While back in New York in between tour stops, Merce Cunningham Dance Company members Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener sat down with Claudia La Rocco in Riener’s Manhattan apartment to talk about life with and after Cunningham—and his company.
Claudia La Rocco (Rail): What would you say has been the biggest change in day-to-day for you in the company since his death?
Silas Riener: [Pause.] I think I noticed right away that the energy shifted, partly just away from his spot in the room where he was always watching everything all the time. People just started to work a little bit differently. It wasn’t like, “Oh, people are lazy now,” it had nothing to do with that. It just—I think that the focus shifted to a more internal experience of the work because at this point we really are doing it more for ourselves than for him. I mean, we can be doing it for the memory of him or something, but—the focus changed.
Rashaun Mitchell: But there is a system in place that has been kept up, for the most part. The daily structure is the same: we run a piece, we check it, we take a break, we run another piece, we check it. We do that every day. Having that structure is one thing that keeps us connected to the work and to him and to what we’re used to.
Riener: It has changed in the reconstruction processes, obviously. Merce was never really interested in the initial parts of reconstruction; he always said he was only interested in the piece he was making. As the reconstructions would go along he would start to assert, or re-assert his voice. And that obviously doesn’t happen now. We’ve just got the materials of the reconstruction. Which is sometimes more straightforward [laughs] because he would change things sometimes. But it can be a little bit strange. And, again, I think that shifts the focus back to the performer because you have a little bit more license and a little bit more entitlement: “Okay, I’m reinterpreting this role and it’s up to me to make of it what I will.”
Rail: Does that feel like a freedom, or a loss, or both?
Mitchell: I think that Merce’s presence fostered freedom in the dancers and I think that without him there is more of a tendency to make things exact and to define things. Just because there’s no authority anymore, no one there to give his stamp of approval or disapproval.
Riener: Not that he really would, necessarily, all that much. You know, it was never like, “Merce, is the arm here or here?” For the most part those questions were never asked. It was just fine what everyone was doing. And if something wasn’t fine he would say so. It was always clear that if he wanted to say something, he would, and he can’t anymore. That gravitational center has dispersed. Now, you have to make your own choices and mistakes and figure things out while they’re happening. And if you have a particular energetic tendency towards being right or being wrong, it takes it to an extreme more so now, because there’s no gavel.
Rail: The shift from creation to reconstruction is such a huge one, even when the person who created the work originally is there. And then the realization that there is no new work to be made…
Mitchell: I think most dancers go to a company or a choreographer to have new work made on them. That’s always an exciting process because you don’t know what’s going to happen, what you’re going to be given.
But you know, I’ve been in a lot of revivals and one of the things you realize, from looking at all of the videotapes of older dancers, is that there’s never just one dance—there are many versions. And in a revival usually that goes away; one person makes a decision about one version which is what you have to do. And then it’s usually documented and used for the future setting of that piece. But the multiplicity is such a big part of his work. He welcomed that, actually—
Riener: He certainly didn’t deny it.
Mitchell: I think he enjoyed seeing things done in different ways. I know that he was interested in individuals and he didn’t want you to be someone else. I try to remember that when I’m doing a reconstruction. That’s the freedom that I try to keep in my own performance.
Riener: I was only an original cast member of Nearly Ninety. Everything else was either an inherited role or a reconstruction role. It felt really different to continue performing Nearly Ninety, because of that overwhelming sense of entitlement: I know this part because it is me, and whatever I do is right, within a standard deviation. With other things, I noticed my own restraint because I felt bound to a previous incarnation or interpretation. And it always gets really hard in a reconstruction: “Well, so maybe this is what Merce was trying to get them to do on this videotape and maybe this is what they’re doing and it’s 1980 and this is what dancers looked like in 1980.” So you have those disparities that you have to make a choice about—and a reconstructor has to also make choices. And when you were with Merce, when he was making a piece, he would only say so many things; that was the only information that you had. That’s part of that freedom that we all enjoyed. It’s both more and less specific now, because he’s gone.
Rail: Do you feel the weight of being the last Cunningham dancers?
Riener: I think we’ll probably start to feel it more and more, as we have New York shows, and as the glass starts to empty. I felt it at the Battery Park events in August 2009, this overwhelming feeling of being the last iteration. But a lot of the time you’re just doing the work because it necessarily commands so much of your focus. You really just have to think about putting your body in the place where it needs to be. And there isn’t room to get really emotional about it. But I’m sure that will come.
Mitchell: Yeah, of course that’s part of it, and there’s always the people, with the reconstructions, who saw the original. I mean, I have had people come up to me and say, “I saw the original Crises from 1960” or whatever, and, “I saw Merce do it.” And they have their opinion about it. I think that’s really interesting and fun, but there is a pressure to it, there is.
Riener: Well, one way or another, you totally embodied this role. When we’re in a reconstruction, and there are people from the company who remember the piece, and they’re like, “You’re not doing it right,” one way or the other it’s this really direct, focused pressure. [Pause.] I’m making myself nervous right now [laughs].
Mitchell: [Laughs]Don’t think about it!
Riener: I’m just thinking about how much worse it’s going to get. Still, thinking about the visual complexity of Merce’s work and the finite number of people who really know it inside and out, there’s a little bit of leeway that is nice to have. It’s not like in ballet where everyone in the whole theater knows the step and if you get it wrong——
Rail: I’ve heard there were pieces that were being brought back that some people thought shouldn’t be? Or that he wouldn’t have wanted brought back?
Mitchell: But Merce never wanted anything to be reconstructed.
Riener: Yeah. He wasn’t interested.
Mitchell: There was always this really funny process of coaxing him into it and sort of just putting it in front of his face until he was kind of inspired or forced to make some contribution to it.
Riener: Part of it was the American Masterpiece Grants from the NEA—that was a major revenue stream for the company. So they were bound to do these reconstructions, but that money funded new creation. I am sure that Merce had agreed on some level to do that, but he certainly—yeah, he would wheel his chair around so he was facing the other direction—he would just not want to see it. I don’t know; I have mixed feelings about that whole side of things—about now performing in pieces that in my mind have nothing to do with what he was interested in when he was making work on me, for example.
Mitchell: But if you think about someone like Kafka, his work would not be known, if it were up to him.
Riener: That is true.
Mitchell: It’s a dilemma: Is it more important to have the repertory be this cultural treasure that is helpful and informative and inspiring to everyone? Or do we just…?
Riener: …let it go. I don’t know, I think that’s really subjective, too. When you’re seeing a piece from 1959, and you’re seeing it on dancers in 2011, is it really the same experience, is it really the same temporal context? Obviously not. It’s like a fold over; it’s being thrust on you. Maybe it has a lot of really valuable information, but you can’t place yourself in the seat of seeing it when it was made at the time. [Theatrical pause.] Until we can time travel.
Rail: Any day now. Remember when Helen Vendler was criticizing the New Yorker poetry editor who brought back Elizabeth Bishop’s notebooks, and she said, authors are now burning their notes to protect them from future Alice Quinns. But then, but then: we wouldn’t know about these works.
Riener: I don’t know, I just think you have to look at that work completely separately. If I was coming to see the Cunningham Company, I would—in my mind, I have no idea if this is true—I would look at the pieces that the company is performing that were made on this group of people differently because I think they probably will look different than the pieces that were reconstructed after. Even pieces where Merce was present for the reconstruction. I mean, who knows if you can distinguish?
Mitchell: I think Alastair Macaulay said something like that in one of his reviews actually, about how performing work that’s made on you actually brings certain people out in a different way.
Rail: I think so. Look at a company like New York City Ballet, for example, and what a contemporary choreographer like Alexei Ratmansky pulls out of people versus how shellacked some of these Balanchine pieces can sometimes look. I think it’s very easy to say, “Oh, well the dancers are just not dancing it as well as they did in Balanchine’s day.” But the complexity of bearing the historical weight of something like The Four Temperaments versus being in a room with a living choreographer, who can do what you can do, who can laugh with you, who knows the culture you know…
Riener: It’s not just the steps. I mean, even for us, it’s not just the steps. The steps are a huge part of it, but there was a sensitivity.
Mitchell: That brings up the issue: well, what happens to the work? Does it just get put in a vault? And then at some point someone will take something out and go, oh this is a video, these are the notes, I’m going to recreate this dance on these dancers who have no training in this technique, and this is going to be a Cunningham dance.
Riener: They’re talking to all of us about restaging opportunities. At some point, there will no longer be any people that were in the piece originally. I mean, this is slowly happening with Balanchine as well. Where you’ve got this dilution of the original message. Do you think the original message is as important?—and that’s unique to dance.
Mitchell: That’s why the training itself is so important. Because there’s a transmission that happens from teacher to student that allows one to have a unique experience of the work. I mean, you could approach his work and connect to it in many different ways. You can approach it intellectually, or musically, or come from an art point of view. But without the movement there is no choreography; it’s just conceptual. Without the dancers, it’s just a concept.
Riener: Yeah. If you really want to realize his work at any point, there has to be a training aspect to it. Because Merce virtually only worked with dancers that he extensively trained.
Rail: And you see the difference.
Mitchell: Yes. It’s an experiment. It’s a beautiful thing to see, but it’s different. You know, they get two weeks to get sort of acquainted with the idea of moving a certain way. And their bodies are used to doing something else.
Rail: We don’t yet know what will happen to the school, do we?
Mitchell: The Trust is actively trying to figure something out. As of right now there are daily classes planned at City Center with Robert Swinston, and at the Mark Morris center with Jean Freebury. There are also a number of former Cunningham members teaching in conservatories in the city. But it seems like it’s the responsibility of more than just the people who are already involved. It’s the responsibility of the world. It’s the responsibility of the city, of the country, of everyone who cares about saving this national treasure. Because that’s what he is. I mean, don’t you think?
Riener: I don’t know. That’s tricky for me; what we have seen on this tour is that there is a really varied level of interest in something that is getting further and further away from people. Okay, so he’s a national treasure and people accept that, but nobody’s really paying attention. Students don’t come to the studio the way that they used to.
Mitchell: That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist——
Riener: No, I’m not saying it shouldn’t, I agree with you. I think his work is incredibly important and critical and valuable. And if you look at the impact he’s having, even now, on choreographers making work, making current work, it’s completely important. But, that’s not how the world works.
Rail: If the foundation had said, “He’s gone but we’re going to keep this company going,” might you have entertained staying?
Riener: A lot of it depends on your personal journey in the company. I was only in the company less than two years when Merce died, so I feel like I hadn’t completed all the time that I wanted to spend with the work. But I do really value the experience of creation and I think that working for a living, creating choreographer is really valuable to me. My interest was with Merce, not ultimately with the work. I went there to work with him and have him work with me.
Mitchell: I’ve been there a long time. I’ve been employed by that place for 10 years. So I’ve had a very round experience. I’m happy with that. And I would want to give someone else a chance to be in the work.
Rail: I would imagine that it is much easier to feel like a fuller artist as a dancer with a collaborative experience in the studio.
Riener: Well for the most part, that’s how all dance artists work in New York. We’re at least fortunate to have the opportunity to continually perform the same work. That’s pretty rare at this point. Like, how long have we been doing BIPED? Twelve years? That’s unbelievable in this climate.
Mitchell: It’s true.
Rail: Putting aside your own feelings about your careers, did you support right away the decision to close the company? Did you see it coming?
Riener: I did right away feel like once again Merce is innovating in this pivotal moment of what to do after. If you look at the different ways that companies have dealt with that situation—becoming a rep company or becoming a reconstruction company, I think that he was really honest with his own interests when he asked for that. Because his interest was creation and as I said before, it gets so complicated for me when you start to look at work in absence of the creator. So for me it was a really interesting, challenging decision that I did support. But I think I have less sensitivity towards things like legacy and preservation.
Mitchell: I think that there are certainly some people who would love for it to continue and would want to be a part of that. But I think it’s also nice that the decision is being made for everyone involved.
Rail: I can imagine, if you did want to walk away from a museum company, that a sense of guilt might keep you.
Mitchell: It’s alleviated.
Riener: They gave us an opportunity at the start of the legacy tour; no one has to stay. And when they presented the legacy tour plan and the whole structure of it, what was amazing about the company at the moment was everyone rallied around a common idea of Merce and seeing it through to the end with this group of people. That I think is really honorable and beautiful, and I hope some of that will maybe shine through the work.
Mitchell: But we don’t really have any perspective, because we’re so in it. I don’t know how I will feel once it’s actually gone, what that loss will feel like. I was talking to former Cunningham dancer Foofwa d’Imobilité yesterday and he seems to be so dramatically afraid of that—of it ending. And I imagine that for people who’ve had some time away from the work or for people who’ve never experienced the work directly, it probably feels like a blow. It probably feels like a really big loss.
Rail: For me, it does, I mean on the one hand, the thought of “Oh my God”——
Riener: Never again.
Rail: Right. But on the other hand, there’s something exhilarating about it. And when I think about the pale ghosts of companies limping along after their creators die—I don’t feel like I get any of the power of Martha Graham when I see that company perform. I feel like in fact, with maybe one or two exceptions, it deadens more and more my feeling of connection to her.
Riener: Especially in our really active technological preservationist society, that idea of, “This is going to be gone and I’m not going to be able to have it, I’m not going to be able to access it anywhere except for my memory, my sense-memory,” it’s scary for people to just think about only being able to remember something and not being able to have it. But maybe that’s okay. I think it’s okay.
Mitchell: He had 60 years of making work.
Riener: When we were in Hong Kong, I was with a college friend and a friend of hers, and he said, “Oh, what are you guys doing in Hong Kong?” and I said, “Oh, I’m performing with this modern dance company, totally come check it out.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, is that Friday? Yeah, maybe I’ll try to come.” It was one of those conversations: I know you’re not coming, you know you’re not coming, but thank you for playing your role. I didn’t at that point demand that he come see one of the last living legends of American modern dance because he would regret if he didn’t. You can’t make people come. So it’s okay with me.
Rail: I think that the reason it’s exhilarating is because it’s scary and feels so human. This is what we do. We die. We do these things and then we go. Whereas with some of these preservationist companies there’s this sense of—it’s like the dance-equivalent of when I was a little kid I would go to the nursing home with my dad while he did rounds and I’d look at these old people who were sort of entombed. There’s a way that something can live in your sense-memory, and be so much more alive. You had to be there. And this friend of yours wasn’t there.
Riener: I should have just said that to him, “You had to be there.” It’s going to be my line from now on.
Rail: [Laughs.] Are you at all able to think about the future and what you might do?
Mitchell: [Laughs.] We’ve been given a lot of time to think about it. I’ve been making my own work with the hope of focusing on it more full time in the next year. I have a show in New York in May.
Riener: Well, it’s like the way anybody would think about the future. I want to keep having my life. I want to keep living and making choices. But it’s got such a definitive endpoint; down to the day we know: this is when this part of my life ends, and this part of my life will begin to begin.
Mitchell: But it’s important to be in the moment, because it’s already going so fast. I don’t want to be looking too far ahead to the point where I’m not actually experiencing this thing.
Riener: But we talk about it, sort of tentatively between people in the company. Some people want to keep dancing and some people want to do other things. Another central question is “am I going to stay in New York?” for a lot of people, because this was the thing that drew us here and has kept us here, and sustained us both creatively and financially.
Rail: But it’s not at the point where you’re thinking, “Okay, I’m going to talk to this choreographer about auditioning,” or “I’m going to apply to this grad school.” It hasn’t gotten to concrete stuff?
Mitchell: Not for me. Or has it?
Riener: Well, it kinda has. [Laughs.] We are talking to people, we are trying to assert a creative voice now, while we can, in the context of being known as Cunningham performers. I’m looking around a little bit more because I know that I want to keep dancing both in my own work and in Rashaun’s work and maybe in the work of other people. I go to shows more now thinking, “Is this a job that I would want?” and I didn’t do that for a while—I’ve been in the company for four years now and this has been a period where I’ve had the blinders up, because I had to be a Merce dancer.
Mitchell: I’m actually excited to do nothing, even though I’m setting things up in terms of having my own shows, connecting those dots. I’m looking forward to taking some time off to just kind of be post-Cunningham. And rediscover what I actually want and what really interests me, because I feel really overwhelmed and inundated with information and with life right now. It’s a lot. The tour is a lot. I think I’m gonna need some recuperation time.
Riener: That scares me. That thing that you’re looking forward to; I think that scares me more. That I don’t have a concrete plan. I don’t have a plan to pay my rent.
Mitchell: Oh yeah, there’s no plan to pay rent [laughs].
Riener: I don’t know how I’m going to make money. Although the company is doing a really fantastic job of trying to figure out a means of support for transition. At least, financially.
Rail: The severance.
Riener: The severance. But that’s a conceptual transition rather than, “Okay, so what is going to happen for my whole day?” Like what are the things I’m going to do? And that I haven’t figured out at that level of detail. I know we’re trying to get some touring, we’re trying to perform. I’m gonna look into dancing for other people and making my own work. But it’s all floaty.
Mitchell: I know, I just saw a freelance dancer friend of mine last night at a show and I just felt so bad, because I haven’t seen him and I was so excited, and he said, “You know, I have to go home. I have no money, I have no job, I’m poor and I’m trying to write for all these grants. Just, I have to go. Sorry.” I was like, right, that’s what it is going to be like.
Riener: I was out with another dancer; we had a glass of wine, and she was like, “I spent all the money that I could spend today, so I’m going home.”
Mitchell: I haven’t had that since pre-Cunningham.
Riener: Yeah, me too.
Rail: You’ve been really sheltered.
Mitchell: Yeah, it’s a financially stable job, you know?
Rail: Having had a sort of Holy Grail of dance jobs, doing work that has integrity and pays, is that hand-to-mouth existence something you are willing to deal with?
Mitchell: I’m willing to try. But I’m not sure how committed I am to that being forever. I think now is the time for me to try to do that. I’m still relatively young, and pretty soon I won’t be able to do that anymore.
Riener: I think that question is really tied to how you feel about your own role in the community and as a dancer. If I want to do work with this kind of integrity, what am I willing to give up? In order to answer your question, I think you really have to answer an identity question that I’m not sure I’m going to know the answer to until I know exactly—I mean, I went right into the company after grad school, like in grad school. So I kind of went from one shelter to another. And I haven’t really experienced that hand-to-mouth, freelance, New York dance life. And I’m not entirely certain that I’m comfortable with it. Which is not a bad thing. I’m not gonna—I don’t know, sell out? I guess that’s the conversation that people have. Dancing for money.
Mitchell: He’s gonna strip.
Riener: Is that what Broadway is?
Rail: Lede: Cunningham Dancers to Strip.
Riener: I could strip in a tilt. I could get a unitard with different Velcro parts doing Cunningham, as they’re coming off.
Rail: What won’t you miss? Speaking of costumes.
Mitchell: What won’t I miss is definitely the unitards…and [laughs and in a whisper] class.
Riener: I’m ready to move differently.
Mitchell: I’m ready to not be on relevé all the time.
Riener: I think the thing that’s the hardest for me is the sameness. The class we do is the same; that experience of ponderous, existential sameness, is something that is hard for me.
Mitchell: That, I don’t know. I don’t think that that’s true, because I did a ballet class. It’s the same every time.
Riener: I don’t agree.
Mitchell: How can you not agree with that? It’s the same. You do the same exercises. You go to the barre, and you do them. And then you go to the center, and then you do those exercises.
Riener: Yeah, but they don’t hurt. They have a functional point.
Mitchell: That’s the difference. That’s not what we’re talking about.
Riener: The exercises themselves hurt.
Mitchell: So it’s the pain, not the repetition.
Riener: Yeah, I want to no longer be in pain. The pain is what I will not miss.
Mitchell: That’s actually very important. Although, it might be eternal. It might be permanent.
Riener: Eternal pain.
Mitchell: At this point.
Riener: Of the spotless unitard.
Rail: Oh, dear. How is your back?
Mitchell: It’s much better, thank you for asking. Yeah, I’m dancing again and it’s much better.
Rail: Good. And you?
Riener: I am mostly sound. I do have some injuries that I’m dealing with that I’m kind of delaying.
Mitchell: [Whispers.] Brain injuries.
Riener: [Laughs.] I’m not willing to take time off unless I have to because of the time-sensitive nature of this tour. I want to be a part of the whole thing because when I decided to stay, that is what I decided, that’s the experience that I wanted to have, and I still want to have it as long as I’m able.
Rail: So you’re sort of playing chicken with your body?
Riener: [Laughs.] Isn’t that what dance is?
ContributorClaudia La Rocco
CLAUDIA LA ROCCO writes about performance for the New York Times and is the founder of thePerformanceClub.org, which won a 2011 Arts Writers Grant. She is a member of Off The Park press, where she is editing an anthology of poems by painters. She is on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing.