John Heginbotham talks about his new dance company

Mark Morris veteran John Heginbotham talks about his company's performance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Time Out New York: What did you like about the choreography? 
John Heginbotham:
 The reason I liked the show wasn’t so much because of the dance aspect. The story was very compelling; it was a very intimate, small story told in an intimate way and the music was quite good. It’s very similar to the movie, although I was convinced that there was a reason for this to be onstage. They did new things with it and told the story in a different way, which I will say that the dance aspect of it did help…the choreography is unlike anything else that’s happening on Broadway. It’s very simple, but energetic. I think the choreography is being performed mostly by nondancers. And I detect—I don’t know how the piece was created—that maybe the movement came from the performers themselves, which makes it feel very integrated into what they are physically doing but also in terms of the show, and that’s what I would say: It feels very integrated. It doesn’t feel like we will now stop and do a dance number—it feels like, okay, it’s growing out of what’s supposed to happen. 

Time Out New York: Well, we can return to Broadway later—
John Heginbotham:
 Or we don’t have to. [Laughs] We can go screaming in the opposite direction. 

Time Out New York: So Manhattan Research is episodic. What is your approach? What is your process? 
John Heginbotham:
 My process is that I’m in my apartment or my hotel room if I’m not in New York and I’m listening to music, and then I make something up usually in a small space. But what I will say is that it’s very important that I’m by myself to do this. What it involves is that something very specific will pop into my head—as a movement or as an image. For instance, I have read interviews with Mark Morris or talked to Mark about this, and he’s like, “I do a lot of research, but I walk in without having thought of any stuff,” which I think is incredible. To me, that is so terrifying, but he’s more comfortable in that way. I like to walk in with something very specific prepared, and it doesn’t have to be everything. I don’t have to make up the whole dance in advance, but I prefer to walk in with something that I can say, “Okay, here is the stuff,” and then we all work on it. From there I can play with it and make up something different and new. However, I will say that one of the interesting aspects of having had so much to do this year is that I don’t actually always have that luxury and I have blindly walked into the studio, and it is interesting to have to create something on the spot while people who are standing there staring at you, waiting for something to happen. I’m getting more comfortable. I don’t have to be perfect; I don’t have to be fast. They’re there in the room and it’s okay for me to spend, if I have to, half an hour to create eight counts’ worth of material. Even though I don’t like that, but I’m getting more comfortable with having to do that sometimes, and I think it’s a good skill. The point is I walk in with something and then we start playing around with it and something will happen in the room and will lead somewhere else. Occasionally there will be a dancer suggestion. Actually, there’s a lift, which is the most genius lift that I’ve ever seen in my life that came from one of the dancers. His name is Winston Dynamite Brown, and I was like, “I want to create a lift….” My fantasy is that you could just take your hand and suction-cup the top of your partner’s head and just lift up and the partner would dangle. He came up with the solution, the way that could happen. That’s not exactly it, but his solution is better. So sometimes there’s a fantasy, and you just put it out and then someone else will have a better idea of how to make that happen than me. 

Time Out New York: What is the mood of the piece? 
John Heginbotham:
 The mood is very closely related to the music. It feels like complicated cartoon music sped up beyond the speed it should be played. The electronic sections are very spare and are more about sound. They’re very rhythmically based, but they’re about making electronic sounds; I think he just invented this instrument. He was probably having fun with sounds that cannot be made with a regular acoustic device.

Time Out New York: Is the movement fast?
John Heginbotham:
 The movement is frequently very fast. I have to tell you something that is surprising to me. I’m not a fast guy; I’m more a Rubin Museum kind of person inside. [He gestures around the museum’s café, where the interview is being conducted.] I would say the ratio of very fast dances to slow dances is skewed heavily in the hyperspeed. I would think I would be more Butoh than Irish step dancing, for instance, but that is not how it’s going. Which I’m really happy about, because I know there’s going to come a time at some point in my life where I’m going to run out of steps; I’m going to run out of fast ideas, and I’ll be like, I don’t have to worry about it! I have so much fast stuff. I can just mix it in with all of the super slow stuff that I’m about to make up. 

Time Out New York: What did you like to dance in the Mark Morris Dance Group? 
John Heginbotham:
 The beautiful thing about working with Mark is there’s so much variety. See, here’s the thing: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is probably my favorite piece to dance, because the piece gives you the opportunity to do all of it. It’s so athletic, but then there are some sections that are just…there’s a section called “Weary Age,” which is really, to me, about sunset and old age, and it’s so tender and beautiful and spare, and you get to do all of that. But really my favorite thing to do of Mark’s—and it’s not very physical—is [as Mrs. Stahlbaum in] The Hard Nut. 

Time Out New York: I knew you were going to say that.
John Heginbotham:
 It’s just really fun to wear that costume; it’s fun in a character sense. It’s very rewarding in a character sense. It’s not the most physical dancing I ever did in that company. Behemoth, I loved performing. 

Time Out New York: That’s in silence, right?
John Heginbotham:
 Yes. It’s wild to be inside of it. See, that’s the opposite; that’s the non-Broadway part. You know what? There’s a piece of his that I think is underrated called Dancing Honeymoon. It’s set to popular music; and it was not in the repertory for many years, and we did it at Jacob’s Pillow a couple of years ago and we broke out the video to review and it was like, Oh my God, this piece is a period piece, which is 1930s vaudeville. And it’s much more complicated than it looks. 

Time Out New York: I remember seeing it at the New Victory and really liking it. I don’t think I loved the costumes. How do you feel about costumes in general? 
John Heginbotham:
 I think about them a lot. Luckily my best friend is also the person who designs all of my costumes: Maile Okamura. She has such a huge imagination and also her designs are really elegant, and she’s able to make a lot happen on a very low budget. Or, luckily, now that some nice things are flowing in, I can say, “You actually have more money than you’ve ever had to work with before,” which is great because there are even more possibilities for what she can do with her imagination. It’s also fun to collaborate with her, because we usually have one really big fight when we say awful things to each other and then it still comes out really well. 

Time Out New York: I can’t imagine you and Maile doing that.
John Heginbotham:
 Oh, horrible things. And the first time it happened, I was really like, Oh my God, is our friendship going to end? I’m exaggerating: It doesn’t happen every single time, but it has happened three times now, and we always come out of it alive, but we shouldn’t even have these fights. Here’s the thing: I should just trust her even if I initially think, That’s not the direction that I want to go in. Ultimately, the thing that she does is the right thing. The fight is always because I doubt that. The fight is always because I think they should wear ball gowns instead of unitards. She’s like, No. It’s wrong. [Laughs] And then I go with unitards and she’s right. 

Time Out New York: It must also be great having a costume designer who’s a dancer. 
John Heginbotham:
 Yes, yes. In Twin, which we made up together last year, this was a moment when we did not have a fight about it. We were both like, “Leotards.” But she was like, “Do you know how horrible it is to be a dancer in a leotard? No leotard is ever made well, and it rides up your butt every time.” 

Time Out New York: True. No matter what your body is. 
John Heginbotham:
 Right! You can be Kate Moss or the fattest person in the world, and it’s the same story. She somehow managed to design a leotard that does not do that: a flattering leotard. But because she is a dancer and is frequently in leotards, she knew what was necessary. Luckily, she is also attracted to outlandish concepts, so she’s not conservative in her imagination, but she’s very practical with her execution of the ideas, which is just the best possible combination.

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