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Robert Swinston
Photograph: Anna Finke

Robert Swinston



What brought you to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? 
I had friends in the company. I was in the Limn company at the time and Chris Komar was my friend. [Komar was a dancer with the Cunningham company and the assistant artistic director at the time of his death, in 1996, of AIDS.] I met him in 1972 at Jacob's Pillow; we were both scholarship students. He had just come from Milwaukee and I had just finished one semester at NYU School of the Arts, which is now Tisch. He went to Cunningham right after that, and I ended up at Martha Graham. But he invited me to his performances when he was still an apprentice, so I saw the '72 season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: Walkaround Time. That was the beginning of seeing Merce's work, basically. And then I had a number of other friends who were Purchase graduates, like Alan Good and Susan Emery—particularly them—and the summer of 1980, they came back from Sadler's Wells and Robert Kovich had resigned. I started taking class regularly at the studio. Up until then I had been watching the concerts and had become very interested in the work. Then Merce came in. I met him. And then they had a workshop, which was really sort of like a competition. There were 12 boys—there were a lot of boys then. We had a lot of students here at that time. 

So there was a workshop?
Yes. I was on tour with Limn. I disappeared from the Limn Company, actually. We finished our last performance in Ireland, and I took a midnight train to Marseilles and bought my ticket back to New York to take the two-week workshop. At the end of it, I had to ask if I was going to become one of them, if [Merce] was going to take me, because I had to start working from Limn again. So he said he would. It was like, "Well, let's try it." And then I did my last performance with Limn—Moor's Pavane and all that kind of stuff. [Laughs] And then I came over here.

What about his work interested you so much?  
It was completely different because it was totally anarchic. I'd been in Europe then ten years. So I had had the Graham work and I went to Juilliard after I was at Graham, and that was, of course, a great relief to be at Juilliard after being at Martha Graham. But at Martha Graham, I had a great experience, because the dancers were just my idols. So I was trained as a more dramatic dancer, and at Juilliard I got to expand my vocabulary. To get more training in ballet and other forms like Limn.

Aren't you from Pittsburgh?

Yes. But there was no dancing in Pittsburgh. Nothing. I went to Middlebury College, and I actually took dance as a way to get my PE requirement. That's how I got the bug. Of course, we just made dances. Our technique was a Graham kind of technique with the teacher playing the piano, and we were doing triplets and mostly we made dances. This was the late '60s—society was changing, and I got the bug. Actually, it was a real strong decision to do it, because it was not what my father would want me to do. Getting into dance really did cause some chasm in my family relationship, because it was not really accepted at all. So, you know, that made me more determined. And I had to be more self-reliant. I was very lucky. I had a mentor, Kazuko Hirabayashi, so my training then was mostly this kind of dance that had a direct expression. I did enjoy it. It took a long time to try to get the Graham thing out, because it was so strong psychically in its intensity. And actually, I don't know if I really ever got it out, but I was able to at least put it in its proper place.

Can you ever get it out?

I don't know. [Laughs] Probably not. 

Look at Merce. 

Well, that's true. There were things that I could relate to, which was helpful because at first people were...well, I really did look like I came from another planet when I first joined the company. I had to learn to make an equanimity between movements and the way I felt about them so that I could survive, because the movements were so demanding and there were so many of them. Then I realized when I was watching Merce dance I could see that there was obviously an expressionist inside of him when he was performing. He was reaching for something that was sort of sublime and that was an expression. Very direct. And then technically, the more I studied the work, I realized that there were some same principals that I had been studying with Graham with the use of the torso and the way he would describe it. When I met Carolyn Brown, she definitely talked about it in ways that could relate to my earlier training. But I was really fascinated by the work. It took me a while, and I didn't immediately come to it, but I became a real fan, and I would go to all the shows. At that time, it was much easier to get into theaters.

Do you remember watching particular dances?
Sounddance. At the Minskoff Theatre. I was blown away. Other dances: Exchange was very powerful. All of them, actually. The first Inlets; I even remember Travelogue, more for the decor than what they were actually doing. I saw some Events. I saw them do Torse. I liked what they did because it was so rigorous, and when I came over here to study, then I realized it was really what I wanted to do, because the work I had done with Kazuko was similarly based in terms of teacher and choreographer developing material in the class, or the class work would relate to what you would do in the repertory. And Kazuko's work—she had a strong ballet influence, so there were a lot of legs. We used our legs a lot. Merce was the master and he had a great deal of intensity, and I would do anything. It was very powerful. It was exactly what I wanted to do. 

And where you wanted to be? 
Exactly. Even though I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't care. I mean, I figured it out as I went. Just the physical experience was great. And then, there was also the intellectual aspect with John Cage around. It's not that Merce talked a lot about it, but there was all of this. I had been introduced to John Cage's work when I was at Middlebury in my music class and Bucky Fuller and Marshall McLuhan—all these kind of things that they were into—and visual arts. That was just fascinating. It was another world that was fully developed and that I didn't know much about. And also coming to the Cunningham company after all those years as a dancer, there was an instant credibility in the world. Whether people understood it or liked it, it didn't matter really, but when you went to different places, there were always people that did appreciate it. I received credibility as a dancer after ten years. I was feeling like I was basically nothing, which you can be in New York. I didn't get a big job like everybody else right away.

Well, you started late.
I started late, but I didn't get a full-time job until '78, so it was already seven or eight years in New York. And I had been working with Kazuko, and we weren't really received. We had started: We did Dance Umbrella, but it was very difficult. So I had worked in a situation where it had been very difficult and that you put everything into it, 100 percent all the time and you keep trying. So going to Limn was great because they were a wonderful community of people and the work was very pleasant, but the artistic standard here I felt was different. I can't [make] categorical judgment there, but it would definitely push me technically further than where I wanted to go, where I didn't know how far I could go.

When you first joined the company and Merce was trying you out, what were you able to master, what were you good at? And what did you have to work on? 
Well, the work I had been doing was less with the legs. With Limn, hardly legs at all. Mostly with the back. But my training really was Graham. I was really more of a Graham dancer, so I had strong use of the spine. And I had had a lot of ballet training. I had studied a lot, but I wasn't loose or anything like that. I don't know what I was good at, to tell you the truth. People said I brought something else to the work, but I don't know. It took me a while to start to feel that I was really blended in.


When did that happen? 
Years. [Laughs] I don't know! It took so long to understand it. Of course, there was never anybody telling me, really, that I was doing something wrong, except maybe I'd get a couple remarks from a few people—a few dancers. Caustic remarks, but it was okay. I mean, I was happy here. I was getting to dance with Chris, I was in the older group with Chris—because he had the group separated a lot, and I was in the older group with people my age and so I was happy. My first partner was Karole Armitage and she was great to dance wish. Super. Very exciting to dance with. They seemed to accept me.

Did you have any idea that you would be here so long? 
Not really. You know, I went through a period where I was having some doubts. I can't remember exactly why. Sometimes the work could be punishing and I wasn't really close with Merce at that time. I wasn't really connected with him, and I didn't feel really connected, although I didn't really know why I wasn't. It's just that he wasn't really communicating. I was afraid of him. It was hard to talk to him. I didn't know what to say. Some people could—there were a few dancers who could always make small talk with him, but I don't think I was one of them, so I always had this great respect. Of course, it's trying to do this work, because you're pushed to the edge. I mean at least at that time, you were really pushed physically and technically to the edge. At least at that time, we were pushed physically and technically to the edge. The first couple of years, we always had long layoffs, so I worked with Charlie Moulton, Jim Self, and I kept working with Kazuko. After a couple of years, I couldn't do that anymore. I couldn't manage it physically. But I was always studying a lot, and besides studying at Cunningham, I would study ballet.

Really? With whom?
Well, different people. Around the time when I joined Cunningham, everybody was going to Maggie Black a lot before we came to class here. But I studied with [Gabriela] Darvash for a long time, I studied with Ben Harkarvy. I studied with Nanette Charisse for a very long time. It was a long career so there were a lot. From '75 to '80, it was Madame Darvash then Mr. [Igor] Schwetzoff. Then I started to study with Maggie Black. I went back to Nanette Charisse, and then went back to Madame Darvash. I would study with Igal Perry and Ben Harkarvy. So that pretty much covers it. I stuck with the same people a lot. I studied with Janet [Panetta] for a while. But my tendency was more towards the Russians.

I don't know. I had had Cecchetti with Mr. [Alfredo] Corvino at Juilliard, but somehow the Russians seemed to make more sense to my body. I appreciated it more, I liked it more. Again, I don't want to characterize it like this. Each one has value. I kept studying ballet until about five years ago, really. Then I pretty much stopped.

I didn't have the teacher I wanted to study with. I figured I'll stay here. This is my place, this is my home. 

So you were talking about that transition when you were thinking that maybe things weren't working out for you. Could you elaborate? 

It was around maybe the mid-to-late '80s? I don't know. I was interested in Pina Bausch. I had gotten married in '83 and my wife's German. For a period of time, I thought maybe I should go to Europe. That was the person I was interested in. Of course, the work is completely different from Merce. I knew some people in the company. It was sort of closer to my first experience. 

What happened? What turned it around?
I don't really remember. In 1992 I became an assistant. In 1991 my daughter was born. That experience changed my life. Up to that point, if I ever had a problem, I would always go to the studio. I could always work everything out in the studio, in the class. I could characterize that as I was a self-absorbed, egotistical dancer. And in spite of the fact that I had been married for about eight years, I was definitely self-absorbed to that extent that I had that space that I would go to. And I don't really think that that's really uncommon, but having a child really changed the focus. It put things in perspective of what was important in a good way. And I think that probably changed my dancing. I'm not sure how it did, but it certainly changed my perspective on things. And then when I became an assistant, that changed things too because I was allowed to work in a different way with a different perspective. Although we had a lot of problems in the company at that time. 

Like what? 
Well, Merce called it the malaise. A lot of people left. I can't really pinpoint exactly what it was, if it had something to do with me getting the job, or if it had something to do with Chris [Komar], or Chris and Art [Becofsky, who was Komar's partner and the former executive director of the Cunningham company] or the dancers or the union or what. It was all those things probably, everything all mixed together. And we had a big change in the company. Dancers left. Art left. Chris passed away. All that happened within about four years of the time I got the job. Up until that point, I was the union rep. I was relieved of that duty by some of the dancers because I was... I have to say, I had done administration with Kazuko. I know the administrative point of view about things. So of course, I had very little problem with any issues, because I thought we were always treated right. So I wasn't really an advocate for the dancers' union. I wasn't doing anything to advocate for them. If they had an issue, I would say, "Well, I don't know if that's a union issue really." [Laughs] So anyway, that all happened in a period of time and then they were doing a union negotiation. So that all changed. [Sighs] I feel very contradictory about a lot of those things with the union. Although, you know, I've been a member for all these years and I have health care and all kinds of stuff, but basically, I never danced for the money. We were all treated very well there. I always felt that way. And I was happy to be able to make a living. So I didn't come to the studio as a job—ever. I still don't. The people I associated with when I started to dance were all lifers. So I think my influence was that. And my reason for dancing was for life. I didn't know if I could make a life out of it, to tell you the truth, but I knew that there was a whole generation of people that devoted their lives to it. 

No matter what? 
Yes. I think I'm the tail end of that generation. It was just how I was raised. And the people who I worked with, I idolized, to such an extent. Like Mary Hinkson or Bert Ross, Kazuko, of course, and at Juilliard, Martha Hill and all of my teachers there. And the people I went to work for at Limn were the same way. I worked with Lucas Hoving and all those people. They were all old and they made a living. That's the way I chose the people. They were devoted to dance as their life.

How did you get the job as assistant? Did Merce ask you? 
It happened because around that time—the early '90s—they were also discussing legacies, although in a different way. John Cage was still alive. Merce was only 70. They were discussing the future at that time even though they had a different perspective on it. And this was also the beginning of the Repertory Understudy Group [RUG] to become more formal. We had understudies before, but this time it really became more of a formal thing. Chris was responsible for that and there was discussion that the reason that the RUG group was actually created was that in case Merce did not go to tour that he could stay and work with the RUGs. That didn't really play out until the middecade: 2004 or 2005. That's why it was planned. That's why they gave it a bigger budget, and I'm not sure how much was known about Chris being sick. I'm not sure how that came out, but the fact was that they needed an assistant, and to be perfectly honest, I was more Chris's assistant than Merce's, for sure. And I was probably chosen because I got along with Chris. He might have had some say in it or Art. But there was certainly some hard feelings about that, I'm sure. Because I didn't have seniority. There were people who had more seniority than I did. I think Alan [Good] was still there. All the others had left, I think. To tell you the truth, I never talked about it with these people because we all made amends afterwards, like you do in life. There were some tough times. And then I started to teach the company class as well amidst all the problems. I was definitely on the wrong side. I was definitely in the middle.


That must have been hard. 
My whole career here's been sort of like that, to tell you the truth. In the middle. 

Either between the dancers and the administration, or between Merce and the dancers, or between working for the administration—being on the Merce Cunningham Trust and perhaps having different ideas about things. Life is a lot of compromise. I've learned how to compromise and deal with those kinds of things and to weather it. And that's a big part of anybody's career in dance anyway. It's really about survival. It's all about survival. I had to wait all those years when I was a young dancer—all my friends got jobs and were dancing with companies, and I had to wait. I waited. Someone finally left a company. I got in. Eventually people left and I stayed. It's about survival and staying healthy and being able to do the job. 

The last man standing? 
Sort of. But at certain points in my life I had to make some real changes about my life in order to last. When I was younger, I would, let's say, burn a candle at both ends. So I had to change. 

Did you have much of a personal relationship with Merce?
I ended up having one.

How did that happen?
It happened gradually. After Chris passed away in '96, my work relationship with Merce became more obvious—that I was there to assist him. That it wasn't Chris going to talk to him—because that's how it mostly was before that. And eventually I took on responsibilities like making the schedule and basically saying, "Well, we have to do this or that." But at that time Merce mostly knew exactly what he wanted to do all the time, and it was a matter of him allowing me to do things until in '97, I started to do reconstructions. He let me be responsible for it. So I can't remember exactly what I did, but things like Torse or RainForest. I did a reconstruction of RainForest, and then in '99 I did the reconstruction of Summerspace. And then it kept going. It took time to build his trust. 

Did he care about these reconstructions?
I would say no and yes. More no than yes. Reconstructions were always a necessary evil to him, I guess. I don't know if he really looked at it like that. He was always more interested in planning his new work, but the grants were always written for revivals. And how that was decided, I can't really remember all of the time—I think most of the time he would say what he wanted to do. And then Summerspace came about because of our performances at the State Theater with the [Lincoln Center] Festival. In order to perform at the festival, first of all, Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov] danced OccasionPiece at every performance. And on opening night at the gala, New York City Ballet performed Summerspace. So I did the reconstruction of Summerspace on the company in, you know, an hour here and there. That's how we used to do it. You don't spend a whole day on these things when you have a whole repertory to build and he's making a new piece. So I got my little snatches of time. I found new footage. I happen to be very interested in this kind of thing. 


Maybe because I had been in other companies where we revived things all the time. Or I saw the value in older work. 

And simply you wanted to see it again too.
Well, I thought it was worth seeing. People should see it. This piece wasn't really my choice, but I found other footage of it—some very early footage and Margie Jenkins's notes. I found Merce's notes. And of course, I got Carolyn Brown to come in. And this was the beginning of bringing Carolyn Brown in, I think. Or no. After Chris passed away, I brought in Carolyn more. She wasn't coming in much until '97. And I really got along with her and I consider her a mentor. So this reconstruction was made and basically tightened up the dance, because the dance as it had developed over time—it was still being performed in the 1970s. I would go down to the archives and get the footage, and the dance had gotten slow and some of the steps also—like, for instance, Carolyn's part when she looked at it she said, "These aren't the right steps," so I got her notes as well. And then I started to work on the piece. I made a really strong reconstruction of it. Merce's notes were not really that helpful except in terms of understanding the circular nature of the entrances. Mostly they're interesting for seeing the process; how he came about doing it. 

What was your process? 
I made my notes and then worked with the company to get this much and then rewrote the notes. And then I went to [New York] City Ballet, and I had 13 hours to stage it. 

No! On dancers who had no idea. 
Yeah. Thirteen hours, and that was just the reconstruction. Then they went to Saratoga and Carolyn worked with them up there. And then they came back and did it the first time. Then the next season they did it again, so we got to work with different kids, different dancers. I mean, we had some of the same ones, but that's when Benjamin Millepied came in and did the second boy. I enjoyed it. And then we went off and did it with Zurich Opera Ballet—Carolyn and me. We had a really good experience there. They gave us a lot of time. So that experience was the beginning of Merce seeing the work I did—because we didn't really talk about it. If you were insecure, you were going to have a problem around Merce. [Smiles] So at a certain point, you have to say, I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm not going to be insecure about this. I'm going to go ahead and do it. So then, I can't remember what happened in 2000. Maybe nothing. But in 2001, that's when Rashaun [Mitchell] came here and that's when I wanted to do Crises. I got Carol Teitelbaum to stage the reconstruction. And Carolyn Brown. With this kind of thing, usually they would do it, and then I'd end up rehearsing it most of the time. So I sparked a lot of these things. Now Merce did not particularly show a lot of interest in this. At all. In fact, if you were insecure, you could really start to doubt yourself, because he never looked particularly happy about it.


And I understand why—he still had his own memories about it. And Merce, in spite of the fact that he was already 80, still thought of himself first as a dancer. His last performance was OccasionPiece in '99. But he thought of himself as a dancer. So I started to understand that. And the fact how it was a sensitive subject—I didn't really realize the full impact of that until later when I heard him talk about it with Laura Kuhn; the fact is he only started to make dances to give himself parts. And he had that kind of drive. And he was well known as a great dancer, so obviously he had a fair amount of ego there. So whether these memories would be good—seeing someone else futz around with his part, a young kid. He didn't say anything. And he would say, "I'm not saying anything because I don't want to get in the way." And I think that's partially true and partially because he was working on his own thing, and partially because it was annoying. It was irritating. Though he would never say it. Eventually, like for that piece, he did warm up to it. He actually helped Rashaun in Crises when Rashaun was a RUG. Rashaun wasn't in the company. He wasn't developed at all. But there were things like this boxing thing, which is not easy to do. You really have to have a character already there, you have to have something going on inside you to make that work. 

The RUGs were and are so young. 
At that point, they were kids. They were inside of this vehicle and I always thought that was a good way to learn: You get inside the vehicle and start to drive it. And you learn how to drive, so to speak. You don't wait until you already know how to drive and then get into it. You learn how to drive. So we fleshed it out. And then it was done, and we did it for a year—one RUG cycle, basically. The next one was How to [Pass, Kick, Fall and Run]. Why? Because I had seen it. I looked at the one video we had, and I thought it was terrific. Most of these things I did in a workshop with students. This is not the kind of piece that's really going to excite kids in the workshop, because it's all bits and pieces. I was putting it all together from an already edited video—big holes. So again, I was using the workshops to flesh it out. I also sent DVDs to all the dancers in the piece and asked them, "What was in that hole? Do you remember?" Finally Merce said, "Okay, we can do it." But the only way we promoted it was because we needed Merce to do the talking; that's how we convinced him to do it. We needed Merce onstage. So it's a little bit of tricking him in a way, because you're appealing to his vanity in a sense, but we did need him on the stage. It was a good idea. And it was a fun piece. It was a different kind of piece than what people are used to. 

It was terrific. 
And that was my idea. Let's do something that this generation doesn't expect of Merce. They don't know that part of him. They think of us just as robots or machines, mechanical. But look at this. It's not. So I went to him to talk about it, he said okay, and then I went to talk to him about the casting. When he did the casting, he had me down as second cast for the fourth boy. And I was completely shattered because I thought, I'm a generation older than all these kids. This is a part that I could do. I didn't say anything about it, but I was definitely depressed. 

You were shattered? 
Yes. I went home that weekend. I called Carolyn; I had to just get it out. Then I called him on Sunday and said I had reasons that I thought that it was important that I do this part. Number one, that it would be easier for me to reconstruct. Practical. Number two, I'm still in condition; I need to keep challenging myself, and I think I can do it. Well, he didn't argue with me. He said, "Okay." I was definitely a tempest in a teapot before I calmed down and talked with him. And learned how to talk to him. I had to learn to talk to Merce as a person instead of just as my mentor, my idol. That was a changing point. And I had to do the same thing about Second Hand. People liked How To, people said to Merce, "Isn't it great?" Then he could begin to start to believe it. Instead of just think back to what it was like and how it reflects on him. I'm not sure how he was thinking about it, but it got enough of a good response that I think that was when he finally trusted me. I never have any idea how he felt about me to be perfectly honest. Except that he started to show his appreciation more. Maybe it was both ways, he was showing his appreciation more and I was being more forthcoming. I don't know. It was a slow evolution. Because I hadn't even been to his apartment until 2000 or something. In 20 years, I'd never been to his place. I think it was only because of Trevor [Carlson, executive director of the Cunningham company] that I actually went there. 

He set that up?
He probably did. I said, "I've never been to his place." He said, "You haven't?" Because Trevor had become company manager around 1998, so he was spending a lot of time with Merce, helping him and taking care of him. It was this kind of process. It was slow. At least I thought it was slow, because I was very respectful. Always. With what I said, how I said it to Merce—how I came to approach him. Very paternal. Old-fashioned paternal.

I'd like you to talk about performing Cunningham's Quartet.
What happened was a couple years ago Donald Byrd asked for Quartet for his company in Seattle. For himself to dance the part. We basically said, "I don't think so." But anyway, we gave his group Landrover. After Merce passed away, I suggested [Quartet] for the Legacy Tour. Nobody knew anything about it, really. Except for David Vaughan—for people who had seen it, it made an indelible imprint in our lives. As it did for me watching it. Now, I knew it was a risk, not because of getting the choreography, even though we had not very good footage. Carol Teitelbaum had been in the piece. Not in the original, but shortly after that in 1987. She did it a couple of times. I was gonna do the reconstruction and said, "Look Carol, I want you to help with the reconstruction." So she actually basically did it, except for Merce's parts, which I did myself. That was a relief to me to have. On many occasions, I've asked people to do these reconstructions so I don't have to do every one. It's really too much. But I knew doing Merce's part was a big risk because people remembered him especially doing it. Also because of the content of the piece. 

How so? 
That it's depressing. It's heavy. It's not that I didn't think—I knew I was capable of doing it, but you never know until you're out there on the stage. There was a reaction against it when we first started doing it—people were upset. I heard people were upset that this was being done or that I was portraying Merce, that I was mimicking him. [Sighs] I was working very closely with his mannerisms, but the piece has mannerisms anyway. There's hardly any real movement. It's very gestural, but you have to go deep in the body, in the legs, and I knew I could do this. 

You were going back to your own dramatic roots. 
I was going back to my roots. And I knew how to make weight on the floor. After we did it at the Joyce, we waited a month and did it in France, and by that time it became really my own. Even over the seven performances, it changed. I think it changed. 

At the Joyce? 
Yes. That's how it should happen. It was something I felt very deeply about. I have lots of things I could use about that—being older, and also everything that was going on around here was, of course, upsetting to me. So to be isolated, to feel in isolation was not difficult. It was not really a stretch. I was able to use that, and I had people giving me tips or making comments to me. There's one woman in France who is a wonderful person, but can really be too much. She always had something to say to me about it. Right after the performance even. You know, you come out of the theater and she'd already say something: "Well, you didn't do this and da, da, da!" I'd go, Ahhh [Moans]—wait a second! I can't take it. I'd try to listen. I'd listen and listen and then I would really take it in and try to use it. I mean you need it. 

Yes. You need someone to be able to tell you [something] from another angle. So I took it. Because no one else was really giving me—Carol could give me a few notes about this and that, but...she went into the steps or the timing or where my focus was, but not so much into the internal things.


But it crystallized that idea of isolation—it was chilling to watch. 
And I tell you, it's actually disturbing to do it. When we went to Nimes, we did it, and then we did Sounddance afterwards. It was like absolutely schizo—crazy. It was good to, you know, get out of it. But definitely it was depressing. I would come up out after that and sit on the side and watch Antic Meet, and all I would do is just record the laughter. How many times people would laugh. If it was a chuckle, if it was a guffaw, because I just had to giggle myself. So this is a culmination. I took a chance, I took a risk. I thought people should see it. 

Especially now.
Because of the death?

Well, because of the death and the Legacy Tour.
Oh yeah. The endgame. Yeah, well, I'll tell you, when we did Second Hand, I started to feel queasy about it, because Merce was deteriorating. And this piece really was about saying goodbye. Second Hand really is about that. And of course even when we were doing it—I brought Sandy [Sandra Neels] up to do it. Again, we worked in the workshop with the students, with the RUGs, and then we transferred it. We did it without the music. We didn't know what the cues were yet, we were just trying to get the movement. But the piece definitely spoke to me, even without music. You could see the melancholy in the dance, and that was sublime to me. I thought, Oh my God, people have to see this. I mean, granted, it's a vehicle for me; I'm glad I have it, and the solo is quite amazing. [Pauses] I'm lucky. I'm still here. Work is there. Take advantage of it and do it, because this should be seen. I don't know if you went to the memorial [for Cunningham at the Park Avenue Armory]. I said, "It has to start with that section." That's Merce saying goodbye to all his disciples. And I'm glad we did it. We're not going to do it at the end at all. 


No way. It's going to be totally different. We're not going to do any of the old things we usually do. No "fast dance" [from Scramble]. We're not going to do what we've been doing. We're going to do a lot of new stuff. Well, we'll do some old stuff, too. I mean, it's all old, but we'll do some stuff that people haven't done. Everybody will have new things to do. 

Can you talk about what's happening with the school?
There were issues. It's a complicated situation because I'm both an employee of the Foundation and I'm also on the Merce Cunningham Trust, and their mandate did not include staying at Westbeth. My desire and initial goal was to stay there. I was permitted to try to find a way to do that, but I was unsuccessful. The logical thing was to try to create a relationship with a university. I wrote to different universities, trying to interest them in becoming our partner here at Westbeth. There was some interest in terms of Merce's legacy, but the logistics were difficult for them financially. Then I spoke to administrators of Trisha Brown's company and of the Jos Limn company. Each company has a similar problem. They have their office in one place, classes in another place and rehearsals in yet another. Unfortunately, everybody wants and needs the same hours. Trisha Brown's company was interested to rent by the hour, but neither group has the money to really finance this entire operation. It's quite expensive. 

What happened?
I was in my office at Westbeth working late one night, and one of the students at the front desk asked, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm writing letters to people at universities to try to create a partnership." She had heard a rumor that the training programs at the studio were going to come to an end. And I told her that the Foundation had planned to discontinue them as part of their timetable for closure. And then she told the other students, and they organized  a committee, Students for Cunningham. They petitioned the Trust to create a Merce Cunningham Center at Westbeth, and they assembled 4,500 signatures. The students had prepared a huge book of all the signatures and all the letters they had received in support and presented it to the Trust. The Trust responded that it welcomed the students' efforts, but that it hadn't the resources to finance the Studio at Westbeth in a way that the Foundation had operated while Merce was alive and there was a company. I understand why they are closing the company and the Studio. There are definitely financial reasons for doing so, and there could be artistic reasons for doing it, too. I think without Merce being here, we definitely lack something. Without his new work and the financial support that came with that, there was bound to be difficulty. But, in the meantime, we have maintained his spirit and his dances pretty well. Even though for the last years of his life Merce was unable to tour and to participate fully in all aspects of the daily rehearsals, he was still present and motivated to make his dances. So, I understand that without him the Legacy Plan had to be implemented. Merce loved to come to his studio. He was dedicated to teaching his technique, even though he sometimes remarked that he hated doing so. It was a very important part of his life. The process of working every day, training dancers and creating work with them was part of his life. It's a dancer's life. So I'm sure he was conflicted in some way as to what would happen when he was no longer with us. 

So it made sense that he did agree with what the Board and the administration had come up with, which was an earthshaking, precedent-setting idea. But, it created a lot more interest in Merce's work. I have to say that the Foundation has done a great job implementing the Legacy Plan. Throughout all this, I continued to work to try to maintain Westbeth. I tried to interest film people in it, to turn it into a center for film dance—a Silvercup of dance. [Laughs] It was a great idea, but it didn't go anywhere. Eventually I just wore out. Trish Lent took up the mantle and wrote a terrific proposal for [creating a] Merce Cunningham Center that would not necessarily have to be at Westbeth, but we realized it, too, would always have a shortfall financially. We made a budget; we tried to imagine that we would have higher enrollment and that we would create more income from the rentals and this and that, but it still would be financially risky. It would basically require the formation of another nonprofit organization. and that would require a Board and fund-raising. It would require all those things that we're stopping. It's ironic, because the company looks great now. In terms of working together it's one of the better ones of all the companies I've been in. The dancers are terrific. And you know, somehow we have kept our focus together and Merce's spirit alive. I feel fortunate that I'll continue to be employed and be able to go on sharing Merce's work. It will be very different though, because I won't have a dance company to be part of and, for the last years, lead anymore. But, I am looking forward to find other things to do with the work and to continue to teach it. Also, I'll be doing projects—licensing projects, staging pieces and teaching people to do what I do. For the past year, I have had an assistant, Jennifer Goggans, and we will continue working together to teach Merce's technique and his dances. To be quite honest, I'm concerned because I'm not young anymore. I'm 61 now. Can I continue to do this? How long am I going to last? This is a tremendous legacy. The only reason I came into it was because I wanted to. I was interested in it. And then Merce gave me an opportunity. 

For you, this is a fulfillment and not sacrifice? 
Definitely. I don't know if this kind of devotion to one approach is possible in the society we live in nowadays. People are interested in many other things. And Merce isn't here anymore, and I'm not Merce. But there's a trove, a treasure that he has left behind, and there's still plenty to learn from and with it. It's not just about learning the work. There's also a process to build on in order to accomplish it. The way we work here is that we all share an experience with the training that Merce provided; we all work together as a community. When I give the steps to the dancers, I try to give it to them in a way that allows their freedom. I don't want to give it to them and say, "Well, this is it, and it has to be this way only." That's not how we were accustomed to working with Merce. There's a big openness, and to create that can be difficult. When you give the steps to someone the first time and you demonstrate it, it can appear to be almost finite. That initial impression sticks in their head. But it's actually more intangible than that, and we need to provide room for that to develop. That's what I'd like to be able to maintain—that kind of approach. My real concern is to provide a means for enough people to do it, so that it inspires somebody, another person like me who wants and needs to do it no matter what. 

You have to find another you.
Or you have to find a person that has that need. Or can find the fulfillment in it. I hope it's possible. Another opportunity has presented itself in the form of the classes we will hold at the City Center studio starting in April. It's a fresh start, or as Merce would say, "We begin again."

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