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  • 5.18.11

Gus Solomons, Jr. in conversation with Kyle Abraham

Choreographer Kyle Abraham speaks with choreographer Gus Solomons, Jr. about his dancing history and recent show at Danspace Project April 14-16, 2011.

Interview date: March 31, 2011

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Kyle Abraham: I thought I’d start at the beginning. Thinking about your time at MIT, finishing up at MIT, taking classes at Boston Conservatory, as I recall. How did that come to be, doing both of those things at the same time?

Gus Solomons, Jr.: I wanted to dance, and architecture was something I was doing because I was supposed to. I found that I could get some training at Boston Conservatory because I was choreographing the tap show. I went to the audition and I could dance and they said, “Can you choreograph?” and I said “Yeah, what is that?”

I was enjoying studying serious dancing for the first time. I had had tap, acrobatics, and ballet when I was twelve for about six months. Each year they would give me more classes at the conservatory, so I took them and I was performing all the time over there. I was squeezing in school and not sleeping at all, which you can do when you’re 18.

Kyle: So from there, what nudged you to say that dance is what you wanted to focus on and not architecture?

Gus: That was Donald McKayle. He called me up and asked me if I wanted to come and audition for his Broadway show Kicks and Company. And I said okay, and I went to the audition and I got it. I thought, “Well, if someone is willing to pay me to do this, why not?”

Kyle: I have a series of questions of firsts. First dance performance you ever saw?

Gus: I must have seen some recitals. I think my biggest influence was movies. I would see Fred Astaire and Ginger [Rodgers] and Gene Kelly movies. I would go to the movies when it was continuous. I would sit through the cartoon and the news all over again to see the musical. I would see the musical a couple of times, sit there all Sunday afternoon and then go home and practice what I had seen. Breaking up the furniture at home. That was my first memory of seeing dancing that I really wanted to do.

Then, after I’d been studying for a while–in fact I was about to graduate from school–it was 1960. There was a festival in Boston in one was in the public gardens. I saw a program where Suki Schorer did a Balanchine thing, Martha Graham did something and Limon’s company did New Dance by Doris Humphrey. I’m probably mixing all this up, but I remember seeing all those pieces and thinking, “Wow.”

Then, either that summer or another summer on the esplanade on the river, they set up a big wonderful tent and had performances there. That’s where I saw Merce Cunningham’s company do Crises and oh, my god that was an epiphany. I said, “Okay, that’s what I want to do. I have to do that.” …What he was doing just hit me on every level. It was Viola [Farber] and Carolyn [Brown], Judy Dunn, Margaret Wood and him. Wow.

When I got to New York, I went to the Graham school and was given a scholarship there, I went to ballet at the Joffrey school and I studied with Merce just because I wanted to. I liked the idea. I was also involved at the beginning of Judson group and all that. Sitting under the piano at the 14th street studio, Bob Dunn teaching class.

So that’s what I was doing after I was in New York. I was rehearsing with lots and lots of different people including Deborah Jowitt and doing all these little concerts, making no money, but enough to keep body and soul together. Rent was 30-some dollars a month, cottage cheese was a quarter I think, the subway was 15 cents; You could live on $25 a month.

At some point that wasn’t making it. And so I went and got a job at an interior design firm and I asked if it could be part-time and she allowed me to be part-time so I could still keep my scholarship at Martha’s. I worked there for about six months. A couple projects built, and then I got laid off. And in the same mail with my lay-off notice came an offer to teach in Boston at the Dance Circle. That was plenty of money to live on. I went off every Wednesday and taught two classes and made $60. It was huge. And that was really enough to live on, because my rent was $60 a month at that point and it gave me $150 more dollars to live.

And then after that, I was dancing and teaching. I started teaching and getting asked to teach classes around and then I was dancing with Donny [Mckayle] and got paid for that. Then dancing for Pearl [Lang]–I got paid a little bit for that. Danced with Martha, that was salaried. And then Merce asked me, and that was dancing all the time. Even then. So I had a regular salary.

Kyle: Do you remember your first Merce piece? You joined in 1964, right?

Gus: 1965, right after the world tour where everybody came back and left the company. So he took on a whole new company. It was Valda [Setterfield], Albert Reid, Sandra [Neels] and Peter Saul, I think, and me, and maybe Barbara Dilley then as well. The first piece I learned to go dance with him in Chicago was maybe How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run because that’s the first piece he made on this new bunch. But I think I had learned Septet or Suite for Five–it was to Satie music. And that’s when I realized how musical Merce was because it didn’t look like you were dancing to the music, but you were, and in a very odd way. You know you weren’t hitting the beats, but you had to be here now and you had to be there then.

Shortly after that I learned, Winterbranch, which we did at the opening of Lincoln Center and that concert was funny. I was dancing Winterbranch with Merce and Shira with Pearl Lang. Their goal at the Lincoln Center was to have a repertory company to dance everybody’s work, which was an odd goal, seeing as how Jose [Limon’s] dancers could do Jose’s work better than somebody who was also doing Graham’s work, who was also doing Merce’s work. Anyway. So that dream died. But I was sort of that person who could do all those styles.

Kyle: I know you’re also part of the original cast of Rainforest, which is one of my favorite dances.

Gus: He made that piece up in Buffalo. We were on a month’s residency up there in February.

Kyle: Snow, rainforest. Same thing!

Gus: Same elements.

Kyle: How was that experience and when was the collaborative element of Andy Warhol coming in with the silver cloud and all these things coming together in that process?

Gus: Like all of Merce’s work, the collaboration showed up at dress rehearsal. We made the dance. Those silver clouds appeared at dress rehearsal, I think on the day of the show. And the stage was supposed to be full of them. We had been rehearsing with the image of fighting our way through this sea of silver clouds, of silver balloons, pillows. When we got on the stage, they blew up a few of them, and when the curtain was open, the pillows just blew right out into the audience. There was no way of stopping them, so they decided that they would have to tie them down. We had a few of the puny ones tied with string and weighted down so [that] they wouldn’t float off the stage. And then a few others we had just filled with air that we kicked around on the floor but all the ones in midair, they just weren’t there.

Kyle: Oh. I never knew that.

Gus: In Variations V, with those antennae. Remember? I can’t remember when we did that one, 1965. We premiered that at Lincoln Center at Alice Tully. There were a bunch of antennae round on the space that we were dancing around and through. Those antennae was supposed to act like a theremin, so that when the bodies came near that would trigger sounds from the pit. There were also electric eyes that would change something in the pit. They couldn’t get them to work–correctly at least. Whenever we came near them, David Tudor in the pit would kind of do something to get the effect. But it was the beginning!

Kyle: I read somewhere that it was a back injury that made you decide to move on.

Gus: Yes. I didn’t think I was ready to leave Merce for sure, but my back said otherwise. We were rehearsing Variations V and there were these wonderful jetes around the corner. I was trying to do them and every time I would land on the left side it would just collapse in pain. So I had to stop. Chase Robinson replaced me. And at that moment there were no more black men until Ulysses Dove. So I rested until the summer and then somebody from Boston asked if I wanted to do a piece, a video collaboration. I thought, “Wow.” So I did and I was well enough to dance. I was running around on concrete up in Boston, around Prudential Plaza for a couple of weeks in August. I decided “Okay, I guess I can dance.” When I was resting I was planning, “What will my next career be?” And so with that assurance, I thought “Okay, I guess I’ll start my own company, do my own choreography,” which I’d been doing all along anyway. And I had been replaced at Merce’s so I didn’t see any opening there for coming back. And it turns out when we went to the signing of Carolyn’s book, she said, “Why did you leave us?” and I said, “Well, I was hurt.” She said, “But we thought you were coming back.” Had I known that, my whole life would be in turn. I should have made the phone call and said “Merce, is there space for me again?” Who knew?

Kyle: Yeah, one of my questions was going to be “Why didn’t you return after you healed?”

Gus: Right. I just did not sense that there was a place for me anymore. Because Merce is like that I mean Sandra and I had to do a concert of one of my pieces at some point when we were in rehearsal with Merce and we had to miss a rehearsal. When we came back, we just weren’t in that section. He went on, so that killed Sandra. Poor thing. That’s how it works. He used who ever was in the room, and who ever wasn’t in the room, wasn’t in the piece.

Kyle: That’s Merce.

Gus: Yeah.

Photo by Whitney Browne

Kyle: With starting your own company, the first company, Solomons Company/Dance. What was that experience like for you then? Was it during your year in time, when you said, “Okay I’m going to start my own company.” How was that process for you?

Gus: Well it wasn’t like that, because I was making work anyway and this just gave me more time to make it. I started rehearsing down at what was Meredith Monk’s studio at the corner of Houston and Broadway. I would come in with my group in the morning and Kenneth King would be leaving–he worked all night.

We performed a little around New York and then in 1972 we got incorporated. Then the National Touring Program started and we were accepted to be one of those companies. We toured every university in the northeast during the years of national touring company. That was pretty good. It was a lot of work. In-between, I would go and do a residency somewhere and make some money to put into the company pot. I lived on day-old bread. I got this place in 1972. So that meant I had a home. I had a rehearsal space and an apartment, and I could rent the space out when I was not in town.

Kyle: So you had both spaces this whole time.

Gus: Yeah. This was one space. This whole floor in fact was just empty and I bought half of it. I had enough money to buy the whole floor but then I thought maybe half is enough and I can use the other half to build the walls, because there were no walls; there was no plumbing; there was no electricity. So that’s what I did. That was how the company started in 1972. Then we buzzed along until the Touring Program ended. And by that time things were winding down–the hubbub of things, touring. Because the presenters were getting money from the government, from the NEA, so they didn’t have to learn how to market. Everybody got paid, even if there were 20 people in the house. Which there usually were. So when the money stopped coming, they stopped booking. They got rock stars to come in with their student activity money.

We stuck around New York and I did some site-specific things at Lincoln Center and a nice interactive collaboration with video artist Michael Schwartz and Mark Robison, CON/Text, and an electronic music composer named Ken Schafer. All of the parts were interactive, were interconnected. It happened in two studios back-to-back simultaneously, and each studio had a live-feed video screen and a cast of dancers and a cameraman. We were dancing in the studio, we were dancing with the images of people in the other studio and vice-versa. The music was created by breaking an electronic theme with the stochastic rhythm generator. So as we would pass between the studios, between the two theaters, we would interrupt the theme and change the nature of the sound. It was really quite a wonderful piece. We got a grant from the NEA when they started a program of doing interactive collaborations, where all the parts had to be connected. That was perfect.

Kyle: Where were you finding your dancers for that company?

Gus: From my classes here. I was teaching here at that point in those days and I would find people that would come and enjoy the work and I would say, “You wanna dance in my company?” I remember I had one audition and from that audition I got Ty Boomershine. That was at least 1988, I think. I remember Anthony Phillips auditioned. I didn’t take him, and he’s such a good dancer. Somebody else I met several years ago told me they were at this audition and I didn’t take them either, but I took Ty. He was like 22, just out of college…And then he was with me from then until 1994 when the company closed.

Kyle: …With that company and then bridging into the current company, what were you looking for in a dancer that you are still currently looking for? What is the difference there for you?

Gus: What I looked for then in dancers was people who could learn quickly, mostly that. Because I throw a sketch out and I don’t want to be bothered with details. Learn what I did. I used to do that a lot. I’d say, “Okay, do what you saw. Paraphrase that.” And dancers who didn’t ask about what does it mean. I wanted dancers just to move.

Kyle: They weren’t the costumes.

Gus: Right. So it was about that, and really early on I was not interested in input from the company. I wanted them to learn my steps and do them the way I wanted them done. As time progressed, I got less depressed (cause I was depressed all through the Seventies when we had most of our touring work). I was living with depression. The work was what kept me alive essentially. Then, when that started to lift, I got more interested in what the dancers had to offer the work, so I started using tasks and having them contribute things. I mean I did a lot of random stuff in the early days. The material was always set, but when and where and whom you did it with were chosen by arbitrary means like card games and whatnot. But then when I started acknowledging the value that the company’s own personalities could contribute to the work, it got more humanistic, although it was still abstractly based.

Then that company lasted until 1994. Then I was teaching at NYU and I didn’t know you. I felt like I didn’t need to have a company anymore because I had students at NYU who were good students. And then in 1996 I made this trio, A Thin Frost, for Carmen [deLavallade] and Dudley [Williams] and me because we’d worked together with Donald McKayle–that was 1961 I think. I thought, if I make a piece with the three of us, there’ll be less numbers on this program. That was the beginning of what became PARADIGM.

Now what I look for in dancers–I think I have no hope of finding dancers who learn fast. Let me tell you, as Wally Cardona said after I said “Wally, they’re supposed to be grown-ups now. They’re supposed to take care of themselves.” He said “No, no, no. Now they’re grown-ups. Now they want you to take care of them. They want to know how can you take care of me? I need to be taken care of.” And it’s true. And they’re always going to need to be taken care of in different ways. But as far as the work is concerned, the nice thing is that once you give them movement, they automatically turn it into story, or if they don’t; they demand that you turn it into story for them. So I’m now of those two minds: I’m creating the movement (and this new piece is task-based movement mixed in with stuff I made up). And then giving it to them and having them find who their characters are within it and what their relationships are with whoever’s onstage with them. So it’s that kind of process. And then sometimes very often a story will almost emerge not really a narrative, but a series of character interactions that add up to something that you can look at either for that, or for simply the juxtapositions, the patterns.

Kyle: Your current company, Paradigm, is kind of a who’s who Repertory company. What brought about that concept?

Gus: The company started with us three so-called “dance legends,” and I wanted to continue that idea with notable dancers, who were still interested in performing. I’ve had lots of inquiries from random over-fifty dancers, but we’re really more than just geriatric! I’m interested in working with dancers, who’ve had distinguished careers that are continuing, not dancers coming out of retirement.

Kyle: Let’s talk about your upcoming season at Danspace Project. How did the concept come about?

Gus: My friend and colleague Judith Ren-Lay came up with the concept in a meeting of our board of directors, when planning the season. The concept of Past, Present, and Future seemed relevant, as we proceed forward after already 15 years.

Within the program, there are 3 premieres: The lovely and talented Carmen De Lavalade performing a new solo inspired by the poetry of Ruth St. Denis, a new work by one of my favorite choreographers, Kate Weare in the first ever all male work created for Paradigm and you’re also creating a new work.

Kyle: Can you tell me a little bit about your new work?

Gus: Well, Carmen has changed her concept to a tango that recalls many of her past dance roles. My new piece “Royalty Redux” was inspired by Oana Botez-Ban’s wonderful costumes that she created for a dance I made in 2004, “Royal Court Museum.” They’re so luscious I wanted to use them again. This dance was built around it’s five solos — one for each of the dancers, Sarita [Allen], Michael [Blake], Hope [Clarke], Robert [La Fosse], and Valda [Setterfield] — and my original intention was to have them work together in all combinations. That idea became too cumbersome, both logistically and expressively; the dancers’ schedules didn’t allow them to rehearse in every combination. But the duets and trios I was able to make fit together in a way that established relationships I found interesting and provocative. We’ll see if it works.

Kyle: What advice might you have for a choreographer like myself seeking the creative longevity you’ve had thus far?

Gus: I think you can do what you have a passion and skill for as long as that passion and skill continue to exist in you.

Photo by Tom Caravaglia

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