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.