the way Merce worked. 

At what point did you start going to the school? Did anyone encourage you? 
I think it was the summer after my junior year and, no, I think I just decided to go. [ Laughs ] Maybe I stayed in the city that summer. You only got Cunningham technique at Barnard ever other semester—it's in spring semester, I don't know why. It still is. So I just wanted more, and I went for the summer and then I took an occasional class during the next school year, but I was busy up on campus. Then after I graduated, I went back and got on scholarship. 

What was that first summer like?
Well, it was just exciting to have other teachers. I thought Jeff Moen was a fantastic teacher for a beginner of the technique. He's really clear and understands the technique really well. But to go to the studio—and first of all, the studio is gorgeous. To be in that space? 

It really feels like you're in New York.
Yeah. And to have so many other teachers—people who were in the company, people who had been in the was Jeff and Mary Lisa Burns who were teaching at Barnard, and they so shared the class. [Mary Lisa] was the director of the studio for a long time. [Pauses] It's funny now that we're at the end and Westbeth is such a home. I think about the first day I was trying to find the studio on Bethune Street. I had gone to school at Barnard up on 116th: I had no idea where Bethune Street was! [ Laughs ] You know, I'm walking around the West Village. Oh here it is, okay! It takes you into a different world as soon as you turn down that street. Finding the building and going up to the 11th floor: It was all so new and exciting. We're not going to get to do it many more times. 

I know, it's horrible.
I think the space is beautiful. I wish Cunningham could stay there as a home base. I think everyone does. But I don't think that anyone was really prepared for that to happen, because they would have really had to think outside the box and be creative with how they present the technique. The way the school was set up as an accredited program and this idea that you come to train is not, I don't think, the way professional dancers in the city think about classes anymore. Most people who are doing that kind of training are in college, so it just wasn't quite set up for sustainability as we moved forward, and no one was able to come up with quite the right vision to change it in order to make it possible for it to stay. Which is sad. 

Because I actually think the idea of training is turning a corner and dancers are wanting to get more technique.
I hope so! God, I hope so. [ Laughs ] I think the technique is really important in the future of whatever happens to Cunningham and the work. And I think it's being a little bit overlooked right now. I hope that eventually—I mean if there's not a home base I think that Cunningham technique should be taught in every single college that has a dance program. It's a modern dance technique that trains versatile dancers. And also the more dancers that you have who are coming into the professional world who have studied Cunningham technique, the better able they are going to be to approach a Cunningham work that the company they're in happens to be doing. 

I agree. So you graduated from Barnard and you enrolled at Cunningham, and you were a scholarship student. How long until you were made a RUG? 
Well, I was a scholarship student. I started in the summer of 2003. By the fall, I was invited to take class with the company, and that meant class with Merce, so that was really thrilling. 

Did you stand up front?
Yeah. [ Laughs ] I mean I always stand up front. That's my spot because I don't like to be distracted by what people are doing in front of me. I like to have an open space. But that was really exciting.  

Did Merce give you any corrections?
I don't remember the first company class, but after I had been a RUG for a little while and there was some hints and rumors that a woman was going to leave the company, I remember some of the corrections that he would give me then. And I always felt like in his class, when he gave you a correction, it was for you and not necessarily for anyone else. He would say things generally, but he would give the combination, and it would always be a little bit ambiguous, so everyone would try : What's the right way to do it? And then he would pull you aside and give you a correction that he wouldn't say to anyone else. So as you would take class, you would start to see people doing things a little bit differently after they had heard from Merce. That was always very cool—not that he changed a step entirely, but I always felt that the correction he gave you was something that he saw for you. 

Did all RUGs take company class?
Yes. And at the time being invited to take company class was a big deal. Before Merce died, I felt like more and more people were being invited to take company class. So class was filling up a little. [ Laughs ] 

That's a little annoying, right?
Yeah. I remember when I started taking company class, there were a very few of us who were not RUGs and not in the company. And as a RUG, you took company class every day. I mean you worked basically the same daily time frame as the company: class and rehearsal, and then we ended at the same time. We had our own things to do; we were mostly [in front of] a video, watching, trying to learn whatever we'd been assigned to work on. 

What did you work on?
Well, when I was a RUG, we got to do some of Rune and Summerspace , which was really great. We also did Inlets 2 and a lot of other snippets, like what we have as Event material now. We did Cross Currents ; that was a big one. That's always in Events . We did a little bit of Landrover . Those were sort of the bigger things. Rune and Summerspace were really great to be able to do, and we got to perform them at the faculty concert By doing the work and by being challenged, you have no choice but to change and improve. Those two pieces really did that. The way that we worked was really rigorous; they were the first full-length pieces of Merce's that I learned. Of course, the first thing that everybody learns when they're a RUG is the "fast dance," which is just a little snippet that is often in Event material that the company does. It's from Scramble . The first thing that everybody learns is that, and once you get fit into the group of five or six RUGs, you do it for Merce, and he beats out the rhythms faster and faster and faster each time on his table. [ Laughs ] The other thing I did when I was a RUG is that Merce was making Views for Camera and Views on Stage , so we worked with him on that material. That's always the most exciting part. New material. 

How would he start that kind of session?
For Views , I think he really had notes. For some of the later pieces—like when I was in the company doing eyeSpace and Nearly Ninety —I feel like he was no longer working with notes. It was just sort of more on the spot, but for Views he really had notes. And I mean, he would just start with, "Okay, stand in parallel or in second and bend your left knee, and now take your right leg off to the side, and now turn your head to the left, and now lean on your partner standing there." Or whatever. Step by step, one body part at a time. And then you would slowly piece something together and get the next bit. It was a slow process—it sort of changed as time went on. When I was a RUG, it was the beginning of his transition to using the RUGs more and more. After Views he started making complete sections with the RUGs, whereas with Views , he was still making phrases that we would transfer, and then he would work with the company and turn it into a section. As time went on, I don't know if he was just more interested in smaller groups or less able to manage larger groups, but after I got in the company, when he was doing eyeSpace and Nearly Ninety , he started making more complete sections on the RUGs and really choreographed in space, not just phrases. So it was actually kind of interesting learning these phrases for Views and not knowing what they would be or what it would turn into. Then you'd get into the room and the whole company's there and he's like, "Okay you teach Jonah." [ Laughs ] Okay. But the one section that he did with us was the quartet from Views — Views was commissioned for camera and for stage, and so the quartet he had us doing was in a very narrow space on the side of the studio. He would sit in his chair and watch us like this [ She frames her eyes with her hands ] to get a camera-like perspective, which I thought was fascinating. For the stage, it got all spread out: It ended up being the same material, but very different. 

How long were you a RUG? 
Two years. 

Did it feel like a long time?
The second year, yes, it felt like a long time. [ Laughs ] In retrospect, it really wasn't, but by the time that you get into the second year, it's just sort of like, Okay I'm ready to move forward. I'm ready to have new challenges—maybe it's here, maybe it's somewhere else. But you start to feel a little bit like you need to move forward. 

You want to be on stage.
Exactly. You want to perform. You spend all that time in the studio and get very few performing opportunities. But it wasn't too long; I wasn't really ready to move on when it happened, and it was sort of the right timing. 

How did you find out?
Jeannie [Steele] brought me to Merce, and they told me together. Jeannie's the one I replaced. I was surprised, but I had been hearing rumors for a long time prior, and I was trying to not pay any attention because I didn't want to be anxious or worried or think anything could happen that wasn't going to happen. But it was very funny, because I was getting rumors from all kinds of circles: People who weren't even in the dance world who had friends who knew Jeannie— 

Jesus Christ! 
Laughs ] They were just coming from everywhere, but I didn't really know what was happening and what she was going to end up doing, so it was a surprise. 

What was your relationship with Merce at the time?
We worked with him very closely as RUGs, but we were still such eager students that none of us would just sit and have a conversation with him outside of working on movement. Sometimes he would like to gather us around and have story time, which was always nice. But we were still in awe and really eager to just do anything he said. Once I got into the company we would travel, and he wouldn't come with us. Sometimes he would, but the times he wouldn't, we would spend significant time away from him and the studio and there was really something missing, so we'd all come back, and when we'd come to class, we'd sit down and talk to him afterward about whatever—the weather. Really small talk, but just to have a connection. 

Did you tell him stories about the tour?
Sometimes. When I was a RUG, I remember him telling stories about Westbeth. He loved nature, so I think he loved the windows in that space, and sometimes he would tell us stories about how when he first moved into the studio, there were no birds and now—at that time—the birds had come back. He was really happy that the birds had come back. [ Laughs ] It was [about] the city and the pollution and all that, and he was happy at the progress. 

He was so into birds.
Yeah, he was really into birds. 

And Paul Taylor is really into insects. It's funny. Is it just some ruse they use when they don't want to talk about something else?
Laughs ] Maybe. I don't know. I think he was just really into observing anything move. And I'm just making this up, but being a dancer and a movement-maker on such a level that he was, I can imagine the intrigue of flying. I saw Liz Gerring's work recently, and there was one section where the women would run to the back and jump into the men's arms like they were going to fly away, but they would catch them. They just repeated this over and over. It was thrilling to watch, and I thought, Oh my God: One time, they're just gonna leap off and fly. I can just imagine his fantasy with birds—he was always looking to expand the possibilities of the body, and he had done as much as he could, but he couldn't fly. [ Laughs ] Sometimes he would tell us stories about tour. I remember if he wasn't coming, we would all gather around and say goodbye to him, and he'd say, "Oh, you're going to this theater. I remember when we were first there and Bob [Rauschenberg] brought this in from the street and we just used it." Little things like that. 

If you could have been in the company at any other time, what era do you fantasize about and why? 
Laughs ] I feel like, in terms of Merce, we actually got the best—in terms of interaction with him. I feel like he really mellowed out and became a grandfatherly figure. It was rough toward the end, because in his creations he really had to scale back. He could only handle so many people, but the time that I spent with him as a RUG and most of my time in the company, I felt like he was really more—and of course I didn't know him before, but from what I hear he was more open with us and more relaxed and grandfatherly. I feel like he might have been a little mean back in the day. [ Laughs ] Sorry. 

No, it's true.
So I feel like we actually got a really nice time to be with him. But in terms of the new creations and the new work and the creative process, pretty much any other time...I actually really like the movement and work from the '90s. I think I would have enjoyed being involved in those creation processes. We got a really limited version of that, especially as he was working more and more with the RUGs. I got that experience when I was a RUG, and I feel like the way that he was using us and the kind of movement he was creating was really exciting. I feel a little bit unsatisfied sometimes with some of the reconstructions we're doing because they go back to all kinds of years, and I feel as though we're not entirely being used as a company for what we've been trained by Merce for, which is this newer movement that really started in the '90s and progressed from there. I really like those pieces from the '90s. 

How would you characterize the movement from the '90s?
I don't know. The pieces that I've done are CRWDSPCR and BIPED and a little bit of Scenario . 

I can't believe you're not doing Scenario.
I know. Right? But we've put together quite a good section for Events , so I've done a good chunk of it. Some people think of it as really segmented and kind of robotic, and it is complicated. It's not very physically intuitive. You don't learn these movements and think, Oh, yes, that's exactly what my body wants to do. It's a struggle to get the muscle memory to those awkward places that he's going for, but I feel like once you do, it actually begins to have its own fluidity. You find a way for it to work in your body, and that's what's kind of exciting to me. And that's how I felt about making Views with him, too. Especially in the process that he had to use, where he couldn't stand up and show you: It was really body part by body part, so it started out all segmented and awkward, and then you'd start to do it, and you'd repeat it and repeat it, and eventually it became a movement of something that had a little bit of a flow. 

With that specific timing, because the timing really changed everything.
Yeah. And you know, actually I was thinking about that as we were doing Antic Meet . Because, well, Antic Meet —it's not my favorite to dance. I really had fun with it when we premiered it at the Joyce, because it went from the process of learning it in the studio and reconstructing it to doing it on the stage, and it really became our own. But it's just so different—it's so bare and so simple and it's just not really why I came to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. But we were performing it last time and I was realizing, watching some of the sections that I'm not in, that it's really about timing and that amazing ability that he has to take a movement and make it happen just at the right time in relation to other movements that one person is doing or something that other people are doing. And the use of stillness in the midst of all that. It's such a simple piece; I realized that that use of timing is really what makes it funny, and I actually see that in Nearly Ninety . It's the timing that is so brilliant. So I found a way to get into Antic Meet a little bit. 

But I loved watching it. I just always wanted to see it. 
It's a great piece of history. Yeah, it's a great piece of history. 

And I feel like I saw it. I don't feel like I saw some weird watered-down version. 
No! I feel like it's really come to life on us in a way that allows you to appreciate the history, but it's also in the present. At the same time it still feels like history a little bit—as a dancer. But it's a great piece to have in the sort of collective of pieces that are going to be sent into the world. Now it's been reconstructed. It's all set to go. 

What reconstructions have you worked on that you liked?
I really liked doing Roaratorio . It's a hard dance. It's sort of like a jigging marathon, and when you perform it, it's hard on the lower legs, unlike any other piece that I do. And it's also really hard to do it over and over again because it's really all about the rhythm, and if you don't make the rhythms really clear, it gets all mushy. But it's really easy in rehearsal to just go through the steps because they're not as technically hard as [what] we think of as typical Merce steps; we're used to doing these full-body twists and turns and everything all at once that is really technically hard. This is simple, basic jigging—so it's easy to get too relaxed about it, but you really have to stay on top of the rhythms and make it really clear. That's kind of fun for me—to work that way a little bit—and it's comic. It's a fun piece to perform. It involves everybody so much, and in a way that a lot of pieces we've reconstructed don't. Everybody gets quite a bit to do in the piece, but also there's a lot of group sections where everybody's onstage together, and I really like performing like that. I feel like CRWDSPCR was similar for me—there's so much time where you are standing onstage holding a pose and you get to watch someone else do something Then you do something and then you get to watch someone else. I also really liked the reconstruction process of bringing Roaratorio back. Trisha Lent came and reconstructed that for us, and it was just nice to work with her. 

She's someone that really everyone just loves to work with. Why? 
Yeah. I don't know. After she left the company, she was a kindergarten teacher, so sometimes that kindergarten teacher comes out a little bit, which can be good and bad, because she's just very clear. "This is what it is and repeat it over again." I think that's great for setting a piece like Roaratorio because you've got these rhythms, and you have to be really clear about what they are, so that eliminates questions. If she gives it to you very directly, it eliminates anyone saying, "Well, I'm not sure about that; I'm going to go look at the tape and see what so-and-so did." You just take it for what it is. She's just fun. For me, at least with Roaratorio , she was honest about the fact that not every video version is exactly the same and not all the notes match up with the video versions, so here's the information I've collected, and you can choose what you want to do. That's always the struggle with any reconstruction: It's a live art. It's not always the same every time. And then also, as it lives over the years, changes are made because of the dancers and also Merce. It all shifts and evolves, and I think to be honest about that and to allow the new reconstruction to also be part of that evolution is nice. 

What is the hardest and the easiest part of being in the company now?
That's a hard question. I think the hardest part right now is rehearsal. We're so well rehearsed for everything. We're so prepared; everything has been set. In rehearsals there's really nothing more to learn. It's just doing it to do it, so you don't forget it so that it stays fresh. And that's a little less than exciting to do. So whether the rehearsals are on tour or at the studio, I think it's just a little hard for everyone to stay really inspired. But I think that the performances are the exact opposite of that because you really realize that each one is close to the last one and that each moment is precious when you're onstage, so it's a really interesting balance. And also I think that the touring is just hard because in the last six months it's been one thing after the next after the next. It's hard to be away for so long and be in hotel after hotel after hotel. That's just the day-to-day grind. 

Are you excited it's almost over?
Yes and no. It's sad that it's ending. We're starting to think about being really present to the lasts now. Everything we do is, This is the second to last, this is the last. So we're really trying to be present for everything that's happening and not taking anything for granted, but I feel like the sad part was really right after Merce died. We all, in our own way, worked through that sadness. And now, while it's sad to see the end of such a great company, it's been set out in front of us for so long that it's not—for me at least—shockingly sad, it's just something we have to deal with. And it's also a little bit exciting to think about all the possibilities. And totally scary. [ Laughs ] Not just for us personally, but for where the work is going to go. What's gonna happen next? I feel like it's really open for anything, and it will be exciting to see. 

I hope it is.
Yeah, I hope so too. It could just crash and burn. I think that they're so well set up to continue licensing—that's already happening. And there are so many former dancers in the company who are excited about licensing. I think anyone whose had an experience with Merce has valuable information in that process, and the 14 of us have a pretty unique time frame in which we worked with Merce, so I'm hoping that eventually that will be something we can share in whatever happens next. 

Will you be staging?
I don't have any plans to. I'm not sure that I actually want to stage work. I'm more interested in perpetuating the technique because it was so important to me, and I think it's the basis of the work. If the work is going to continue anywhere, even if it's spread out in multiple companies, there needs to be a base of dancers that are trained in the technique. So I'm not so interested in staging—and right now they're just sort of feeling out exactly how that's all going to work out. Trisha's in charge of licensing, and there are so many people who already do licensing now who are also going to be continuing to do licensing, so they're experienced and good at it. 

But you think you'll continue to teach?
I hope so. I would like to. It's unclear how it's all going to play out now. I was hoping to teach at Barnard next semester, but that is not working out. 

I'm so sorry. 
Yeah, I know. They have sort of a different perspective on technique right now. The department is a little bit less focused on technique and more on composition, and you know, the up-and-coming of New York. 

That's such a bad road to go down.
I hope they change their minds. They will continue to have a Cunningham technique class, and Jeff Moen is going to teach them, but I would have hoped that...Jeff Moen is a great teacher, but he didn't dance in the company, and especially at an institution like Barnard—the students are so smart and they'll take whatever information you give them and work with it, but I also think that you need to make technique exciting and accessible, and it's really different when it comes from the experience of actually having danced the work. They're so connected. In the last year or two, there's been a lot more current company members who have started to teach at the studio and in other places, and I hope that that continues. The thing about Banu [Ogan, former company member] is that after she left the company she taught, and so many people in the company now had her set a piece on them in a college. To have that experience is just incredible. And we're the last of the company. 

Do you have anything else lined up?
Not really. The studio's going to be open until the end of March. So I don't know exactly how they're making their schedule, but if I can be involved in teaching, I'd love to. There just are fewer students all the time now. 

Yeah. So we'll see. And I know that Robert's going to lead a class at City Center, which he's gonna teach as much as he can. I know that he has a lot of work elsewhere as well. So I don't really know how it's all going to play out. I'm hoping that I'll be able to do some teaching. I'm not so worried about it immediately, because I feel like I need to sort myself out, and the trust needs to sort itself out, and eventually there will be some paths that open up. Actually next year there are going to be quite a few [opportunities]: It's the John Cage Centennial, so there are going to be a lot of music concerts throughout the country, and a lot of them are looking for dance components. 

Do you prefer teaching advanced or beginners?
It's much easier to teach advanced. All you have to do is make up the combination—you don't really have to get down to the core principles of the technique. But I like teaching. The most teaching I've done is at the Cunningham studio, and I found sometimes it's very difficult because the classes are very mixed, so you get some students who have been there for years and know all the exercises, and in the same class, you have people who have never studied the technique before and don't have that much dance training to begin with. I've also taught younger ballet dancers, and they're totally inexperienced with Merce, but they have some ballet technique, and that's really interesting to me. You get to the core principles of the technique. 

And why not start young like you do with ballet?
Yeah, which doesn't really happen with modern dance. I think maybe summer programs are the place to start because they often expand their programming a little bit and have a "modern" class. [ Laughs ] So we'll see. I'm not so worried. I have other things that I want to move on to, so I'm hoping to integrate them. 

Like what? Are you choreographing?
No. I never was really interested in choreography, but I would love to freelance for choreographers. I have friends from Barnard who are making work. Things like that. Nothing full time or permanent; no more touring. [ Laughs ] No more extensive touring. I'm also planning to go back to school in the next two years for osteopathy, which hopefully will eventually allow me to work with dancers and movement. 

You spoke earlier about how after Merce died you had to work through the sadness. How did you? Were you prepared? 
I think we all were prepared as much as you can be prepared. I remember when we were at Wolf Trap—he didn't come with us, but throughout my time in the company, if he wasn't on tour, we would often call and pass the phone around. Everyone in the company would get to say hello. How's the weather in New York? What's happening? [ Laughs ] So that was something that we always did when Merce wasn't with us, and toward the end it became Skype. So when we were at Wolf Trap, it was very clear that he wanted to talk to us. We called, and I was thinking, Oh, you know, it's another one of those preshow chats. Let's talk about the birds I saw here; he might like that. Everyone was gathered around the Skype, and he had an agenda. He wanted to basically say goodbye. It was then another month or so before he died. What he said really was, "Be yourself." That's what I took away from it: Be yourself in everything that you do out there. After that, we all sort of knew—the tone of that conversation was he had some things to say before it was too late. But after that, we did work with him in the studio a few more times so that he could complete the Nearly 90 2 transition, which was the last thing he did. Then, right before we went to Jacob's Pillow, he was getting worse, so Trevor had us all go over and say goodbye. I think we may have even gone twice. 

In small groups of four, we went up to his apartment and talked to him, and then we left for Jacob's Pillow and he died on our last night. I don't think that anyone was really shocked, but still, it was all of the sudden reality—it was hard. I think for me where it really was the saddest was doing Nearly Ninety . I remember doing one Nearly Ninety and feeling like it was terrible, awful. I mean, it probably wasn't that bad, but just everything was really hard and, for me, Nearly Ninety is a lot of balancing, and I just felt like every single time I was falling over. I felt like I had let him down in that piece, which was his last piece. We performed it a lot. After he died, we had a weeklong run of that in Paris. Doing Nearly Ninety was  part of the process of grieving. 

Because it was last piece, or because of what you were doing in it?

Balances really teach you how to calm down.
Laughs ] Yeah. And Nearly Ninety is a strange piece all-around because all of the sections are so small in terms of number of people, so everyone has huge sections of downtime, which take you out of the performing experience. Every entrance, I feel like I have to gear myself up for getting back onto the stage because there's so much time in between. 

Obviously, you were dancing for him and rehearsing for him, and now you're not. 
Yeah, exactly. I feel like when we're onstage we're all still dancing for him in a way, but we're not rehearsing for him. It's hard individually, and it's hard as a collective group to maintain that. 

Do you all talk about it?
We talk about how rehearsals are hard. About how there's no inspiration to be doing things over and over that we've done so many times, but that's also what we do as dancers. Merce would always say, "Just do it." If there was some question and there was a discussion about what it was supposed to be, he would say, "Just do it." And if you had to do it again you'd do it again, but in the process of doing it you would solve the problem rather than talking. [ Laughs ] 

He wasn't so into that.
Yeah. So in some ways, there's more of this drawn-out talking that happens in rehearsals because we don't really know what to do with ourselves without him. 

Do you still get corrections from Robert Swinston?

What if he's in the dance?
If he's in the dance it's hard, because there's really no eye on it. Even with Merce, there was always a need for us to correct ourselves—not a need, but we had the opportunity to do that. If you saw something that wasn't working for you, you could always address it and correct yourself, and Merce would get involved and help with that process. So we still do that, and Robert gives us corrections as well, but it's hard when he's in the piece, and he's in quite a few of the pieces. 

Do you agree with the decision to disband the company?
Actually I do. I think that no matter what happens—if the company were to continue or not—there's going to be a distillation. No matter what. Even if we were to continue forever. As a performer and dancer, I would rather end on a high note of knowing that I've done as much as I can and spent my time sharing Merce's work with as many people as possible over this specific time period, then have a break and see what happens next—to allow something new to come out of it. That has the potential for something really great to happen, more than if we just kept on plugging along. That's some of the concern about what's happening now: that in this licensing everything's gonna get a bit watered down and [the work is] going be done on ballet companies, and ballet companies don't know the technique and all this, but I think that's true either way. I mean if we were to keep going, eventually some of us would leave and some new dancers would come in, and they would never have studied with Merce. What's the difference, then, between that company and another company? 

Only technique.
Right. Only technique. Which is a big thing, but I don't know. I just think it opens up more possibilities. 

That's such a Merce word.
Yeah. I also think it's good for us as dancers, too. Especially with what the company is doing, how they're managing this whole Legacy Tour and what their severance packages are for us; they're getting better, more concentrated work from us in this two-year period than if it was just this unknown, never-ending thing. I think people would have left already. It kept the group together, and it allows us to have the time to get as much as we can and share as much as we can from the work. And then they've given us the opportunity to have the time and resources to make the next step, whatever that is. 

What did you choose to perform at the Armory?
I requested the duet from Ocean , which has turned into a whole section from Ocean , including that duet. Ocean is another piece that I wish we were doing on this Legacy Tour.  

Do you think about who you dance for now? Do you dance for yourself, or do you dance for each other?
I think we always danced for ourselves, even when Merce was there. I mean we danced for Merce and for a lot of other reasons as well, but that's part of what Merce encouraged: to be ourselves, and that when you get out onstage, you can share that within the movement he gives you. So that was always part of it, and that's still true, for me at least. But I do think that as a group of dancers, we've gotten much more cohesive in the last few years. It started even before Merce died—this need to band together rather than separate. We're all very supportive of each other. It doesn't eliminate any competition, but as a group we do all work really well together. And that's why I love doing these group pieces, which we don't have so many of. I wish we were doing more. A lot of the pieces from the '90s were group oriented. Which is funny because I don't think the company makeup in the '90s was as cohesive as we are. [ Laughs ] But I do think we really rely on each other.


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