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Bessie Nominee Profile: Lawrence Cassella

By Helen Shaw
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For the next two weeks, we'll be counting down to the Bessie Awards—also known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards—by talking to the 15 performance nominees. This year, the nominators have honored a remarkably diverse group, one that manages to span the spectrum from trance dancers to flamenco performers, from longtime legends to exciting new faces. We'll be posting new interviews nearly every day, so be sure to check back to learn about the best New York dance has to offer—and start getting your fanciest duds together for the Bessie Awards at the Apollo Theater on October 19th.

RECOMMENDED: See more on the Bessie Awards

Lawrence Cassella was an enormously witty and giving dancer who was nominated for a 2015 Bessie for Sustained Achievement in the work of Ivy Baldwin. He also worked with choreographers including Netta Yerushalmy, Katie Workum, Karinne Keithley and Doug Varone—but it was his long collaboration and identification with Ivy Baldwin Dance that formed the true core of his career. He died in January at the age of 38; Baldwin did this interview in his stead, describing her long friendship and working relationship with him.

How many years did Lawrence dance with Ivy Baldwin Dance?
10 years.

What was his first show with you?
Now Leaving Vanderville in 2004, when it premiered at the old Dixon Place on Bowery.

How did you first meet?
We met at the Yard at Martha's Vineyard, when I was a choreographer and he was a dancer. There were four choreographers and he was in all three of the other people's work, but we did perform together. It was clear to both of us very early on in that unspoken dance way that we were a perfect match. Performing together, we felt that spark.

As you changed, how did the work together change?
The thing that was amazing about working with him was that we did grow and change together. The work that I made in 2004 was very theatrical, a dance-play with a lot of speaking—and then the work that I made more recently was very different from that…and we were able to go on this journey together. Sometimes you meet someone really great for a work, and when you shift what your interests are, that match doesn't work anymore. But that didn't happen with us.

Can you recall a particularly memorable moment he had in a performance?
I made this solo for him that was the opening of It Could Be Nice at La MaMa, in the Club, and he was only in his tighty-whities. He's on a gold wall, facing away, and one of the first things he does is turn toward the audience and push his pelvis forward. And his parents were in the front row, right in line with his crotch. His dad always teases me about that, the fact that Lawrence turned around and pointed his crotch at his mother.

There are two things, how funny he was as a performer and as a human. He shaped my rehearsals; even if he was exhausted and grumpy, he would have everyone crying laughing. His sense of humor shaped the hours that we spent together. I always had a hard time not cracking up in Bear Crown. We're all lying on the ground, and Lawrence says, “What a lovely bear rug you have.…” That was one of the things that people laughed at the hardest; it was just impossible to look at him.

What was his dance background?
Lawrence didn't start dancing till a year or two into college. He was one of those people who was naturally very physical and very expressive in his body. His body and his face were so unbelievably expressive—he was a really amazing dancer in terms of what he could technically do, but that was less interesting than how expressive he could be.

Did he have a preshow ritual?
I don't think there could be a bigger fan of Tori Amos. He would listen to Tori Amos on his earphones, and he would do a pigeon yoga pose. Yes, we did a whole ballet barre—but basically, he'd do his pigeon pose, listen to Tori and he was ready.

What do you feel was his most unique trait as a performer?
What was amazing was under that ability to be charismatic and riveting, he was just extraordinarily vulnerable as a performer. He was willing to let people see deep deep deep inside him. He was very brave, very fearless. I don't think he ever marked anything in his life; it was like he couldn't hold back. For most of us there's a difference between the studio and onstage, but for him there wasn't a difference. He just gave it all, all the time.

Celebrating Lawrence Cassella from Ivy Baldwin on Vimeo.

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