Neal Beasley talks about his career with Trisha Brown
The famed dancer talks about working with Trisha Brown, his time in Europe and his own choreographic experiments
Fri Jan 25 2013
Photograph: Laurent Philippe
Life is funny: Neal Beasley grew up on a farm in Mississippi, but the reason he started dancing was Janet Jackson. At the age of six, he memorized the choreography from “Rhythm Nation.” A prodigious talent, Beasley first encountered Trisha Brown’s choreography at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Shortly after, he joined the company, where he remained for four years, before moving to France to become a member of Ballet Preljocaj. In 2010, he rejoined Brown’s group. Now, as part of the company’s current BAM season, Beasley performs I’m going to toss my arms—if you catch them they’re yours and Les Yeux et l’âme. (The works are Brown’s final new dances; over the past few years, she has suffered from health problems.) In February, at Dance New Amsterdam, Beasley will also unveil a premiere of his own: every adam belonging to me. Recently, he spoke about his career.
Time Out New York: Why did you begin dancing?
Neal Beasley: I grew up in Mississippi in a town of 1,400 people on a farm with cows and all that funny stuff. Janet Jackson was the reason I started dancing. At age six, I had memorized all of the “Rhythm Nation” music-video choreography. I learned it by copying the television. I found my way [to dance] because of discipline problems. Let’s say I was unchallenged in my hometown. I ended up going to a magnet school in a different county; I went as an academic major, but it was a performing-arts magnet school, so I found my first dance class and it was suddenly like, Oh! You mean this can be a vocation? I was 11. I started ballet, modern and jazz in that program right away and was also dancing at your average Dolly Dinkle at night doing tap and lyrical. I competed. I did that for about a year.
Time Out New York: I want those videos.
Neal Beasley: Oh my God. They’re hilarious. There’s one of me with glasses and braces and shaggy, weird hair and bad skin in a sequined vest doing an a cappella tap solo in a hotel lobby. Then I went to Idyllwild, a boarding high school for the arts.
Time Out New York: What was it like there?
Neal Beasley: It was magical. It’s a small student population—there are maybe only 250 of us—and very international. I went from culturally homogenous backwoods, feeling misunderstood, to suddenly having awe and reverence and being surrounded by all these people that were all equally passionate about what they were doing. It was all disciplines, which was great. The dance program was probably 35, 40 kids. Eleanor Bauer and I went to high school together; Julian Barnett was there also. There’s a contingent of people who are here and working and still in my life. It was very inspiring. It felt a bit like living in a bubble. It was on the top of a mountain a mile up from Palm Springs, a very enchanted forest with all these kids running down dirt paths to little cottages where you had classes. We went to school six days a week and had academics all morning—six- to eight-hour days of dancing and college-prep homework for hours after that. In retrospect, it was harder than college. That’s where the training got serious, and leaving home at 13 to move halfway across the country is big. But I was grateful. [Laughs] In many ways, that’s what saved my life.
Time Out New York: I think you were just born to dance—you’re so natural it’s crazy. Did anyone in your family dance?
Neal Beasley: No. I come from a musical family, but I was the oddball, truly. I have a very sedentary family even, and I was always the active one doing cartwheels in front of the television. I had done gymnastics before I started dancing. I was born with clubfeet, actually, and had worn a cast the first year of my life so the way I can absorb shock is somewhat limited, and gymnastics was too trying. When I found my outlet, [my family] were all relieved. So no dancers. There was no context for it either. I remember years after I’d started working professionally being home for Thanksgiving and an uncle was saying the family prayer and he made some mention of, “We’re just so grateful that Neal is actually able to make a living doing that dancing stuff.” It was so foreign to them and it always has been. Whatever. This end of the dance world, especially, is obscure. I kind of love that. I’ve made a lot of peace with the scale of life that we’ve chosen for ourselves.
Time Out New York: Where did you go after Idyllwild?
Neal Beasley: A big group of us actually came to Tisch together. Eleanor. Nick Duran was in the class. I got very lucky. I think the program at Tisch is sort of what you make of it. I loved that there was so much room for student work. The bulk of the program is spent in rehearsal with your peers, and that’s the way it’s been designed. Having Eleanor there and meeting Beth Gill—we made duets together in college. It was a very rich relationship. We’ve always had a close artistic partnership in that sense. Eleanor Hullihan was there. Heather Lang was there. It was a rich class. It’s our ten-year reunion this year. We actually had a fake senior prom when we actually graduated so I thought we could recreate that.
Time Out New York: You performed Trisha Brown’s choreography at Tisch. What did you dance?
Neal Beasley: Yes. We did an excerpt of Foray [Forêt]; that’s where I met Diane [Madden, the company’s rehearsal director], and she kind of scooped me right in so I had that job within a few weeks of graduating, which was crazy. This is part of everyone’s story, and I remember Tere O’Connor saying something about this in a Bessie acceptance speech years ago; dance has always felt like a blessing and a curse. We do this because we have to. It’s as simple as that in a way. Even then I was struggling with injury and almost a weird, jaded, Oh the ceiling is so low and I see the people who have graduated before me and they’re working for peanuts. What are we doing? Is this really what I want? I remember Di sitting down with me and sort of like what you just said, saying, “You know you are a dancer, right? You realize that?” I, of all people, have no right to complain because I’ve had this utterly charmed career. I have worked hard, but I also have not had to struggle in the same way that other artists have. If anything, it motivates me to participate fully, to really show up. Trisha’s company held an audition process that was a workshop period where they would look at ten or so dancers for a month. It was a very long, involved selection process. I remember there was a turning point in that audition process where I realized something within the work had the space for me to make a home for myself in my body. There was a spaciousness about it. And also it had a lot of room for me to continue to learn. When I stepped over that edge of realizing that this was new physical terrain for me, and it wasn’t going to demand the same kind of effort that perhaps I felt most comfortable exerting—it felt like my experience in it could deepen over time. I remember when I actually wanted that job. I didn’t really know the work, nor was I smitten by what I had seen. My first love with that work was as a dancer and learning about it over time, it’s become that my love of it is of an artist and a maker and seeing its brilliance almost more objectively, even though it’s impossible for me to be objective about that work.
Time Out New York: Was there a piece in particular that clicked?
Neal Beasley: During that process, it was learning the main phrase from For M.G.—The Movie. It strikes that perfect balance that’s so prevalent in Trisha’s work: There’s a specificity and almost geometric precision about what the body is doing, and yet it’s held in that place of specificity very lightly. It’s not forced or militant and from that it actually moves. The physics of the work are really fascinating to me. It’s constant efficiency and a lack of excess. Di, as a teacher, is able to really unlock new physical experiences where suddenly you understand that she’s not giving you detail for detail’s sake, but she’s aiming at honoring a kinetic principal that is housed inside of those details. But it never felt heavy once that physical experience was unlocked. So I did that monthlong process—then there were six, and then there were four. I remember dancing for Trisha, doing an improvised version of Set and Reset with the company one at a time on the last day. It was totally fun—it was using the gamelike principles that structured the making of that work and knowing the base phrase and being able to play with it and play with them.
Time Out New York: What was it like working with Trisha in the beginning?
Neal Beasley: I had a trial by fire. Someone was injured. But that following spring, we were in residency at White Oak, and we were making how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume ..., and it was incredible, because when she’s making phrase material, she never likes to have more than three bodies in the room with her. She was dancing, and we would spend hours watching her body move. She’s not going to accept the first thing that comes out of your body, but the thing she will often choose is what makes her laugh, which I love. I always describe her process as three-pronged: There’s what comes from her body; there’s what comes from her instructions or her images—the verbal transmission from her mind to our bodies; and there’s what come from our bodies answering the question, what would your body do next? Find the most logical conclusion to this physical setup. That was great, and following that, I ended up working much more closely with her on the trio she made for the Paris Opera Ballet, O Zlozony/O Composite. Three of us made it with her. My role originally was to fly out with her and Carolyn [Lucas] to teach the second cast what the first cast had come to New York to learn.
Time Out New York: Who was in the first cast?
Neal Beasley: The first cast is Aurélie Dupont, Manuel Legris and Nicholas Le Riche—crazy stars. I had no idea, thank God. I went for two weeks to teach the second cast and flew home, and Trisha realized that she actually needed me there, and so she flew me back and I was right by her side through that process, which was magical. That was where I also bore witness to what a poetic artist she is. A lot of that piece drew from Edna St. Vincent Millay poetry and Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet where the title of the piece comes from. Her approach to it was if the classical vocabulary is this kind of lexicon, I want to make a similar lexicon. She made alphabets and took the letters of movement and rearranged them to spell out poetry. It’s from Locus—it’s an old mechanism of hers, but also she worked from imagery, like birds and trees and clouds. One of the male solos is all from her body and it’s all this birdlike imagery. Trisha’s whole working process from the mid to late ’80s has been captured on video—there’s this really rich archive of all of that work and hearing her gasp when something really magical happens followed by this Ohhhhh! [He claps his hands.] It’s totally heartbreaking and charming. That moment when she gets excited is so beautiful. We use those cues now to better understand when it’s not adequately notated what she chose and why. She’s a taskmaster and always has been of creating these machines that deliver perhaps an unexpected result/product, but in the end there is still this mysterious selection process. There are epic amounts of unused material, and it’s equally beautiful in my eyes. That’s one of the things I’ve been fascinated by: How does one make choices? It’s when something catches her in the right spot, tickles her fancy. The piece after that, which I didn’t end up dancing in, was I love my robots., and it was just the two of us in the studio. My body made all the base-phrase material for that piece.
Time Out New York: It’s such a strange piece.
Neal Beasley: It is such a strange piece. She was working from a very simple spatial structure that we used to make a five-minute phrase that concentrically rippled out from the center of the stage. It ended up being the opening solo of that piece. That was also really interesting too because my body by nature is hyperactive or perhaps overly mobile. I remember Trisha saying, “All right Neal, we just need to slow you down.” [Laughs] We would make these passes and she would go back through and interrupt me. I remember having conversations with her during that process about what we chose to interrupt, what was perhaps purely kinetic, was often vaguely and abstractly psychologically resonant.
Time Out New York: What do you mean?
Neal Beasley: For example, what does a shudder do when it’s interjected into a dancey-dance phrase? Really looking at that sort of tension that she began to explore probably as early as Foray, but is also present in the operas I think in her treatment of narrative. What an honor, right? I was 23, 24 and one-on-one with Trisha and Carolyn. To play with Trisha Brown, it really did feel like an honor. I think it was around that time that we began having discussions about me learning and performing Watermotor. So here’s where the 23-year-old ego gets in the way. I felt like I’d hit the ceiling a little bit. I felt young. I felt like I had a lot to explore. [Sighs] A lot of company members that had been there upwards of eight to ten years left at once. I gave notice as well and I think that was really hard; they made the choice to tell her separately. My last project with her was assisting her for the documenta festival in 2007—holding auditions and remounting Accumulation, Floor of the Forest…that was going to be performed on a continuum throughout the three months of documenta.
Time Out New York: Did you have another job at that point?
Neal Beasley: No. This is such an embarrassing story. What started to happen was my experience of dance felt very small and also very precious. Everything was dance with a capital D and art with a capital A, and I wanted to go kick and turn and have fun and have an experience about moving my body to music. I chose to do Broadway Bares rather than finish the documenta project with Trisha. I hang my head in shame. But I was a little headstrong and a little bit done. The terms of my departure were less than perfect. It left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth: Really? You’re gonna do that instead of this big thing? And also you’re leaving us in a lurch because now someone else has to do what you were hired to do.
Time Out New York: What were you supposed to do?
Neal Beasley: Direct the whole restaging; teach these dancers. I was essentially her assistant for that whole project, so I had gone out for the first leg and held the audition, did the site visit, helped select the dancers, but I didn’t finish. I didn’t do round two.
Time Out New York: What did you do for Broadway Bares?
Neal Beasley: I don’t even remember who choreographed it, but the theme that year was mythology, and it was a techno remix of “Rocket Man” by Elton John that was sort of about Apollo and I don’t even know. It was really wretched.
Time Out New York: What came next?
Neal Beasley: The one job that I actually booked was a film with the choreographer Hinton Battle. This was the second portion of a trilogy of films about jazz musicians and this was about the life of Louis Armstrong. He hired 65 dancers to do a couple of street scenes, and we filmed for a couple of weeks in North Carolina. It was really funny because I remember looking around and there were these big, beefy African-American hip-hop guys. Then, there were Latino salsa dancers. Then, there were the beefy musical-theater chorus boys who were white and dimpled and perfect and literally there was me, who was a good six inches shorter than everybody in the room. Didn’t look like anybody else, but it was clear that Hinton loved dancers. It was very serendipitous. Ayo Jackson, who used to dance with Bill T. Jones, was working with Angelin Preljocaj at the time. I had wanted to dance for him before I moved to New York. I’m a total Francophile. She said, “We’re having auditions for men the week after we wrap shooting.” I took the money I’d made on the film, flew to the south of France and auditioned. Flew home, found out I got the job, and five days later my whole life was in two suitcases and I lived in Aix-en-Provence. It was really, really intense.
Time Out New York: What was intense?
Neal Beasley: The whole transition of it. The speed of the decision. It’s also that thing too that this was a dream I’d had for years. At the time, I used a ratio of percentages about what was drawing me there, and 40 percent of it was that I always wanted to live in France. Another 40 percent was the idea that I could live in a small, beautiful town and do what I loved for a living. I was so over New York at that time. That only left about 20 percent for the work, which unfortunately was what I was doing all day.
Time Out New York: It’s weird with Preljocaj, because some of the work is so good and some of it is so shitty and you’re like what is going on? He’s a nice guy, but…
Neal Beasley: Thank you. He’s a very charming man and he’s good at that. If he would put as much energy into making work as he puts into being a politician…