A PHOTO FROM JAMES KLOSTY: Paris, 1970 Merce Cunningham and Meg Harper

   "Rainforest"  Merce Cunningham and Meg Harper  decor:Andy Warhol ,"Silver Clouds" costumes:Jasper Johns

photo: ©James Klosty, with thanks to the photographer


first published in

  The Brooklyn Rail 

In Conversation

LIZ GERRING with Nancy Dalva

glacier | Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair, NJ
September 19 – 22, 2013
Nancy Dalva (Rail): Why do you do this, make dances?

Liz Gerring: I’m completely absorbed with investigating movement for itself as well as movement as a means of personal expression—creating beauty perhaps.
Photo: Miguel Anaya
Rail: How do you begin?

Gerring: The piece usually begins with an idea that originates from a particular dancer—or dancers—inhabiting a movement sequence that becomes the beginning of a “story.”

Rail: And the ideas?

Gerring: Ideas come from a few sources. Music tends to stimulate my mind to conceptualize movement—either my body responding to the melody or rhythm, which sometimes combines with the words (of a pop song, for example)—which manifests itself in an imagined action, gesture, shape. I tend to personalize, so I may see myself as the subject of a state of mind or emotion, which then transforms onto a dancer executing a step. Sometimes a dancer can inspire ideas—once again, I either personalize them (I see them a certain way and attach movement to them) or, on a purely functional level, their particular attributes suggest movement combinations or possibilities. In this way, the dancer is critical for the process of inspiration. I’m much better at people than patterns, I think, so floor plans of motion are tricky for me, although almost always the movement I have conjured in my mind exists in a particular point in space. In this way the dancer is always present in the three-dimensional world.

Rail: In the theater there is music and occasional silence.

Gerring: There is definitely music—I consider music to be the most important element other than the movement. I have primarily collaborated with one composer for the past 15 years: Michael Schumacher. During that time we have developed a relationship with the music and dance that is specific to my choreography. The music initially played in the studio during the improvisation process has nothing to do with what exists at the end. This may consist of pop songs, classical, a wide range of contemporary composers, and I draw from this both imagery and rhythmic content. The process of creating music for the dance happens usually after the section or phrase is finished, and happens in conjunction with the musical idea for the whole piece, so it often becomes a stabilizing element for the dance.

Rail: Do the dancers get their cues from it? It feels more like atmosphere than metric instruction.

Gerring: There are synch points for the dancers—sounds that are meant to go along with specific movements. The dancers either listen for the cues or, more often, Michael or the stage manager will cue the music so the dancers are free to inhabit their own dynamic without having to worry about “following” a score.

Rail: Are there stories in your work?

Gerring: Always a story—sometimes it is my own story and sometimes it is the dancers’. Throughout the creation of a work, which can take up to two years, the dancers become characters in the piece in some way: what sections they appear in, what movements they are doing, and who they are doing it with.

Rail: Is there then a subliminal narrative? Something about showing but not telling?

Gerring: Absolutely. Perhaps this is the dialogue the audience member is having with himself as he watches the piece unfold.

Rail: You made a dance called she dreams in code (2011). Do you dream in dance?

Gerring: Only bad dreams (rehearsals gone awry, etc.). I do, however, often go to sleep at night thinking about a particular dancer or dancers doing specific movement—sometimes this becomes an initiating factor in rehearsal. It actually relaxes me to think about movement while I am going to sleep—I’m not sure why. Sometimes when I am working on a piece, I will use this time to try to solve a choreographic problem I am experiencing at the time. I think the nighttime lends itself to a type of imaginative state, but this is all in that conscious time before actually falling asleep when I can let my mind wander—

Rail: Can dance ever be “abstract”?

Gerring: I don’t think anything involving humanity/performance can be completely abstract. So much is brought to the movement by the mere fact that humans are doing it. And the fact that there are people onstage brings it into the realm of society, but I think for me this is all the narrative required: witnessing dancers. More would draw attention away from the visual picture.

Rail: Why call your new dance glacier? There aren’t polar bears, or artic explorers, or ice metaphors. Are we to read anything into it about Trisha Brown, whose choreography you love, and who made a beautiful dance called Glacial Decoy (1979)?

Gerring: The title came from Michael, the composer. It was the title he gave to the piece of music that became the initial inspiration for the work. The reference to Trisha is accidental, but considering the huge influence she had on me, not an illogical one. Of course Glacial Decoy as a title implies something completely different from glacier. This title refers to the scale of the work (as opposed to temperature or location) and to time: a slow moving land mass—this being the largest work I have done to date in terms of theater, dancers, and I think length of time creating. I do wonder what Trisha would say and am curious also how she got that title.

Rail: I think perhaps it comes from her own appearance in the work—a quartet with a fifth person mysteriously appearing (but not with all four of the others visible)—hence “decoy.” And as for glaciers—those white Robert Rauschenberg costumes! As if cut from ice floes. So, since we are talking about non-narrative dance and Trisha, let’s consider what I think of as “the arc of inevitability.” Something about structure, rhythm, pacing, that lets us have a sense in a work without a story that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Gerring: This is a tricky one and something we spend a lot of time thinking about during the creation of a work—especially of interest in the current “one-hour” format in which most modern dance is placed. Obviously something must happen over this time, but what? I agree that this is where the structural elements come into play (rhythm, etc.) and that perhaps this corresponds to an intuitive sense of conflict resolution, which is essential to “the arc.”

Rail: Sometimes I ask myself about a given choreographer, “How would I know this work was hers if I didn’t already know it?” Or I ask it about a given dance. So, Liz, how do I know a dance is yours?

Gerring: Hmm. Well, I often think that I am making the same piece over and over again—that my life is one long dance piece with only the scenery (visual collaborations) changing, like the weather. I have been working for many years within my own personal body language—so this is specific to me—and developed certain techniques of executing movement that I impart to the dancers. And then there is always a type of music that can be categorized as contemporary electronic, I suppose. It’s really sound that creates an environment in which the dance occurs. I think I am setting a scene—a landscape of nature—and these landscapes are very similar in how they are constructed and what activity occurs within them.

Rail: Do you ever wish you could just go into a theater, clear the stage, turn on the work lights, have the dancers come out in their own practice clothes, and let the curtain go up?

Gerring: Yes, usually my preferred way to look at work is in the studio with daylight as lighting. Again it is that absence of pretense, in that nothing is forced or created to add to what exists movement-wise. It is dance in its simplest, most pared-down form. The lack of pretense is a huge cornerstone of my value system.

Rail: You seem to be both modern and contemporary at the same time, a kind of, shall we say, formalist for the 21st century. I love this a lot about you.

Gerring: Thank you.


first published in

  The Brooklyn Rail


The choreographer Jonah Bokaer is the most meticulous of artists and the most meticulous of personages—elegant, courteous, soft-spoken, self-contained, and focused. It would be wrong to describe him as restrained, because he doesn’t seem to be holding anything back. His works—in which he appears—are masterpieces of control in every aspect—the movement to be sure, but also the lighting, the décor, the music, and the very molecules of the air around him. Of all of these, the light is perhaps the most controlled. He chooses what you will see, how you will see it. In this Bokaer resembles the second master craftsman with whom he worked: Robert Wilson, whose signal characteristic is über-control of all theatrical elements—words, mise-en-scène, and movement all in equilibrium, as if components of an intellectually driven interior décor. This kind of superintendence is—and I find this compellingly—the antithesis of the way of Bokaer’s first aesthetic mentor, Merce Cunningham.
Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome. Photo © Bénédicte Longechal.
Cunningham famously left everything but the movement to collaborators, with little in the way of suggestion or direction other than the duration of time, achieving a Zen-ish depersonalization that, paradoxically, made the work uniquely personal and instantly recognizable. So too, the Cunningham dancers, whom Bokaer joined when he was 18 years old.

There was a plushness to him then, glowing in the stage lights like a beautiful puppy, radiant of visage, dedicated of purpose, and endearing. He stayed for seven years, partnering an older blonde beauty he flattered at every turn, growing up, and being given a rare, and as far as I know, unique chance to choreograph his own solo within a larger work. (In “Split Sides,” it transpires as a small tour de force with which Bokaer’s successor Silas Riener enjoyed show-stopping popularity.) Cunningham would say: “Jonah is a man of the theater.”
Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome. Photo © Bénédicte Longechal.
This man of the theater morphed his “Split Sides” solo over time—it contained for a while a witty and beautiful swan allusion of which I was especially enamored—growing less creaturely and more precise. Sharp, like a titanium Swiss Army knife. The rest of his performances probably changed along the same lines, but it would have been harder to see since the qualities might have changed, but not the movement. Certainly his body changed from plush to linear. Later, one could look back and see that these changes were not only of body, but also of mind. Or that they were in him the same thing.

Still in his 20s, he departed from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to make his own choreography, while also working for Wilson, whom he cites in an essay in the book “BAM: The Complete Works” as the artist he most admires. Perhaps given their stature, it is inevitable that Wilson, and even more so Cunningham, are still invoked in discussing Bokaer’s work, though he has made some 32 dance works of his own, plus works in video, film, motion capture, apps, and interactive installations. I’ve done it myself—though I think another influence or inspiration is often overlooked. That would be William Forsythe, whose deconstructed ballet alphabet Bokaer mastered, and taught in software workshops. But it is Wilson you hear or read, or Cunningham, or just Merce. How frustrating, perhaps—no matter the affection one holds and no matter the respect—to read and hear all the time about the early influences, these “fathers.” At least I won’t be making that mistake again, because I know now who Jonah’s father is.

His name is Tsvi Bokaer, father of six. As Jonah himself once put it, he “flew the coop” at age 16 to study dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and left Ithaca, New York behind. And now, 15 years later, for the work he calls “The Ulysses Syndrome,” he  invited his father to join him on his migrant home: the stage. The piece was comissioned by the French and inspired by a cancelled tour to Tunisia.

He has made a work that—after a run last May at Gould Hall as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s World Nomads Festival—takes up an extended occupancy in one’s head. In the theater, it seemed glacially paced yet pierced by intermittent warmth, and overall, slight. In the weeks since, it has soaked up thought like a sponge. Now, it feels to me like a work that may—when we are far enough away to look back—seem like an end, or a beginning. So that everything else comes before it, and everything else comes after it. I am not sure whether it is a resting place, or a springboard, or if I am merely in the grip of some kind of over-reading, or, really, over-writing. But to me, this dance says: This is my father; this is where I came from; these are the footsteps I walk in.

And bare feet, at that. Bare and similar. We are not talking about influence, or choice, or making any kind of decision, or having any kind of reaction. We are talking about actual resemblance. You don’t need to be told about it; you don’t need to intuit it. You look at Jonah, and you look at Tsvi, who is 71, and there it is. The same feet. The same legs, slim in jeans. Jonah in a dark pullover, with a scruff of beard, his glossy hair very close-cropped. Tsvi wearing a simple, crisp button down. Not costumes, then, but clothes. Oddly, Jonah is the more formal. But the legs and the feet are equally formal; those high arches, those slender limbs. Choreography recapitulates ontogeny.
Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome. Photo © Bénédicte Longechal.
The piece begins with the men seated upstage, leaning on a wall. The feeling is of heat, weariness, and waiting. Time passes. Day turns to night; there are ambient sounds, or perhaps the afternoon heat overcomes Tsvi, who lies down. Much later, Jonah will return to this wall, but on the other side of the stage, and perch against it with his foot raised at an angle in a curious unrepose, as if it were not exactly a wall, but not quite a floor. It’s the most enigmatic moment of the piece. The posture itself is nothing anyone would do, or does. (Similarly enigmatic are some pieces of what look like newspaper that begin on the floor, then are taken up and carefully manipulated, and hung on some low-hanging lighting fixtures as if they were laundry.) It’s curious, but you can’t linger to wonder if it isn’t a horizontal pose made vertical. You just look at this kind of thing and move on, because if you stop to question it you will miss what is happening. Even when the work is slow, you have to stay in the now.   

This is what happens after that opening wall prologue: Jonah Bokaer crawls away from the wall, and from his father’s side, away from the easy, Mediterranean intimacy enacted there. He moves on all fours, hands and feet, in an intricate, low creep, suggestive of an elegant insect, a fastidious cat. It’s an immaculate and careful transit to center stage. “I’ve never seen him crawl before,” I thought. “But Tsvi has.” Because once upon a time, Baby Jonah must have lit out across the living room floor, away from his father, bent on action, escape, exploration, something.

In an interview with the New York Times and in his press materials, the choreographer says that he considers this piece a solo despite the continuous presence of his father, who is sometimes leaning on the proscenium with heroic nonchalance, sometimes competing, as in a game of ring toss of a sort, played seated, with rings removed from his fingers—a little like jacks, a little like miniature bocce. (I saw, in pentimento, the game of jacks sometimes played in Cunningham “Events.”) At one point, together, they mime a shoot-out with unseen forces, the lights popping off with each shot. How is this a solo? For the entire 60-minute dance transpiring to an occult text—Tsvi’s “screenplay” in 12 cantos called “Le Danseur Errant et la Méditerranée”—the two of them are on stage.

I considered that for a day or two. And then I thought, “Of course.” Tsvi is, after all and first of all, Jonah’s father. It would be possible for Jonah alone to occupy this landscape Tsvi devised and Jonah made visible, for Jonah to dance this work alone, or continue it alone, or write a next chapter. But the other way around? Tsvi in the world without Jonah? Who can contemplate that; who would want to? Least of all, Tsvi.

I love curtain calls, and theirs were some of my favorite ever. Jonah, usually so controlled, his affect so pristine, broke out in a grin at his father, happy. And Tsvi, hand clasped to his heart, center stage, in the limelight. And Jonah moved them off. I could almost hear him thinking, “Let’s go—Dad??”

 A few days later I wrote to him and asked, “What did you call your father, growing up? And what do you call him now? I find myself imagining you addressing him.” Ever courteous, Jonah wrote back. “I always refer to Tsvi as Tsvi, though sometimes in technical rehearsals we call each other T.B. and J.B. We rehearsed in English, French, Italian depending on the section (and Judeo-Arabic for the jokes).”

There is, as it happens, an actual state (or lack of state) psychologists call the “Ulysses syndrome.” It afflicts immigrants, wanderers, those separated from their people, or their place of origin. It is named of course for Homer’s Ulysses, who came from Ithaca. The symptoms are various, having to do with the clash of dream and reality, homesickness, and regret, among other perturbations. There is nothing in Jonah Bokaer’s work that suggests a leap into the generalized-self-referential, like the idea that we are all exiles, or any such soupy thinking. It is extremely specific: Tsvi was born in Tunis, in the Mediterranean, across whose blue waters lies Greece, and Ithaca. To sail there, you’d tack between Sicily and Malta. Jonah was born where Tsvi moved—that other Ithaca, split by gorges and drowned in snow.

©Nancy Dalva 2013


Rainforest, April 1969, New York City, photos by James Klosty






Merce Cunningham, 1919-2009


The sky crackled with lightning that night, the air rattled with thunder, and Merce Cunningham joined with the elements so natural to him: the earth, the sky, the water, and the air.  

Those birds he drew! They could fly as he once could and as, until his last two weeks, he set his dancers to doing. He told me near the end of his life that choreography had become, for him, "a habit of mind." (I had asked him how he could choreograph now that he could no longer dance at all.) But even as movement was taken from him, his dancers gave it back to him. So direct, their process with Merce: thought into movement, with nothing intermediary. 


Those last months, he was tired; but he was game. He never stopped laughing, at himself as much as anyone or anything. To the end he was  gallant and courteous with visitors, and clear. Always clear, like those green eyes that could look as blue as the sky on a cloudless day.  I asked him this:

Merce, how is it that without music, without narrative, and with your using chance procedures to remove yourself, to keep from imposing your personality on the movement, that your dances are so passionate?

"Because, he said, I love dancing!"


portrait of Merce Cunningham courtesy of Hugo Glendinning  ©copyright Hugo Glendinning
Quotations from an interview by Nancy Dalva  ©copyright Nancy Dalva 2010, 2013



Max Reinhardt's darkling, magical 1935 film.... Best seen large screen, where his manipulation of scale and evocation of the fairy world in grey scale make color seem obsolete.                                                                                                                                                                                                                              



In advance of his New York season, some wonderful rehearsal video of Stephen Petronio's new work, and an interview with him in The Brooklyn Rail:

first published in

 The Brooklyn Rail 


Like Lazarus Did | Joyce Theater | April 30 – May 5, 2013

Nancy Dalva (Rail): Your newest work, Like Lazarus Did, premieres this month at the Joyce Theater. Why not As Lazarus Did? Are you “liking” resurrection?
Petronio: You’re such an editor! The title is from one of the songs—from a publication of American slave spirituals that sparked the original idea for Like Lazarus Did. The language is lost to that era, but the songs giving off a faith and sense of elevation so far from the wretched plight of those singing these songs. Son Lux, a composer I’ve worked with on British and European projects till now, brought me this book of songs previously only passed down through oral tradition. Totally inspiring! Of course he’s using them as a springboard for new creation.
Stephen Petronio. Photo: Sarah Silver.
Rail: You are premiering a dance about resurrection during Easter season. Is there a credo in it? Some personal statement of faith, or rejection thereof? Did you go to church as a child? Did the pageantry appeal to you?
Petronio: I’m a fallen Catholic: attended parochial schools, wanted to be a missionary as a child. Wanted to be chosen. I suppose that resonates and the theatrical aspect is supreme. I mean, it’s hard to beat mystical transformation and redemption in gold trimmed vestments.
Last year my father passed, and I was sitting in the church that I attended in my hometown youth, and there was a priest speaking so eloquently about my father’s final resurrection. It really hit me hard—the power and comfort of that promise. And it’s power as a commodity. Who would want the ultimate prize—immortality—yet it’s a product that’s never seen or proven. Very impressive feat.
Resurrection and immortality: the final triumph over death is deeply bedded across many cultures. The need to continue is irrepressible. One of the only certainties in life is its end, and we can’t quite resolve that. The Judeo-Christian lore of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, an act necessary to prove his divinity: the penultimate miracle that tripped his conviction of heresy, angering the high rabbis of Jerusalem and setting into motion the ultimate sacrifice of his life.
From the the sacrificial virgin whose death is necessary to promulgate the growth of crops in the pagan-themed Sacre du Printemps, to the phoenix rising from her dust to reemerge immortal and omnipotent, to eastern religion’s cycle of reincarnation: the continual need to renew, to look back at forms again, to bring them forward to see what remains of the original, or to see how something transforms.
Rail: Tell me how you made the dance. What was the participation of the dancers?
Petronio: My first instinct was to resurrect previous Petronio dancers, bringing forward signature roles in the bodies of new dancers and allowing them to transform in the process. I’m always fascinated to feel the essence of my early stars in the roles we created together after so many years still unmistakably there, but transformed by the current body and mind reinterpreting. But unlike a reconstruction—I sought out transformation in the new body and allowed myself free reign as the current artist I am to spring off from these sources.
Then I began to call back other iconic figures I love—small flashes of Michael Jackson, Merce [Cunningham] and Trisha [Brown], mythological figures, the snake and the phoenix—to see what emerged. And of course, so much of the early me, the initial sequencing and spinal whip that I was born with, to go back to see what it is now. I also looked to some formal devices like retrograde and accumulation, to revisit and retrace movement over and over to see how it changes and how it’s the same.
Rail: I saw a piece of yours in that strange Ukrainian dance hall on Second Avenue. You started out “dead” but then you seemed to raise others from the dead.
Petronio: Or from sleeping. If you take being awakened from sleep as a kind of resurrection—well then, you have Sleeping Beauty, just to begin. Not to mention the phoenix.
Like Lazarus Did is ongoing and evolving. Each new resurrection has a different set of concerns. At the ballroom, I was very interested in who was empowering whom: I as the author bringing the dancers to life or the dancers as my resurrected instruments breathing life back into me and my ideas.
Rail: How do you feel when you get up in the morning, Stephen? A whole new world? Or same old same old?
Petronio: I am extremely hopeful in the morning and have a very short memory. So my perceptions don’t feel same-y. Mornings are a renewal for me. I wake up fast and running.
Rail: Are you in this dance? And if so, who are you? Is there a role or are you playing your own role?
Petronio: I am the author; the snake; the fire starter.
Rail: Who’s doing the costumes? Décor?
Petronio: The costumes are by H. Petal, a British designer I’ve been working with on and off since 1990. The décor, including the element of the dramatic: the incredible artist Janine Antoni, who works in many mediums but will be making a “living set” where she’ll be suspended in a sculpture above the audience for the duration.
Rail: Your work has for a long time participated in the fashion world, and the company is always attired in something you don’t see anywhere else, as much runway and designer playground as theater. Why why why? (You detect a note of despair here, but that’s only me, because I love the work as is in the studio. Just the dancers and the movement.)
Petronio: What we wear is a key into who we are alone and in the world. Yes, stripped naked is delicious, but the discovery of the perfect thing to wear in motion is as exhilarating to me. The dance world’s chronic suspicion of the surface of things can be a denial of an important element of the whole.
Rail: When I look back at certain works—not only yours—I find the choreography is as fresh as today if not tomorrow, but the mise-en-scène dates it. Yes, no?
Petronio: I love it when the mise locates a thing in time and space. That’s part of the journal of the time we are capturing in my works.
Rail: You seem to be working again with a chorus. What’s with this? Where’s the appeal? It’s as if you are working on a Wagnerian scale. Every possible element. And yet, stripped down, your movement itself is formalist, unencumbered.
Petronio: I’m social and want as many different artists reaching for something together as I can manage. The Young People’s Chorus transforms the experience of the work for an audience, and we are now a part of each others lives. This is our third work together at the Joyce, and I will work with them as many times as I can in the future. We are building a language and history together.
I come from a history of multidisciplinary stages and must take that as far as I’m able. It’s a much lonelier world without my partners. I spend so much time alone with my dancers and I love that, but I am a social animal, and dance is a connection both with internal power, history and tradition, the social sphere, and then forward into the unknown.
Rail: Do the Like Lazarus Did collaborators all know what the others are doing? Is the dance finished first? Are you working to the music?
Petronio: The music—working with it and in the theater, including the singers, all of that. All the collaborators and I are working from a directive I’ve built, an arc from dirge to invocation to exploration of literal and abstract rumination of states of elevation. The work finalizes in a kind of birth. We are all building along this arc simultaneously and together.

I say invocation and Ryan [Lott] builds an alleluia. I say rebirth, Ryan delivers a lullaby. Janine studies this and internalizes this into a mental focus and sculptural form. Every day someone sends off some new discovery that in turn sparks off something else. It’s heaven.
Rail: Any advice for your audiences? Your reviewers? Things your dancers wish you would tell them?
Petronio:  1. Every second/moment is an opportunity for a kind of letting go and renewal.  2. Let’s not get too literal.
Rail: What question that people ask you annoys you the most?
Petronio: “Oh, do you mean like on So You Think You Can Dance?” 

©Nancy Dalva 2013


Fred and Ginger....

 Marge and Gower Champion....



   photo ©James Klosty


Have an old soul, but a young heart.
Be open to change.
Love surprises.
Embrace the new.
Have friends both old and young.
Study nature.
Study Zen.
Avoid making value judgements.
Cast the I Ching.
Read the Tao.
Make choices by chance procedures,
and regard all results with even-mindedness.
Be clear.
Be uncluttered.
Have house plants.
Live and work in every direction,
so that whichever way you face is front.
Drink red wine.
Study languages.
Laugh often.
Invent new ways of doing things, and new ways of thinking.
Never stop.

Nancy Dalva



first published in

  The Brooklyn Rail

In Conversation

VICKY SHICK with Nancy Dalva


The next installment of choreographer Vicky Shick’s ongoing collaboration with artist Barbara Kirkpatrick, sound designer Elise Kermani, and lighting designer Carol Mullins unfolds this month at Danspace Project. A dancer’s dancer, a teacher’s teacher, this lovely and beloved woman is so unfailingly modest it comes as an astonishing contradiction—even in the theatrical universe of introverted extroverts­—that she goes out on a stage and holds the room in suspended animation, captive to her reticent elegance, her giraffe ways, her silvery, organza movement. Hers is work that is the opposite of epic: economical, allusive, elliptical; given to fleeting apprehensions, elusive epiphanies. And so, we tried to pin her down.
Nancy Dalva (Rail): If we think of your work as a series of short stories—as I do—where is this new one in relation to your recent work at the Kitchen? And La MaMa?
Vicky Shick: The nature of this dance is much more chaotic and that is unsettling. Not the individual little parts but the flow, the transitions, the connections—the whole. Usually the unfolding of an idiosyncratic logic grounds me; it’s harder to find now, the reason being that I’m constructing a dance with two fronts and audiences sitting on two sides. So in a way, there are two dances being performed simultaneously, while these two dances are also one big dance.
Rail: I know you say you don't work in narrative, but there is always to me the sense of a subliminal or suggested narrative.
Shick: Yes, I think my tendency is to have that hint of narrative, as I did in those two pieces you mentioned. This time, I’ve had to let that go and try for something more abstract because of the two fronts and the dancers switching sides. It’s unwieldy and messy, which I don’t necessarily mind, but the lust for that “hint” is, perhaps, inexplicably creeping in and interfering with needing to let it go.
Rail: Who is in it?
Shick: The dancers are Jodi Bender, Donna Costello, Olsi Gjeci, Lily Gold, Jon Kinzel, Marilyn Maywald, Heather Olson, Wendy Perron, Laurel Tentindo, and me. Some of them I met in classes I’ve taught, some I’ve danced with before, and some I’ve had very long histories with.
Rail:  How are you making the piece, working with these dancers? Can you get them in the room all at once when you need to?
Shick: It is almost impossible to get them in one room at one time—and I haven’t yet. In fact, one person lives in California. Even the scheduling is daunting.

I love working one on one or with a duet. I’m very interested in individual phrasing and highlighting imperceptible details. I have a notion that I don’t want it to look like coined dance movement, and yet I am drawn to it being very physically articulate and specific. I’m excited by individuality, “realness,” and intimacy, and want to somehow find a way to accent that. It’s definitely easier to locate that in a solo or duet. I would love my dance to look like film or real life.
Rail:  Where does a dance start for you? A movement, a notion, an image...
Shick: I most often start in a studio by myself, trying to find a movement vocabulary. I never start with an idea. Sometimes I do have an image that I know I’d like to include, but I always know it’s just a little spot, a little decoration, not the nugget that defines the whole. Again, I love working with individuals and with duos; it’s how I feel I can begin to define a world, a progression and an intimate relationship. I actually have infinite patience for these situations and find great value in the tiniest changes we might make. 
Rail: I see a lot of dances that call up universal emotions, some quite powerfully. But only yours seem to show me how I feel, I mean particularly, acutely, me. I don’t know what is going on, but I know the feeling behind whatever is going on. You’ve made me think that it is possible to “read between the moves” of choreography the way one “reads between the lines” of something written.
Shick: I hesitate to try for emotion because I know that’s not how to achieve it. However, I would love for people to feel something. Earlier this year, I fantasized making a dance and calling it “Sadness,” but I realized I didn’t have the courage to do it, to take on something so huge, and, in some deep way, knew that it wouldn’t be for me—someone nurtured in the age of abstract minimalism. I wish I could create a tragedy, like in some slow devastating Eastern European film, but I have to settle for some vague nuances that might point toward it.
Rail: You danced with Trisha Brown for six years. You have made your own work for decades. You are a cherished teacher here in New York, and in festivals, in workshops, at universities, and in your own hometown, Budapest. You perform in other people's work as a dancer—with choreographers including Yoshiko Chuma, Deborah Hay, Iréne Hultman, Risa Jaroslow, Daniel Lepkoff, Barbara Mahler, Juliette Mapp, Wendy Perron, Stephen Petronio, Susan Rethorst, Sally Silver, and Sara Rudner. You are so gentle about it all, but yet your own eye is so keen, so discerning. It seems to have inherent difficulties on so many levels, pragmatic, practical… And yet. Vicky, are you happy in your work? Is there some underpinning of pleasure that informs us, as we watch you? Or of sorrow? As a dancer, you are somehow affectionate with us, your public, and yielding to your dancing partners. What are you feeling in there?
Shick: I love dance; I love dancers; I love trying to make a dance and spending tremendous amounts of time in a studio with the people with whom I am working. I feel unbelievably lucky to have danced with many people—some of my dearest friends—and, right now, to be with these particular nine people working, laughing, struggling, learning, snacking. But I am most drawn to the rigor of practicing a physicality—defining and refining it over and over again, and then some more. And for this, too, I have a lot of patience, which, however, results in very slow progress….

©Nancy Dalva 2013



         with photography from James Klosty

At the piano at Westbeth

He was a man with a mind which was constantly alert to almost everything around him. Very--sharp tongued is wrong--but very bright. He worked constantly....Constantly composing or doing art work or answering letters, or writing books. It was simply what he did. And he may have said things that sounded as though he didn't do anything, but he was constantly at something. Patient? Not entirely. No.
Playing chess in Belgrade, 1972

 Mostly he was, I guess, patient--patiently he would listen to people--and make some remarks. Sometimes those were very funny. He liked talking with people who were interesting. It didn't make any difference whether they were osteopaths or whatever, it didn't make a difference. If it's someone who had an interesting mind, he'd want to know what that person's mind was like. I think he was just open, wasn't so much learning as absorbing.

Rehearsal at Westbeth in 1971

His mind was so bright it could hop from one thing to another, and in great detail. And he could take something which was unfamiliar and look at it or listen to it, or both, or whatever, and discern something about it that nobody else perhaps had even ever figured out.

Rehearsing Cunningham's "Second Hand" at Westbeth in 1972, Carolyn Brown and Merce Cunningham dancing

I remember  after one rehearsal  John Cage saying to one of these piano teachers, "Now you're playing everything absolutely perfect. Just go a little further and make a few mistakes. It was like some kind of eye opener. One had thought that one should do one's technique perfectly--the idea of perfection. And it isn't that he didn't want us to play the notes correctly. Just go a little further. Risk! 

 A very good memory, and because of the wideness of his mind, of his thinking, he absorbed things in ways that opened them out into other directions. He was bright, no doubt incredibly bright.

On the tour bus in France

And funny, you know, marvelously funny.

Photos courtesy and ©James Klosty, with thanks for this collaboration.
All quotations are from the transcripts from Mondays with Merce ©Nancy Dalva, arranged for the Cage Centennial portrait.
Copyright ©Nancy Dalva



 first published in

 The Brooklyn Rail


Interface | Baryshnikov Arts Center | March 14 – 15, 2013

One of the things that Western dance, and particularly here in America, has not explored in any formal or technical sense, is the disciplined use of the face. Every other part of the body has been subjected to many kinds of motion, the face left to its own devices.
—Merce Cunningham, “The Function of a Technique for Dance,” 1951
Enter Interface, choreography by Rashaun Mitchell, who danced in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 2004 until the company’s closure at the end of 2012. After the success of his Nox last year, Mitchell’s run at the Baryshnikov Arts Center sold out almost immediately, and a third late night performance was added. If there is something that’s “must-see” right now, it’s his new work.
Rashaun Mitchell. Photo: Nicholas O’Brien.
Nancy Dalva (Rail): How did you begin?
Rashaun Mitchell: We were at residency at the Dragon’s Egg in Connecticut, which is already a very magical and remote place. I felt that it would be necessary to bond on an emotional level. I wanted to foster and develop the relationships, get to a place of comfort with each other so that we could experiment without fear and self-consciousness. I asked them to walk with me into the woods during the day, to walk in silence and to take turns leading. Someone asked how we would know when to switch leaders. I replied with a shrug. It was a beautiful and intense walk. We got lost. That was the point maybe. Interesting things happen when one is lost. When we finally got back to the studio, I asked everyone to share their feelings. Tears are contagious. Then we danced. I don’t think any one of us will forget that day.
I decided to build the material from movement generated by the dancers. I set up a series of improvisational prompts, filmed them, and combed the footage for material. Then we began the meticulous process of learning the material and organizing it. About 70 percent of it was ultimately tossed. I also used certain techniques that I learned from Merce, applied them to different situations. For example, we experimented with separating the body, the way that Merce would build a phrase in layers: first the legs, then the torso, then the arms. We did this with the legs, the torso, and the face. We identified a list of emotions and each dancer was assigned a different part of the body to express a gesture pertaining to that emotion. They were then combined to make one total body gesture or phrase. This creates a movement language that isn’t naturally attainable. It allows for movement that is beyond my own personal tendencies. In this way I relate to Merce.
Rail: You use Merce’s dancers. (Silas Riener and Melissa Toogood from MCDC, and Cori Kresge from the Repertory Understudy Group.)
Mitchell: The use of Cunningham dancers in my work is mostly a practical choice. I started making this piece at the end of 2010. I made it during breaks in the Cunningham contract. I needed to work with people who had the exact same schedule as me. But certainly, there is an advantage to speaking a common dance language, to knowing someone’s dancing so well and finding ways to stretch that and push bodies and minds to explore new ways of moving. I think we were all kind of craving that. We kept putting the piece aside to continue the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour, and each time we returned to the piece, I had to reconsider my initial motives. Because of this, the piece changed so many times that its identity became confused for me. Instead of fighting this consequential result, I decided to incorporate it, to create a circuitous structure that reflected my state of being. In general, I find that most solutions masquerade as problems initially.

Each dancer is unique and has certain preferences, skills. I think it’s important to consider each individual’s interest in the project. Time is precious and there’s never enough money. These dancers all deserve to be paid buckets for their talents. This is why the extensive process needs to be something particularly worthwhile for them. But it’s difficult to satisfy everyone. Some people love to improvise. Others like to be told exactly what to do. I tried to strike a balance, to keep everyone engaged and invested. The dancers got used to me changing the entire piece with each new rehearsal period. They were forced to keep a distant relationship with the movement throughout. The piece has multiple-personality disorder, on purpose. But in the end, I’m the one to contextualize the movement, to place it in a particular space-time relationship, to draw out particular qualities. 
Function and necessity are important to me. I have to understand why something exists. And dancers bring their own set of stories with them, so my ideas have to be filtered through other people. This social act and transference is the part of the process that most excites me. It’s also the most difficult. In this way, Interface is autobiographical. Whatever the task is, it has to feel believable coming from that particular person. Melissa is the most talented mimic I’ve ever met. In addition to her exquisite technique, she’s very exacting, very reliable. Silas is completely committed to everything he does physically. He usually makes a choice that I wouldn’t make. This excites me. It creates a tension. His face is also extremely expressive. He dances like a knife. And sometimes it’s funny. I love this combination. Cori is very open, very sensitive. Her body is extremely malleable. She also adds a lot of conceptual information to the process and is an excellent improviser. I’m very lucky to work with these dancers.
Rail: In watching you perform in this piece (in Boston) and in Nox, I came to the retrograde realization that your extrovert performance in Merce’s work and in his roles really was performance. I saw you become a watcher, attentive and alert but standing back and allowing things to develop in a space you made for someone else to dance in. So, is this work of yours somehow more you, more Rashaun? More your own temperament?
Mitchell: I exist as a watcher in my pieces because of the practicality of having to view what it is I’m making. I love to dance and I love to make dance but I haven’t quite figured out how to do them simultaneously. I’m working on it and have spent the latter part of this process trying to re-incorporate myself as a performer in this piece. My plan is to deal with this problem head on, in another piece. I’m creating an evening length solo for myself for a future project. This is terrifying, so I’m doing it. Again, problems equal solutions.
Rail: When I saw an early version of this dance in Boston, some of what went on between the dancers and in the projected images seemed possibly to be about mirroring. Another clear possibility was that performing the physical act of a gesture absent the underlying emotion effected the same neural response in the brain as does feeling the emotion first. (Feeling follows form versus form follows feeling.) This leads us down many possible paths of thought about movement, about mimesis, and so forth.
Mitchell: I read a lot of writing from neuroscientist Candace Pert, among others. She states that evolutionary evidence suggests that we instinctively mimic other people’s behaviors in social situations as a way to communicate and express understanding. She writes “that the receptors on our cells even vibrate in response to extracorporeal peptide reaching, a phenomenon that is analogous to the strings of a resting violin responding when another violin’s strings are played. We call this emotional resonance, and it is a scientific fact that we can feel what others feel.” Basically there’s a lot of research out there about this stuff. It’s mostly geared towards healing techniques. I’m not trying to heal the world with my dance. This isn’t art therapy, but I do think the ideas are useful in thinking about the relationship between people on stage as well as the relationship between the audience and performers. When I go to see shows, I spend a lot of time observing the audience. I like to see how watching movement can affect one on a physical and visceral level.
Rail: So, your dancers learned their facial movements as choreography. Not as acting. Just the movements. How did this work, what kinds of feelings surfaced expected or unexpected? It seems like the opposite of method acting. It seems to be reliable, because technique based. You aren’t using sense memory to trigger emotion, or telling a story. You are relying on the movement itself—of the face—to generate narrative in two ways: by evoking the response in the audience as such a gesture does, and because the dancer him or herself is responding to the physical trigger.
Mitchell: The dancers and I have definitely found that expressing an emotion physically can in fact induce the emotion itself. The most emotional part of the piece for me is Melissa’s solo. It’s the one part of the piece where the face is covered. The face is so expressive, but the body really feels. The face is the surface of emotions. It’s the part of emotions that is seen. So along with body language, this became my concern. The visual component of emotions became a really enticing tool for me to use. Expression is decoded and rearranged. To take that a step further, footage of the face is spliced and projected. I was thinking about making sure the micro movements were seen from afar, but it’s not narrative, so that doesn’t necessarily need to be followed chronologically. I am also exploring the idea that we are all connected. It’s very Buddhist. I am not a Buddhist. I do think it’s fascinating to think of the self extending beyond what is visible, what is felt. I tried to actualize this idea by creating material with conjoined bodies. I was trying to create an image of a utopian body, a body that is multidirectional, a body that has more. 
Rail: And the images on the film?
Mitchell: The idea for the décor came from a trip to Turkey. The mosques I visited in Turkey didn’t have representational images or iconography, but rather a series of abstract images, architecture, calligraphy. I admittedly know very little about the history of Islamic art, but from my personal and subjective experience, this did not concern me. I even prefer the not knowing because my imagination runs wild. Regardless, the transference of beauty and serenity and focus was very real and palpable. Each tile being different and bumping up next to the other tiles creates a whole that is larger than the parts and this notion reminded me of dance making in that there are a series of images or movements and depending on how they are arranged, meaning shifts slightly. Depending on where a given movement is placed in time and space and in relation to other bodies, the implications change, so I began thinking about alchemy, optics, psychology. I took photos and sent them to Fraser Taylor as inspiration for his design. We also felt that these patterns related to the visualization of the inner working of a brain or the cellular patterns that the experience of emotions might create. The result is a very graphic interpretation. The entire space is transformed. I’m treating the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Gilman Space like a site-specific space. This is an overarching interest of mine. I’m not presently interested in dance as a product that exists in a fixed mode with fixed coordinates. Why wouldn’t any space, with all of its idiosyncrasies, affect the identity of the piece? Dance is not in a conceptual vacuum. It exists in real time and space. All of the features of the space are considered.
Rail: The title? What does it tell us?
Mitchell: The title came to me suddenly, as most ideas do. When it came to me, I immediately hated it because it was almost too perfect. And it reminded me of a Cunningham title. But it was a persistent bugger. Even though I was making a dance that was utilizing the face as a tool, I was actually more interested in the moments that exist between the faces that are made. When people refer to the piece, they say, “Oh, the piece with the faces.” But the faces only make up a small portion of the material. It’s the in-between moments where the dance really exists. This is Inter-face. The piece is also an extension of my desire to connect with people and an examination of the successes and failures of those attempts. The point of connection between two or more things is the examined locale, which is an ambiguous and disorienting terrain. I refer to this place and moment (where one thing becomes another) as an interface. The points of connection between the performers and the audience and the outward reach of energy from the performers are treated as a palpable but ebbing part of the puzzle. The interfaces are the material that isn’t seen, the invisible strings of connection. It feels like a new way to approach the notion of authenticity in performance and conveying emotion and meaning. Because it’s kind of absurd anyway that we go to see shows expecting to learn something about our lives and hoping to be duped by the staging, but it’s what we do and we hope to be transformed. This is my way of making sense of all of that and poking fun a little bit too. I find that to create in this deconstructed way actually produces very whole, very inevitable results.



 The Brooklyn Rail

ELIZABETH STREB: An Introduction


Clang! Bound! Rebound! The wall is the floor! Slam! Gravity is negotiable by force! Elizabeth Streb was fierce before it was a fashionable adjective, and she revealed all of the exactions dance art used to strive to conceal (and often still does) before Post-Post-Modernism arrived with its underpants as outerwear. She was efficient, she was direct, and however unadorned, her work was somehow—then and still now, though it was more so with her in it—not inimical to metaphorical implication.


STREB at City Hall in London in July 2012. Photo: Julian Andrews
I first saw her work after asking Merce Cunningham, “Whose work should I be seeing besides yours?” He replied at once, “John Cage and I are very interested in the work of a young woman named Elizabeth Streb.” (This was some time ago.) So off I went to an all white room downtown, where a lithe woman of my exact age climbed up walls and slammed off metal tables in vivid action that left contrails of concentrated energy—like Merce’s singular phosphorescence combined with some kind of rocket fuel.

Fast forward five or six years, to a panel at the Dance Critics Association Conference. There she was, talking about her work and taking questions. One of the things Streb proposed was an interest in only “real moves.” I raised my hand and asked, “What’s an unreal move?” It was, in effect, a challenge—but it turns out it was to me.

Because, today, I know the answers to that question. (It took me a long time, but I got there.) As I kept watching, she got more populist, with a generous acknowledgement that her early devotees might feel sorrowful as she ramped up the sound, the machinery, the applied narrative. Her enterprise got noisier. Gone were certain aspects of suggestion, and much of Streb’s personal and ineradicable grace. The calibrations were trickier, the projects got larger. Streb became a show called STREB.


All the while, this perception held: to this day her work is seen as sui generis, outside the dance canon. But it is not. Elizabeth Streb’s work is not outside dance history, or the world of dance as we now live in it. She is a part of this tradition. Her philosophy of dance as physics is exactly what Merce Cunningham proposed when he said “Dance is movement through space and time.” This is formalism. Her statement that “You need to eliminate all preparations and all recoveries” describes exactly what George Balanchine did to make ballet modern. No more prepare, pose, pause. This is Modernism.

Although her programs now have themes—more about keeping an audience engaged, I think, than anything intrinsic to her own vectors of investigation—Streb is not about subject matter, or meaning. Streb is about form—the actual content of the choreography in terms of action.

And yet there is something large in the implications of the work—not in terms of imagery, but in terms of us: about possibility, about teamwork, about throwing yourself at invisible barriers. We all learned to stay upright by falling and getting up again. We all go around throwing ourselves at invisible walls—some we know are there, and some we don’t see until we crumple up against them. Or crash right through.
Elizabeth Streb. Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
Streb grew up in upstate New York, rescued from an orphanage at the age of two by a loving mother who sent her to a convent school. Nuns were her role models. Think of this not in terms of subjugation within the structure and strictures of the Church, but in terms of self-discipline, devotion, and working with others in an ordered way. And think about the imagery. What interests Streb and always has is the intersection of the horizontal with the vertical, and various feats involving the transcendence of fear and of gravity. (In other words, Stations of the Cross.) In one of her early pieces, she was a one-woman version of El Penitente, throwing herself again and again at an “X” of light on the ground beneath her.


Yes, Elizabeth Streb climbs down tall buildings (in calibrated bounds). Maybe what you do the day she does that is manage to get up and go outside and watch her do it. And yet, some day or other, you figure out that that’s a kind of action, that bravery is relative, and that the crazy things Streb proposes and makes happen aren’t alien even to the timid. You contextualize. See Streb’s work, and you realize at some point or other that psychic and physics are almost the same word. The moves are real. And so are the metaphors. 

The Streb quotations used are from her book called How To Become An Extreme Action Hero.  ©Elizabeth Streb
©Nancy Dalva 2012




Merce Cunningham in the "small studio" at Westbeth
"One day we're speeding through sunshine and the next day we're slogging through snow. But it's still a day that you have to go through."
       Merce Cunningham

©Nancy Dalva (2013)