Choreographer Rashaun Mitchell talks with Ryan McNamara about his history with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and his transition to developing his own work. They discuss his research of psychosomatic networks, his belief in the audience as collaborator, and his process of rendering emotions physical using the face as a visible and manipulable means of expression. Mitchell's work Interface premieres March 14-15 at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
RMN: It's been a year and half since you've been able to focus on your work...
RM: ...that I’ve been out of the Cunningham bubble...
RMN: ...so I was interested in how you were making work in the Cunningham company and now you’re dedicated to your own choreography--how did that shift begin for you and, I’m sure there are good things, but are there any disadvantages to not having that time crunch or not being in that rigid environment?
RM: I think when I was developing work with Cunningham it was an escape of sorts, and now I get to do what I want to do. I was under someone else’s thumb at Cunningham, even though it was lovely. Now it’s the way I’m making money so it’s harder in a way…I’m really busy all the time and I haven’t figured out that balance; how to still have time to go into the studio and make the work. I feel like most of the time I’m on the computer.
RMN: Oh, I know!
RM: I’m on a computer and I’m emailing and by the time I finish I have a new set of emails, so that’s what I’m dealing with now. I teach a lot so I can make money, and that also takes up a lot of time. I haven’t figured out how to be efficient in that--I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel every time. That aspect has been taking up a lot of my time. I’m just now, a year and few months into it, starting to find a balance. I’ve been really, really lucky and I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities and it’s been really exciting. At Cunningham I didn’t know what I was going to be doing, so I said ‘yes’ to everything. Now I have to take a step back and figure out what I have time for because I don’t want the projects to suffer from lack of time commitment.
RMN: You’re asked about Cunningham a lot…obviously it’s about timing because it was very recent, but visual artists work for visual artists, and that’s usually not the first thing that people would ask. So I’m curious, especially coming from the visual arts, in the dance world that question comes up--why do you think that is? Do you think that’s valid or has it just become standard in the dance world instead of the visual world where people wouldn’t ask that question?
RM: I definitely get that question all the time, and its fine that you’re asking because I really want to be someone who handles that gracefully and doesn’t try to reject my experience with Cunningham. I did that for 10 years, it’s a big part of how I’m perceived and it’s given me a platform that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. For me to dog that would be ridiculous. I’m grateful for that experience--I feel I was able to work for a master. That stuff did seep into me, and I get why people ask me about that, I’d probably do the same thing to other choreographers who had been with major companies. It’s a way to contextualize someone and I think that’s necessary to some extent. It’s lineage. People want to know where you’ve come from so they can see where you’re going.
Photo of Cori Kresge, Rashaun Mitchell, Melissa Toogood, and Silas Riener by Nicholas O'Brien
With this piece [Interface] at BAC I felt like I had to address that head-on. With Nox, for instance, it really had nothing to do with Cunningham...if I was making anything that even approached a Cunningham aesthetic I would go in another direction. But with Interface I felt I had to go back to the “scene of the crime” so to speak, to see if there was evidence left over that I hadn’t dealt with, so I’m allowing myself Cunningham influence in this piece. I need to get that out to move on fully. But, you know, Deborah Hay still gets asked questions about Cunningham! [laughter] Clearly, she’s gone a lot further than almost anyone, so I think its never going to go away. Merce was still asked about Martha Graham until the end of his life, so I take it with a grain of salt.
RMN: You look at these lineages and relationships between Cunningham and Graham and Cunningham to Judson and it’s not clean, but it’s cleaner than it is now because there were companies, you know? But I don’t see my friends putting all of their energy into creating a company. You were in a company for 10 years, but it seems that a shift has occurred, so I’m curious about your thoughts on companies, techniques… now that you’re on your own.
RM: I couldn’t be less concerned about that, to be honest. I like having the freedom to move around and I think having a structure in place that is specific would limit that, but I will say that the dancers I’ve worked with so far have all been from Cunningham. And that’s been mostly a practical choice, they’re people I know really well and there’s a common language, and I can say, “it’s not a triplet it’s a DA-da-da,” and they know what I mean and there’s certain clarity in the body and strength and agility, so I have been kind of using the remnants of the Cunningham company for my own purposes. But, when I was making this piece we did a work-in-progress showing in Boston and it was fine, it was still becoming itself, but there was so much work involved with getting the show together and being the boss of the 3 dancers plus myself, managers--having to be in charge of so many different people freaked me out. I had already put in a grant proposal for my next piece where I was going to have more dancers, which felt like a natural progression, but I thought, “Wait a second! I don’t think I’m actually ready for this, and I think I’d actually rather go backwards and focus in and make sure I know what I’m doing for a smaller unit of people or one person…what does it mean to make a solo?” So the company model is not for me right now.
RMN: It makes total sense. One thing that struck me about the press release is it focuses on the performers’ faces. So it’s sort of about charisma, something outside of virtuosity. It seems like with this piece you’re exploring that, and I’m curious about that focus.
RM: It’s a strange blank area in performance. I started working with emotional states and transmission of emotion, mainly because I got really injured at the end of 2010. I started making this dance but I couldn’t really move so I had to figure out how I was going to make this piece. I was trying to heal really quickly and get back to touring and dancing and I started doing this research about psychosomatic networks and how to heal. I ended up healing really quickly and my doctor said “I use you as an example of what is possible,” so I thought “There’s really something to this.” So I started setting up these situations where an emotional state could be reached and then we’d improvise, but I actually wasn’t interested in the emotions at all. I realized that the face is kind of the most visible component of the felt emotion, and as the surface of emotion, that interested me. I wasn’t trying to tell a story or convey a specific feeling but it was more, “what happens if you take the face and separate it from its bodily expression? Let’s think about the emotion of excitement” and we’d play with physicalizing excitement and then we’d take the face away, which is actually really hard. Then I’d take the face of excitement and place it on a different movement so you’d get a weird juxtaposition and reorientation of the body, a restructuring of the emotion, and following the pathway of the emotion from person to person. These things were starting to emerge in the process, so it’s confusing to look at, which I like.
That’s how it is in my life. I don’t really know how I feel, so I’m taking that and putting it in a piece. I went to Turkey on tour and I loved that country. We were all over Turkey and I was visiting mosques and looking at beautiful art, and all of these tiles and abstract images that were juxtaposing patterns, which were very confusing to me. Somehow as a whole I could still feel the beauty and peace, and I was thinking “I don’t really know what any of this means, I don’t know if this calligraphy is a word or a phrase or just a drawing.” I loved that I didn’t know and somehow something was still transmitted. So I was thinking about reading on a surface level and what that means and there’s a dominant idea that you have to dig really deep and investigate and get to the bottom and don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but we do it all the time! There’s just so much information out there that you have to have these filters and ways of judging something at a glance--that’s really fascinating. I wanted to deal with the face as a tool, just as any other part of the body, not as “I’m acting.” If it looks like someone acting, then I haven’t done my job.
Photo of Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell by Nicholas O'Brien
RMN: I feel like there’s nervousness around using the face. You’re really challenging yourself.
RM: I feel like people are going to really like it or really hate it…I’ve already done it, I’m not backing out now! [laughter] For better or worse this is what I’ve been doing.
RMN: You’re dealing with the surface, kind of the visual, and you’re transmitting something emotionally, cerebrally, so for you that responsibility as a choreographer is visual. Are those two interests mostly harmonious or are there times when they clash? Are there times when you think you really like something that is transmitting but not the way it looks? How do you negotiate those two things?
RM: It’s a slippery thing when you’re making something, you have to let your intentions go and let it be what it wants to be. A kind of game happens and dealing with form and content and meaning is making dance, but I feel like when I go to see things I find myself guiltily trying to contextualize what I’m seeing before I can actually see the thing; is this experimental dance, dance-y dance, contemporary performance, performance art?--okay, now I know what I’m seeing. [laughter] And I really was trying not to do that, get around that somehow. Why can’t I just incorporate all the influences that I love and scramble so many references together that you see it for what it is, just a movement and its gone. It’s liberating to me and it obliterates a search for identity. There’s research involved, but ultimately it’s a felt experience and I can’t be in control of someone’s response. But at the same time I’m obsessed with the audience as collaborator.
RMN: There’s a school of thought that if you are at all thinking about the audience’s experience then you’re pandering, and I think it’s such an odd way of looking at performance because they’re there just as much as other dancers are there. In dance conversations there’s this thing of the gimmick, which I’m not even really sure what that means, and it makes it seem like something separate from the dance.
RM: Maybe it’s that a-ha moment that’s easy. It’s the thing that people are going to laugh at or appreciate because they get it and it’s a trick, but if it’s your intention to take the audience out of the experience and then bring them back in then it’s important.
RMN: But, as someone who is interested in the audience experience, how do you weigh that with keeping… I don’t want to say “the essence,” but, keeping the piece how it’s supposed to be?
RM: I don’t know exactly. In this piece the audience is sitting and watching while the dance is happening so in that way it is traditional, but for the dancers there’s all this information where they are interacting with the audience without necessarily projecting towards the audience, but there is an implied/imagined relationship and the space is a 3-dimensional web that is connecting everyone. I’m just dealing with the basic structure of the theatre right now. I’m not trying to uproot anything, just figuring out what it is to dance in front of someone. What is that exchange? The face is interesting because there is all this evolutionary evidence that we mimic each other’s facial expressions and body language, so right now you and I are doing that and we don’t know it. There is a very natural thing that happens, and I know that when we are rehearsing these facial expressions--which is difficult because they’re micro movements, and articulating these specific muscles: not the whole mouth but just this part of the mouth, or just the left eye scrunches--when we’re actually practicing this it’s strange and funny and I find myself having these sympathetic facial expressions when I’m watching them rehearse it, and I’m hoping that’s what’s going on for the audience. When people come to see rehearsals I always look at their faces to see if they are making the faces.
Photo of Rashaun Mitchell by Nicholas O'Brien
RMN: That’s really fascinating--I’m always interested in the relationship to the audience. A thing that I’ve noticed is the specificity. Specificity of space, of performer, but you are able to re-perform these things, and the physical space is so important to you, and also the performers. I’ve never actually seen it twice in one space. In terms of the tradition of dance, with repertory and things like that, does that cross your mind at all?
RM: They are hard to translate. When I started and had three performers and didn’t know what I was making, it turned out that some people are better at making the faces than others. How do you audition that? [laughter] I lost a dancer halfway through and had to get another dancer so figuring out how to keep it going and translate it has been really difficult. If anyone else had to leave at this point I would just be done with the piece, because it’s not so straightforward where you can just teach a step.
RMN: It was made on the dancers, so were you ever in a position of teaching the dancers?
RM: It was all generated by the dancers, but directed and rearranged and prompted by me. Occasionally I would step in and say can you do this here, or that, and I think there was one phrase that I made up, and its funny to even think about a phrase, but there is dancing in this piece. I’m really not interested in making movement on my body…
RMN: This way of making dance...when they are around long enough to have re-performances where the dancers are new and it wasn’t made on their bodies…
RM: Jesus, don’t freak me out Ryan! [laughter] I haven’t thought that far ahead, I’m just trying to get through tomorrow!
RMN: I’m just curious because you’ve done dances that are 30 years old, for 8 years, so you’re in a specific position, and it’s something that I did want to talk to you about. You’re making work on these specific dancers, their bodies, their faces, but you were in a universe where dance was taught to you. And you did a piece because it made more sense for you to do it than someone else in the company, but you’re not the original person.
RM: It just doesn’t interest me, thinking about dance as something that would return exactly as it was, it doesn’t seem right to me. It happened, it’s over, it’s done. I’m already thinking about the next dance, and I don’t want to go backwards like that.
RMN: I think that is perfect, that’s just the best answer. But, I’m going to be in Sao Paulo and miss the show.
RM: Right, you’ll never see it.
RMN: It’s obviously one of the most exciting things about performance.
RM: You have to be there. Which is why I hate when people bring out their cameras, it’s like, “no, you’re not here!” What is that? Be here!!
RMN: That’s a whole other conversation. It’s crazy...
choreography, dance, face, improvisation, Merce Cunningham, PDF, Rashaun Mitchell, Ryan McNamara