Walking the Line
I had friends in the Cunningham Company long before I joined in 1980. In the 1970s I went to the concerts, year after year—I was perplexed, to say the least, but I was also curious, and, in general, became more interested by what was going on. I really couldn’t grasp it all since it was too much for my narrow perspective to be able to absorb. But every time I went, I became more fascinated. I would go backstage and tell the dancers I knew how great I thought they had danced, and most of the time, they questioned how well they had. In general, most dancers are that way: Good is never good enough. It’s so rare to get, and difficult to believe, affirmation. This was especially true of my early training at Graham, where one’s worth was challenged all the time.
In the Cunningham Company, it wasn’t that way at all, but there wasn’t a lot of feedback either. You really had to figure out where you stood. You had to come to it and say: Well, here I am, and I guess it must be good enough, otherwise I would hear more about it.
I never really imagined that I would end up here, but there was an opening in the company due to the departure of Robert Kovich. A workshop of Fielding Sixes was held at the studio, and I took the opportunity to leave immediately after the tour I was on with the Limón Company in Arles, hop on a train to Marseilles, and fly back to New York.
At the end of the first week, I actually said to Merce, “In another week I have to go back to work with the Limón Company, and I’m wondering if you could tell me next week if you’re interested to take me into the group.” I didn’t realize how forward I was; I don’t think many people would go up to Merce and ask that way. But by the end of the next week, I talked with him and he basically said, “Well, let’s try it.” It was that matter of fact. There were no bells ringing or confetti flying. And that’s where my tenure began with Merce.
I joined along with a young woman, Megan Walker, in August of 1980, and we had two weeks to learn six dances. There was one videotape machine, it was reel-to-reel, and it was by Merce’s desk. We had to learn our different parts in the six dances before the company came back to work. That was a little bit scary, of course, because our proximity was so near to him and he was working on his new piece.
At first we performed events here in the studio, which was customary at the time, and then we went on tour. It was very exciting for me. I wanted to work under a very strong leader, who was a teacher as well as a choreographer; I was trained that way with Kazuko Hirabayashi. I’d try to do everything to the max, to the best of my ability. But because I came from a different style all together, I had a lot to learn. I hadn’t encountered anything like Merce’s work, so technically severe and rigorous. Only through trial and error did I learn how to pace myself through this kind of work so as not to obliterate myself.
Of course, I had some advice from some of the other dancers; one in particular came up to me and said, “Hey Swinston, this isn’t the Graham Company.” And I was incredulous, “I know it’s not the Graham Company, but I’m just doing the best I can, and this is what I’m made of.” Eventually, I figured out what they were talking about.
But there was never any advice from anybody else that was other than to be yourself. Just be yourself and begin from there.
Through the years, there were many dances that Merce made and many tours. The time with John Cage traveling with the troupe was very inspiring. He was also very affirmative. Before I started dancing I had learned about John Cage when I was a student at Middlebury College. (I started dancing there to fulfill a P.E. requirement, and got the bug.) In my early years, the dance scene was different—the whole world was different—but at the Cunningham Studio I found what I was looking for: a home base, where people were committed to this very particular kind of work.
It was a real philosophical choice and a big chance to go this route. Merce’s work was perceived as being the antithesis of how I had been trained, where the function of dance was narrative and an expression of music. This was the approach at Juilliard where the training was Graham, Limón, and Ballet. However, I found that in some of Merce’s work there could be a narrative, but it was what you made of it. You could certainly find a reason for dancing, an urgency that Merce shared with all great dancers. When I would watch Merce dance and see how he transformed himself, I realized that there were more possibilities beyond just doing the steps as well as you could. We weren’t really told this is the way it is. I was really just trying to figure it out.
I’m quite aware of the ramifications of the ending of our company. Since Merce passed away, when I wake in the morning, I’m thinking of something having to do with it. What can I do, what do I have to do, today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year? There’s still so much more to do. That’s the nature of my job: There’s always something to prepare, organize, decisions to make, casting, or how to assemble the events. It’s not at all easy running a dance company but it’s especially difficult being responsible with so much riding on it. I know Merce felt that weight, but the main thing that he conveyed to all of us was that you just push on.
I don’t intend to get too sentimental about this, but it’s difficult not to when you have been working a certain way for so many years and then you are faced with it ending. The reality is that a dance company is a fragile and costly enterprise; dancers come together to work when it can be afforded. Without Merce and his new creations the dance company loses its raison d’etre. It’s sad because we are also a family and Merce was like our Papa and for this generation, their Grandpapa. All the dancers were young students when they came to the studio and I was a younger rehearsal director—we all grew together with Merce. The relationship we have is a long one filled with its understandings, and at times, misunderstandings. But nevertheless, we all love each other and work very well together, and I think that comes from that deep commitment everyone made to Merce and his work. In addition, the dancers are appreciated as artists, provided a wide variety of work to dance that is culled from almost 60 years of Merce’s making, and they’re given a great freedom to make it their own. I know that they appreciate it, and that’s also important. The fact that we have to disband in this fashion has created an atmosphere of resolve on all our parts.
I was trained to dance as if it will be the last time you will dance. That’s how you put things on the line. That’s the way my training was before Cunningham and it pretty much has remained that way with Merce. And he was that kind of dancer as well as a demanding choreographer. That’s how it should be and that’s how it’s actually come about. When people are dancing on a tightrope, they are walking on the line—there is an edge to it and it’s good and full of risk.
People are seeing that the company looks very, very good; so much so that some people wonder, “Well, gee, why end?” And that’s good that they think that, and maybe they’ll remember what they experienced for the rest of their life. But, it is coming to an end and I’ve finally accepted it with only six weeks left. I’m glad that all of the company members have this urgency to dance and express their joy of dancing. This group is like that. They do express their joy.
ContributorRobert Swinston, as told to Claudia La Rocco
ROBERT SWINSTON, a graduate of the Juilliard School, danced with the Martha Graham Apprentice Group, José Limón Dance Company, and with Kazuko Hirabayashi Dance Theatre before joining the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1980. He became Assistant to the Choreographer in July 1992. Since Merce Cunningham's death in July 2009, Swinston has been the Director of Choreography, overseeing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the CDF Repertory Understudy Group. In 2003, he received a "Bessie" Award for his performance in the revival of Cunningham's How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run. In 2009, Swinston was named a Trustee for the Merce Cunningham Trust.