A CONVERSATION WITH DOUGLAS DUNN
Nancy Dalva (Rail): Tell me about this new piece, Cassations, if you will. First, the title. And its meanings.
Douglas Dunn: A cassation is a musical form of the 18th century. One by Mozart begins the piece, a way of being literal with the title, though when I came across the word, liking it right away, I had no idea what it meant. Other words fly off it like rays from an exploding star: caissons, causation, creation, consummation, cremation, etc. These aural associations make the word all the more agreeable as a name. But even more appealing, and surprising, is that the term also has a thoroughly disparate denotation: nullification of a legal decision. This esoteric definition fits well with my inner evolution regarding format. Logistical considerations mixed with shifting aesthetic concerns have over the last few years been pushing the work away from both the three-pieces-of-20-to-30-minute schema, and the evening length piece made in the four to six weeks leading up to a run. Several circumstances—working on the company archive, no longer keeping repertory, and having to gather dancers anew for each project—have been conspiring to suggest the making of short dances that might (or might not) be happy shown next to one another. Buridan’s Ass was such a compilation. Partly because of the unabashed beauty of the music all the way through, Cassations is a more coherent gathering of bits. But the title’s legal signification offers unfettered permission to do one thing, or one kind of thing, then to “nullify” it by doing something completely else. This is often my MO anyway, but to be able to advertise in the title the freedom to be “coherent” or not is a pleasure of complication/integration rarely encountered and surely not something I would have achieved rationally. The setup allows that surprise may result not only from disparateness but also from similarity.
Rail: Who are your collaborators for this piece—decor, costumes, light?
Dunn: I’m dedicating these performances of Cassations to three longtime collaborators, all of whom are involved with the piece. Grazia Della-Terza has danced with me since 1980. Her presence always helps ground my tendency to flail both in life and in movement. Mimi Gross has contributed costumes and sets off and on over the same span. She usually has an historical take on what I’m up to and designs accordingly. Her responses help me see into the work and thus nudge my intuitions. Lighting designer Carol Mullins and I have also worked over many years and in remarkably disparate situations. She has a way of asking questions that turn out to be essential to doing, in fact, the things others of us are capriciously imagining.
Rail: Is the work in any way narrative?
Dunn: When a dancer enters the artificial environment of the stage, she is immediately a character. Unlike a literary character, however, she is also flesh and blood. Dancers are highly active, yet passive, too, in the sense that they move at the bidding of another.
In general, my intuitive response to these contradictions has been to focus on rhythm, shape, and tempo, allowing the combination of personality/personage to emerge as it will. During the making of Cassations the strangeness of these discrepancies begged for more attention. The amount of symmetry and unison in the piece was tending to emphasize the prescribed aspect of the dancers’ task. Out popped “Women’s Weapons / Men’s Poles,” a section that brings specific character, at least in generic, gender-related terms, obviously into the foreground.
Letting moves rather than ideas about them say what to do next sometimes leads to unanticipated meanings. The resulting sequences are often interesting in kinetic terms, too. Working thus without exterior narrative purpose one must, of course, be wary of falling into choreographic habit. But experimenting on this level of three-dimensional texture means that memory is likely to be triggered if former figures surface. Mid-level in the intuitive mine is the best place for me to work, reaching down to chambers below for raw ore, maintaining an awareness of above-ground enough to come up for air if necessary. If dancers are present, I ask them not to horse around physically or verbally regarding what might be next, in order that my fertile befuddlement not be inflected. The occasional accidental gesture, made while a dancer is trying to accomplish what was given, is fair game. But unless I were to reformulate and re-name my company as a collaborative enterprise, I would never ask a dancer to supply material. I’m dedicated to the lineage of individual vision. Nor do I want to compromise any dancer’s future as a choreographer.
Rail: Oh, lineage! Modern, postmodern, post-postmodern, modernist—you have danced through it all, made dances through it all. Your list of teachers ranges from Ted Shawn to Margaret Craske, among others; you danced for Merce Cunningham, with Grand Union, were in the legendary Twyla Tharp’s “The One Hundreds” and Trisha Brown's “Roof Piece.” Where are we now in dance?
Dunn: Freedom of choice is basic in modern dance. In fact our tradition is an anti-tradition: you are supposed to kill off your mentors, presumed to show something new and different. Over time I notice that my work falls into a middle ground. It wants to be neither radical nor conventional. It wants to keep the sensual, textural elements of dancing, rather than the conceptual or spectacular, in the foreground, so that no blatant, one-dimensional “meaning” takes over. But it wants also to have layers of consciousness embedded in it. The conspicuous classical tendency indicates a weakness for elegance and delight; playing off of that essence allows the dancers to engage in some degree of commentary on themselves and on other dancing.
Rail: What qualities in your dancing and in your choreography have persisted over time, and what’s new?
Dunn: Just when career fatigue began to seem onerous, several feelings came up to fuller consciousness to offer balance: that to watch people move in stylized fashion is endlessly interesting; that facing the unknown in a situation when I have the choice and opportunity to act constructively is meaningful; that even though modern dance is consistent in not making the slightest dent in our materialistic culture, its interest in beauty is at least harmless.
Rail: Is there anything you are particularly curious to find out about this work when it meets the audience at the 92nd Street Y?
Dunn: I wonder if seating viewers in the round will make them uneasy. Where to sit? What’s the “best” view? We’re going to have an intermission, so they could change places. A few of the sections of the dance were made for one front. It was interesting to reconfigure them for 360 degrees. Some I left alone. My work doesn’t usually focus a spectator’s gaze; she has to choose. In the round this choosing is all the more obligatory, or shall we see available. I’m guessing some of the groupiness of the piece is a response to this added variety of viewpoints, maybe also to a weakening of my dedication to fragmentation … or is it that the fragments are getting bigger, and some of them end up becoming their own little worlds?
Rail: Thank you for that “she.” In a moment when my gaze is so often locked in and to resist is to deny the choreographer, it will be marvelous to experience that liberating obligation to choose, and the tension you propose between a controlled authorship and a loosened viewing experience. And thank you, too, for this interview, conducted by written exchange. As you have noted, “Dancing is dancing/Talking is talking.”1 Just so. And writing is not dancing and writing is not talking. Writing is writing!