Holley goes lightly

Merce Cunningham dancer Holley Farmer reflects on her career.

INNER STRENGTH Farmer, with Daniel Squire, performs Split Sides.

INNER STRENGTH Farmer, with Daniel Squire, performs Split Sides. Photo: Tony Doughtery

Holley Farmer began dancing late—at 16—in Fresno, California. That may be part of the reason she never looks bored onstage; the jubilance of performance has never left her body. Now she finds herself in an awkward and unenviable position: As one of three dancers whose contract will not be renewed at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (the reason is claimed to be artistic rather than financial), she is in the midst of her final shows. Next week, Farmer appears with the group at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; at the end of the month the company performs in Madrid; and, finally in May, she wraps up her Cunninghham career at Dia: Beacon. With her crop of red hair and magnificent control, Farmer has been one of the Cunningham company’s brightest beams of light since she joined in 1997. The impending departure—of not only Farmer, but Daniel Squire and Koji Mizuta as well—has come as a shock. With the same thoughtful elegance that defines her dancing, Farmer, while on tour in Paris, spoke about her work.

Time Out New York: How did you discover dance?
Hollley Farmer: It was very related to my family. My mother was in the USO as a young girl. She was living in Los Angeles and working for a bank during the week, and then on the weekends she would do two evenings of performing and entertaining the troops.

No way.
Yeah. [Laughs] It’s the classic story of her getting to the point, professionally, where she had a great opportunity and then basically met this hot guy in L.A. and wanted to get married instead. [Laughs] So during all of my growing up, she was very encouraging of dance for her daughters. I have three older sisters who got their rounds of dance training. However, my oldest sister was on the brink of doing really well—she was only about 13 by then, and my mom was sick of dragging her to dance. She finally said, “If you want to take class again, you need to ask me to.” And my older sister never asked again. That was the end of it.

That was sort of the policy afterward: If you wanted to take dance, you had to ask and be motivated to do it yourself. So I spent my childhood playing with leftover costumes and dancing around the living room. And really enjoying the play-making part of it: that you could put on a costume and have a whole scenario for an afternoon with your sisters and just go crazy. But I didn’t ask for dance lessons until I got my learning permit. I was 15. Basically, I started taking classes when I was 16 and could drive myself.

My parents were very hard workers; they had a fish-and-chips restaurant and worked 12 hours a day; there just wasn’t enough time in the day. And I was interested in a lot of other things too. I was always very physically precocious, very curious. I had done some gymnastics. It got to a point of being very serious, and I realized I was not happy being an exhausted, competitive person. I quit gymnastics at the point where I would have had to move out of town to be specially trained and all of that stuff. It didn’t make sense to me.

When did you stop?
I was 12. And then I had a great time just climbing trees for four years. I did Highland dancing when I got to high school; basically within three months, my calves had doubled in size. [Laughs] You spend the whole time jumping on demi-pointe! They said, “Take ballet because it will help your Highland dancing,” so I took a ballet class and ended up having the best teacher in Fresno, California, and she immediately started steering me in the right direction and allowing me to take as many classes as I wanted. That’s probably why I’m a dancer.

How do you mean?
I felt like any limitation in terms of money, which was the first, and then time, which was the second, was gone. One summer, she gave me the keys to the studio and I got to go in and work on things that were bothering me—to figure out for myself why I liked to do what I liked to do or why certain things were impossible still. Just being an older dancer in that sense—being self-motivated and realizing it was a privilege—got me going.

Who was your teacher? What is her background?
Her name was Hae Shik Kim. She was a professional dancer with Stuttgart Ballet and with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Her husband, who was Korean, saw her performing in New York—she was doing a ballet of Tommy and was playing the Acid Queen. Her husband basically proposed very quickly. He was a mushroom specialist; we have two things in Fresno, California: agriculture and football. He was at the top of his field for the mushroom professorship and so he took her to Fresno and she retired. There she was, working with the same kind of professional vigor she always had and finding students. She created quite a few professional dancers just by having a very rigorous class and being and exceptional example of discipline and beauty. She was an extremely inspiring dancer.

How was she a generous teacher?
She really enjoyed seeing other dancers develop. I loved the fact that she made her own leotards, that she always had five scarves on and beautiful makeup and that her only cure for Achilles tendonitis was to wear high heels when she taught at barre. [Laughs] I mean, we wanted to be like her. So there was an element of Hae Shik performing at the same time she was teaching. When she saw something in someone, she had a way of almost digging into your body with her little fingers and saying, “This is what needs to happen.” She taught very, very hard classes that were at least two hours long. And she would find a way to teach us variations even though we didn’t know we were learning variations. Her own choreography was very exciting. So the location for all of this training happened in the now-defunct studios at Fresno State, and that’s why she was able to give me those keys and the security guard would make sure I was okay.

How did you find her?
She was associated with Fig Garden Dance Studio, which was where I had my first class. Once I had her as a teacher, I realized that I just needed to be wherever she was. Before college, I had a good two-and-a-half years of training, plus summers, with her. She let me set my own pace. The day I learned how to pirouette was the day I learned how to do fouett turns. [Laughs] She let me go en pointe in six months. I always laugh at that because my girlfriends talk about their first pair of pointe shoes and I’m like, “I can still kind of wear my first pair of pointe shoes.” I was full grown! My skin never did well, but I could handle it. My alignment was okay for it.

One day she called me and said, “There is a dance company from Canada, and I used to work with the ballet mistress.” My teacher had performed with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and she said, “You should get your pointe shoes and come to the stage right now.” I grabbed my pointe shoes, drove over and took company class. The artistic director was not traveling with them, but the next day they said if I wanted to, I could go to Ottawa and be seen by him. I, again, didn’t have money to do that, so I ended up writing letters to people in Fresno who were in the dance community and basically authored my own scholarship. I got together $500 or so and bought a one-way ticket to Ottawa, Canada, and packed enough dance clothes for a week, but not a winter coat. [Laughs] And then I was in the company. It was small company and it no longer exists, but it was such an amazing training ground. It was a chamber ballet company.

What was it called?
Theatre Ballet of Canada. Lawrence Gradus was the artistic director. We had Antony Tudor’s Continuo, and we had some things that Lawrence had choreographed himself, which were quite nice, and we had stuff from emerging modern Canadian choreographers who were curious to work with ballet dancers. At that point, I had never done more than two hours of pointe a day in my life, and it was literally a seven-hour rehearsal day, every day. In two months I basically had to rebuild myself physically. I had been broken down and rebuilt. It was such a different lifestyle for me. I toured with them for the year. We did 60 performances—we went to Amsterdam and the Hague and all over Canada and Buffalo, New York. I came back and there was an audition for Phantom of the Opera. I went with a friend of mine to keep her company, and I got hired for that.

This was in Canada?
In Toronto. I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and did Phantom for two years. I was such a fiend for performing. I knew I had no right to be in a ballet company. I felt I was learning how to do things at the same time as I was doing them. I didn’t have a classical mind-set. It was arbitrary to me: Why is this first arabesque and why is this second? That kind of deep breeding of starting when you’re really young—I was literally learning choreography and the classical system at the same time. During Phantom, I got to the point where I felt like I would not be a good dancer if I stayed there because we were doing the same choreography every night. It did teach me a lot about how to maintain my health and consistency. We performed eight shows a week, and there was only one week off a year. It was hard work.

I wanted to go back to California to be with my family. I auditioned for Oakland Ballet and, very casually, was accepted. I worked there for about two months and then I realized that this nagging pain I’d had when I first got in the company was not going away, and I had to get an MRI. They found out that I had stress fractures in my fifth lumbar vertebra. It was not stable, so I had to quit; it wasn’t really quitting, though. It was more like a series of physical therapies and trying to get back, but it just did not improve. So, I decided to finish my degree at that point.

When had you started your degree?
In order to be in Hae Shik’s classes at Fresno State, I was a real student as well. My core requirements were completed by the time I left. I was not a priority-one student at Fresno State, but I had enough units so that when I went to Cornish College, I basically did two years of work in one year. I was funded through workers compensation because of my injury, and I only had funding one year so I just packed it all in.

What did you study?
I did a B.F.A. in dance [at Cornish College of the Arts] and then went directly into the M.F.A. program at the University of Washington. I had taken so much kinesiology that I felt healthier and healthier. There was a chamber-dance company that I was able to do some work with as part of the grad school stipend—we worked at the company and as teachers in the department—and after two years I felt very strong. During my last week of grad school, Merce had a residency at the University of Washington and I took three days of that class. Meg Harper, who was in the company for many years, approached me and said, “You are the type of dancer that Merce is looking for right now. It’s anybody’s guess what happens when you get there, but have you been to New York lately? Are you interested in going there?”

Were you?
I had just turned 30 and I thought, Well, if I have not been there yet as a working dancer, now’s the time. I was married at the time and my husband agreed to come with me. I flew over and he drove a truck, and I started classes the next day. Merce and the company were on tour at the time and when he came back he saw me and hired me for the understudy position. I worked with the understudy group for ten months, and when a woman left the company, Merce hired me then.

What did Meg mean? What kind of dancer was Cunningham after?
I’m not sure. But Meg has a very spiritual side to her and she looked very deeply into my eyes when she said it. I know now that I could trust her implicitly. I don’t know why I trusted her then, but the way that she taught and the way class felt for me, there was something that I could call a discovery. I have never had to sustain movement like that before and, for me, having 120 percent of my concentration required for a given movement felt almost like a quiet ecstasy. I felt like a Tibetan bell was ringing and that I was free in some way. All she had to do was say that to me and I was like, “Okay.” I wanted more.

What did you learn in the Repertory Understudy Group?
I learned a lot. The group, then, was doing roles that, in some way, are harder than those I do now. There’s no hierarchy at all. It was when they were first trying to get the group to perform. Robert Swinston just chose the cream of event material that existed then. In the company, I think there’s an unspoken kind of syllabus—I don’t know if Robert follows it or the teachers instinctively do, but when RUGs go in, they start with Changing Steps material and certain solos. Signals is often used. They’re all about taking a very strong base and using a torso and learning how to cue off each other.I also performed Septet. It had humor in it and alertness and a lot of relev and moving the torso and being calm about it. I only got to do one performance of that—it was at the High School of Performing Arts. But it was such a great learning experience. Also [former company member] Viola Farber attended. I was so clueless; I thought Merce would have been there, and I was nervous about that. Of course Merce wouldn’t be there! But after the show Viola approached me. She had a very grave way of saying her mind and she said something to me that made me feel it was okay to do this work. I felt I had gotten her approval that night. Ever since, especially when I do Crises... [Her voice chokes up.] I just think that she still approves.

Did you get into the company shortly after that?
Yes. That’s why I only got to perform it once. The woman I replaced was China Laudisio. The company was in Prague, and it was unusual that someone would resign while the company was on tour, but I guess she just decided that it was time for her. She informed Merce, and I got a phone call saying that I was in the company. It wasn’t, “Do you want to be in the company?” I remember Robert saying, “So, you’re in the company,” which now I appreciate. I immediately began to work on those parts, and when she got home we only had seven days together to transfer her material to me. That’s unheard of now. People are lined up months in advance. My premiere was at BAM and my New York swan song, in terms of Merce’s newer piece, will be at BAM too. I’m happy to be able to perform there in New York City again.

What were you performing in the beginning? What stood out?
Scenario. Merce began the piece with China and then halfway through, I was in the piece. I had been in the room when he was creating it, so I knew a lot of the material already. He continued choreographing on me a little bit after that. Scenario was such an event in terms of the collaborative aspect of the company. It seemed so grand to me that Rei Kawakubo and her team came in the studio one day. They had some mock-ups of the costumes. The only question that was asked was, “Is it possible to move with these big down pillows?”

There are times when Merce’s eyes absolutely blaze with excitement and that was definitely one afternoon that stood out in my mind. They were at the front of the room watching us move around. There were some problems, of course—there were some long skirts that had to be accommodated and if you curve into a down pillow you can’t breathe very well.

When we premiered it at BAM, that’s when we heard the music. Takehisa Kosugi did this amazing score that was just otherworldly, and with the white floor and the florescent lighting on top, it just seemed like I had landed in the middle of the most refined and crazy environment. I remember that I received a criticism for smiling and I can see why, but I was enchanted. On a sensory level, I was seeing things I’d never seen before.

What did you wear?
We had two or three costumes. I wore these little biker shorts with bare legs and a sleeveless tunic that had a stomach-shaped lump in the front. My dear friend Maydelle [Fason] wore one—her arm went through a giant inner tube and it also went into the front of her body. She was very valiant in her curving and arching with that on. That night, Scenario wasn’t first on the program; we also did Events, and we literally entered the stage by leap-frogging over each other. I almost bit the dust because I was so excited. My hips went up too high over my head and I almost just ate it. [Laughs] That was my first official moment onstage in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I was very excited.

From there, we just started the cycle of Merce creating dances and the experience of coming to France every year and other European countries and domestic touring. We were doing Berkeley every year at that point, and we usually had a New York performance for the first five or six years. We did Lincoln Center and the Joyce and City Center. Merce made Scenario; he made Pond Way, which we did at Paris Opera—it was so exciting—and Biped. The first day of rehearsing it with the lights and the costumes was pretty intense. Maydelle and I cried. When newer dancers come into that, it’s like clockwork: Everyone cries because you can’t see anything and the material is very technically challenging and you’re doing it in the dark sometimes or all of a sudden there’s a light in your face and you don’t know where it’s coming from.

Why were you crying?
Because you realize that you’re probably going to be fighting for your life onstage instead of the other things that you try to do.

I just had to make sure it wasn’t joyful crying.
[Laughs] No. It’s a stress response. Now I’ve learned that it may take a while for those feelings to pass, but they do pass. Even right now, I’m performing Suite for Five and there is such stillness and control in it; the movement is very simple, but you’re very exposed and there can be a panic response related to that. Here in Paris, I performed it last night and there was a very serene feeling. It’s maybe because of knowing I only have it to perform once more. I guess the act of letting go in performance is the highest achievement: When you let go of what you think should be happening, you just can be fully present for what is happening. And then the fear goes away.

I was wondering how it feels for you to be performing these dances right now.
Well, I think that I have had a very hard time dancing in front of Merce since this happened simply because I realize how vulnerable I am. Like an intimacy with someone after the relationship has broken off, it doesn’t feel safe. I’m very aware of not wanting to become distracted or injured, so in the studio I try to be focused to the point where I’m asking myself, “Okay, why am I doing this right now? I’m doing this because I’m going to be performing it soon and I need to be clear and I need to be strong when the performance comes.” So it’s the first time I’m not dancing for Merce’s eyes.

Performing the dances and having my last time or two with them is intensely rewarding. I’ve never saved anything during pieces, and now I find there is more there still. Seeing the faces of my friends onstage, the unexpected sounds from the pit, the feel of my legs and lungs. I’ve collected many images, but this week’s are somewhere else in time. Also, this week, every day off from performing I’ve been teaching my roles. This is part of it too.

Someone asked me the other day, “You’ve always danced for yourself, right Holley?” And I think that’s absolutely true, especially for the performing experience—you can’t really think of who’s watching. I’ve always tried to remain focused on what I’m doing. So now these performances for me are the same as they ever were and yet there are, I feel, a thousand things. What does a dancer always want? You want to have accomplished the best in every second and if it doesn’t happen, how do you feel about that if you’re saying goodbye to a dance? It’s been amazing, the last two or three dances that I’ve said goodbye to in the last month: There is closure. Your relationship with that dance hasn’t ended just because you’re not doing it. It’s not defined by the last time you’ve done it. It’s defined by having done it and having always done it as well as you could.

Could you talk about Nearly Ninety, which is what you’re dancing in New York?
Yeah. If I wasn’t told that I was not going to continue with the company, I would know it after Merce finished the dance. [Laughs] Actually, that’s usually the way it happens in the company. That’s how the dancers learn that the trajectory has completed itself. I’ve been on the lookout for that. I was cast in a major reconstruction six months ago, and it was something that I absolutely relished; it was the Second Hand role that Carolyn Brown did. I went back to ballet to get some of the momentum behind the movements they had back then and just had a lovely time performing it. I think that threw me off the trail of Merce’s thinking that he wasn’t going to utilize me anymore.

In the newer piece, I’m involved in certain short, intense sections and then basically my involvement stops. And for me, actually, that process was wonderful because I was seeing the company in a way that I could step back and evaluate it without myself in the mixture. I had a few weeks of that, where I wasn’t seeing that this was an end that was negative—I was seeing, Oh, this is the role I have to play now and maybe it will allow me to open my eyes more, to not just see my own working in the system but to see the system. We don’t get to do that in this company. We all have such difficult tasks that we need to work on with each other and ourselves and to sit in the front even is rarely done if you’re in a piece. It’s almost against our tradition. But I’ve been able to see things from the front a little bit now and it’s been very valuable. I think that performing this piece at BAM and in Madrid is going to be a journey for me, psychologically: of being a spectator, being an appreciator and also feeling privileged that I am involved.

Why? Because you can see so clearly?
Well, just because I know what it has taken each of us. I was thinking this today: For every step we do onstage, we have to do two during the rehearsal day off. Merce never allows us onstage unless we’ve already run the program. So we’re all capable of 200 percent of what the audience sees, and I think if I can get ten steps in a Merce dance, it’s pretty special. [Laughs] And even though, for me, I have so enjoyed these challenges that seem absolutely impossible, I’ve never lost sight of the fact that if you just appear you get to consider yourself having done a job very well.

Would you talk about Loose Time? That’s a part you’re famous for.
Yeah. The minute and 20 seconds that changed my life. [Laughs] It was funny because I saw the film of it for the first time on Mondays with Merce, and it was so difficult to watch that because I had a torn peroneal tendon when that was shot. I just was like, Oh God is that the version that’s out there now? I knew it was too slow and I knew that I couldn’t jump as well as I needed to, but when the film project was going, I felt like if Merce didn’t mind then I didn’t mind. It’s funny because the presenter [in Paris] for the Biennale requested that I do that solo every night and I am having such a blast with it!

Seeing that film actually helped me to reboot. Merce has not given me technical corrections for that solo. And we don’t face the mirror anymore. I haven’t faced the mirror in about seven years, so I literally do not have that mind’s eye that a lot of dancers do from working with a mirror and working with someone who is providing the kind of specific corrections that a lot of dancers get. So when I saw the film, I thought, Okay, I can do this and that, and I’ve enjoyed working on it this time around.

What corrections does Cunningham give you?
This is one of his genius traits if you ask me. He’s able to speak in terms of what exists and not in terms of what does not exist. He rarely will say, “Don’t do this.” And when you’re training in dance, that’s what you hear all the time. He will say, “Do this, or do this,” and when we first come to the studio, we almost want to clarify: “You mean don’t do this and do this instead?” But that kind of conversation just doesn’t even happen. Not at all. Even if you start a sentence like that, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. Because you’re always concentrating on what is it, not what is it not.

For me, on Loose Time, he once told me, “Look up.” And of course I thought I was looking up! I guess I wasn’t. Or it seems to me that the word that comes up most when he is correcting is about clarity. He will ask is, “Is it clear?” It’s almost like a Socratic dialogue and if it’s not clear, you ask a question and he’ll answer it in the affirmative on some level, and if it’s still not clear you ask another question. But I have to say, let’s not confuse this: The time spent on that sort of thing is very limited. And questions are not the name of the game. Activity and doing the dance is 95 percent of our focus. We run the dances and we run sections—we run things. And we’ll spend five or ten minutes on the corrections, if there are any. So much of it is related to time. Merce refers to the clock to kind of be that diagnosis of what’s awry if there is something awry.

Do you like that way of working?
I feel like it makes you excel, hopefully, at self-correction because there is so little conversation about how to do something. It’s just more about what is being done, so as the dancer, if you’re interested in the dynamic or quality of something, you have to research that in your own time. I feel that I have become a very good coach for myself, realizing the limitation of that without the mirror, realizing that at the end of the day I’m exhausted but also realizing that I have to get that information for myself. If I need help, I can ask for it from other dancers.

In an extreme case I will ask Merce about a problem that I haven’t been able to solve, and he will make a recommendation. Any company is an organism that functions together and we all have different opinions and thousands of inclinations, and if we had the opportunity to voice one a day it would be less productive. I think that more often than not doing something solves the problem and when it doesn’t, we learn something that was essential. It wasn’t that we learned what someone feels like doing that day: We learned something that was essential to the choreography that had to be addressed.

Coming from grad school where everything was spoken—there were so many words in the dance studio, from the students and myself or the professors. I feel like we talked so much more than we needed to talk, and I have learned so much just by doing. And even though it can be frustrating and you are used to processing information in that way and you miss it, what it achieves in the company in terms of our physical intelligence with each other is really extraordinary.

What other dancers, former or present, do you go to before asking Cunningham?
Robert is ever-present and very open to questions like that, but also, as an artist, his language tends to reflect Merce’s when we’re all together in the room. I’ve really enjoyed every time a new piece has been set; working with former company members has been so eye-opening to me. Presently, Trish Lent has been in the studio helping us with some things and that has been so satisfying. She has a very keen perception of the work and is able to understand the various systems within it and keep in mind the larger ideas. And she also has a wicked sense of humor, which I rely on a lot. I’m very grateful to her and her presence.

What is she working on?
She’s keeping an eye out. I think they want her to be involved; she came in first on our last session of work and set some sections of Enter on us with the intention of them being used for Event material. We worked for over a week on it, and Merce was just like—I never know what he’s thinking, but it just seemed like he was, “Been there, done that.” We didn’t actually end up incorporating it into Events, but we did show it for part of “History Matters.” She had the notes, she took the time to do the video research and she taught us our parts and it was a wonderful setting. I think she’s working on trying to create something to do with a legacy project: trying to find people who worked with Merce and to get their statements about the dances they did do.

What have been other dances that have stood out to you?
I have to say that they always have stood out to me—and maybe that’s my problem! [Laughs] I have always felt that any time you’re onstage, it is extraordinary. When I was first given soloist roles, I didn’t consider them soloist roles. I was like, “No wait, this is the first duet before the next duet.” It’s being there longer and longer and hearing how people categorize things that has made me feel like, Oh, that was pivotal to me as a performer. I got to do RainForest. And the reconstruction of How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run—that was also very important. I got to dance with Robert, and Merce was performing the score at the front of the stage with David Vaughan. That was stunning to be able to do that. Crises, of course, was amazing, and Second Hand was wonderful to do. But I think, in the newer pieces, Loose Time was the first time I worked alone with Merce and at a certain point realized it was a solo and felt that special place that we’re lucky if we get to feel—of trust and facility of speaking his language physically, being able to manifest what he says, and to feel a sense of delight from him and for him. That experience was a pleasure almost on an indulgent scale for me. And knowing how rare it is, every time I do the dance, I savor it. Because when you’ve gotten [the material] directly from Merce, and it is a solo that he has allowed choices within? Wow! That’s when you feel like a creative being entirely. Not on the scale that the collaborators are, but as a dancer who has choices to make—you want it to be as superb as you can be.

How did your parts develop after that?
I had Fluid Canvas and some really great dancing. Some really fast trios; in Split Sides, the duet with Daniel [Squire], which was another experience of Merce seeing how far we could go and trusting us with what would happen. And I think those were my times in the sun, and then after that I started being put in parts that were...the RUGs were very involved at that point, and I felt that I was learning the RUG roles. We all were and those were more generic to me. I could look at a section and ask, What is the challenge? It’s fast. It’s all petit allegro. All petit allegro, all the time. And it’s interacting very quickly with other people. So my parts after that were pretty much about short spurts. Energy in small groups. It was funny because I felt that I was at this point getting the teenage roles. That felt ironic to me. But at the same time that Merce wanted me to do them, I felt fine doing them.

It seems like it’s become more advantageous for dancers to be in the RUGs than in the company.
You’re absolutely right. I would say, as dancers, we want to work with Merce, and the company no longer has that direct relationship on such a level as the RUGs do. And I have felt that newest challenge for me and the last challenge, frankly, on a large scale was, How do I get onstage without Merce’s voice? So many of the phrases I’ve learned from Merce, I can still hear him: I know, “And one and two and one.” [Laughs] It doesn’t go out of your mind when Merce teaches it; there’s something that you know you have to hold onto. It’s imperative. And when I am taught by RUGs, I always feel that I have question marks in my mind of what was actually said in the room, how Merce described it to them and what the choices were. I realized I’m already getting secondhand information and so as a dancer I’m not as sure of it. The challenge is performing that. I don’t have the same sense of completeness when I perform those roles.

Was there ever an instance, as a dancer, when you felt everything came together in a performance? That it was close to perfection?
I’ve never had anything perfect happen in performance. One of my most challenging seasons was Lincoln Center 2002. The night before it all began, I wrote to myself, “It won’t be perfect, it will be human.” I had a difficult part to do in Suite for Five and didn’t have a lighting rehearsal. In the beginning of the dance, the woman stands upstage right on one leg in arabesque and sways like a weather vane. Difficult in lights, difficult without lights. When I stood there, seeing everyone in front of me, the huge house, having yet to interpret this dance, the funniest thing happened: Instead of feeling stress, or tightening up, a song came into my head. While I was hearing the spare Cage score, I also heard Leonard Cohen. “Like a bird...on a wire I have tried, in my way to be....” And there, I was, able to dance fully and so aware of everything.

What will you do after Cunningham?
I feel I want to continue dancing for a little while. I think I have an idea—not where, just what. What is maybe the opposite of Merce. Doing something that requires a whole different set of skills would be very interesting to me. And I started teaching at the studio last year. It wasn’t because I was considering retiring, it was because I feel that, for so many years, I’ve been the recipient of such an awful lot of valuable information and I feel like I was constipated with it. This metabolic cycle has to reach its conclusion on some level. And I wanted to start learning how to articulate things to students, and watching other bodies and having that curve start to happen. That’s also what I’m interested in doing.

So the future is up in the air?
I really want it to be. I think that there may be some unexpected things if I don’t become fixed on certain ideas. I think if you look at agriculture, fields have to be fallow for a little while before they can produce a healthy crop. And the next thing I do, I don’t want it to be a response, I want it to be a natural progression—as far as that’s possible in this economy.

Have you spoken to former dancers about all of this?
I think the violent way in which things happened inspired people to rush in—almost, I feel, like the way an immediate friend would counsel you if you’re in grief. And the people I’ve had long working relationships with—every single one of them—have been encouraging to me at a time when I’ve needed it. I’m so grateful and so aware of how I’ve relied on that the last few weeks, to help me to dance.

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