- Centre National de Danse Contemporaine, Kimberly Bartosik, Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Robert Swinston, Westbeth
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Robert Swinston in Conversation with Kimberly Bartosik
My desire to interview Robert Swinston-31 year veteran of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and current Artistic Director of the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine (CNDC) in Angers, France-arose, in part, as a response to the uninformed attacks against his appointment, but mostly as a way to reflect on how the notion of legacy is being realized in the case of Merce Cunningham, for whom I danced for 9 years (with Robert). Our living, ephemeral art form can so quickly die—rendered irrelevant—when forced to continue to live beyond its natural life span. But the Merce Cunningham Trust has constructed a Fellowship program which, rather than keeping a dance company alive, allows for the displacement of form and ideas into less informed bodies—with their beautifully unrefined embodied questions and sincere hunger for experience. For me, it is proving to be a wildly successful project. Merce’s work is being transmitted, shared, but it’s not stuck in history or on a proscenium stage. It’s living and breathing. Robert has played a large part in this, both with his role in Angers and with the Merce Cunningham Trust. I wanted to host a conversation with him in anticipation of his inaugural New York City season, with upcoming performances at the Joyce Theater of his company, CNDC-Angers.
– Kimberly Bartosik
Event, photo: Patrick André
Kimberly Bartosik: So, Robert. I would like this conversation to focus on what is happening in Angers under your leadership and invite you into a cross-continent conversation about the project of sustaining artistic legacies as well as contemporary performance practice, and providing a place for that. I really want to hear what is going on for you. So, first I want to talk about the idea of legacy. I know that there have been many myths around Merce’s desire, or not, for an extended legacy plan beyond the company’s final tour. I’m curious how your tenure in Angers is part of that. How did you end up there, and what were you hoping to establish?
Robert Swinston: Because of the finalization of the legacy project, which provided for the closing of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, the only entity remaining would be the Merce Cunningham Trust (MCT), whose mandate is to preserve and maintain Merce’s work through licensing projects and education. It’s just that I had a unique opportunity to apply for the position in Angers at the end of January 2012.
Kimberly: Was that the same year that the company ended?
Robert: The company had their last performance just before on December 31, 2011. I found out shortly after that there was an open call for Artistic Director at the CNDC in Angers. I applied for the job, but my focus at that time was still Merce’s work, his legacy and MCT’s transition from Westbeth to City Center. In February 2012, while I was making the adaption of Four Walls Doubletoss Interludes, I started to work with Claire Rousier to design a three-year project for the CNDC.
Kimberly: Can you tell us who Claire Rousier is and how you knew her?
Robert: Claire is the CNDC’s Deputy Director. She was a dancer and she worked for about 10 years at the CND Paris (Centre National de la Danse) and oversaw the publication of many, many books on dance. She also worked as a consultant, and through a mutual friend, I met her. We started to work on this project while I was employed by the Merce Cunningham Trust. I went to Angers after our presentation of Four Walls Doubletoss Interludes at the Barishnikov Arts Center. We waited until July to receive the confirmation of the nomination from the Ministry of Culture and Communication (MCC). Then Claire and I began to work in earnest to develop more specifically our idea for the pedagogical program for the school of the CNDC. We’ve tried to build a diverse educational program at the CNDC for our students. The diploma they receive after the two-year program is given by the MCC. We want to provide a fine understanding of the various techniques of modern dance as well as foundations of the contemporary dance and at the same time emphasize an approach that is practical, creative and theoretical.
Kimberly: Ok. Great. I want to go back to stuff going on at the school—
Robert: Let me explain that for all Centre Chorégraphique Nationaux (CCN), the first priority of the artistic project is to create new choreographic work. The second is to enable other choreographers and artists to work in our studios and for some artists, to offer them residencies. The third function is our service to the public. The CNDC has two additional responsibilities. We administer an École National Superior and we also have theaters that we program dance in. This is a big service and there’s a wide net to cast.
Kimberly: How many theaters? You said theaters, plural.
Robert: Well, we have two theaters at the Quai, a 400-seat theater with the audience on a rake and a 900-seat theater with an enormous stage. We also have a very large studio that’s the same size as the stage and that is fitted with lighting equipment, so that technical work such as lighting can be done during the act of creation. We also have three other, smaller studios in the building and we have two other buildings with studios (nine in all). We have apartments so artists can be in residence and focus only on their work. An important part of the CNDC’s function is to help artists. We’re trying to work very much with artists in our region as well as with artists throughout France. There are some international artists also, but most are French artists or artists from the area. This is something we’ve tried to develop. It’s a significant part of our work and it brings me a lot of happiness, to tell you the truth.
Kimberly: That’s beautiful.
Robert: We have so much we’re allowed to give to people, and coming from America, we just don’t have this opportunity.
Kimberly: I know. I completely connect to what you’re saying. The ability to have resources to share is an incredible gift.
Robert: It is incredible. It makes every project interesting.
Kimberly: Yeah, it is a gift, and the students and people know that. It doesn’t matter if you’re from here or there; we understand that.
Robert: It’s also the way in France, the way culture is integrated with performing and visual arts. The arts and culture are knit together. In the US arts and culture seem separate, and we just don’t think about them the same way.
Robert: A big part of my project is also the idea of legacy, which the French call patrimony, one’s heritage, basically. The idea is that while you continue to reflect on your history, you find ways to bring new life to it, or create new life out of it. Personally, I have no need to divorce myself from my past, but doing so is part of the nature of a rite of passage. Artists, in a way, must come to terms with their past in order to make something new. I have realized that in the creation of my own work, I need to find my own voice. For our school I’m trying to find a way to introduce our common heritage within a curriculum that will give our students the opportunity to learn Cunningham, but also Nikolais, Limon, Trisha Brown and Forsythe. This year our students have ateliers focusing on the work of Martha Graham, Ohad Naharin, Kathrine Dunham and Germaine Acogny. In November Stephan Brinkmann and Malou Airaudo came to Angers from the Folkwang Universität Essen while I taught their students in Essen. In January the students learned historic solos, and created their own. They have just completed a stage learning repertory of Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, and in April they will begin to work with Jean-Claude Gallotta. So our formation began with studies to build a foundation in American modern dance and will conclude with studies focusing on European contemporary dance. My 4-week workshop was followed by a two week period guided by Cedric Andrieux with the aim to use the Cunningham work as a springboard to create something new out of their experience. My workshop was somewhat strict as I was introducing the students to the Cunningham Technique and was assembling an Event for them. Afterward, Cedric came in and he worked with the students creatively, allowing them to adapt what they were learning, so that in a short time, there they making something new. This is the basic idea to combine patrimony and creation. We don’t have the intention to form the students to become a certain kind of dancer, but instead, would prefer them to discover the roots of their heritage so they have the tools to develop their individuality and their ability to perform.
Kimberly: Let me just interject—Cedric Andrieux was a member of the Cunningham Company and also performed, and is probably still touring, a solo in Jerome Bel’s work. Can you speak more about the school? It’s very important. I know that Angers has probably the most extensive resources in terms of its education program.
Robert: Well, it’s an old school, was began under the direction of Alwin Nikolais in 1978 who was succeeded by Viola Farber from 1981 to 1983. Yes, the CNDC had an American heritage at its inception, which possibly helped me secure the position.
Kimberly: Okay. Well, we’ll get back to that. I’m really curious about this idea of legacy and how we understand it differently here and there. And the idea of patrimony. So, it’s not surprising, but also somewhat distressing, that this “home” where you’ve been able to find a to place support Cunningham’s legacy isn’t in the US. What do you think about the displacement of this cultural artifact, and if its existence outside of the country somehow alters the nature of the thing itself. Is it surprising that it’s France?
Robert: That’s a good question but I think in terms of the Legacy of Merce Cunningham in New York, we did the best we could, considering the situation and the responsibility that we had. It’s certainly a fact that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) was financed to a large part by money from grants and money that was earned with the support of theaters and their programming of productions of Merce’s creations. It became apparent that without Merce’s new work, MCDC would have difficulty to maintain the standard it had established. That was a realistic way to look at it.
Kimberly: Right, and that’s a cultural artifact in itself. I’m thinking about what is possible in our country, and its really interesting to me that now that Forsythe has disbanded his company, there is a whole center—a university of performance—that’s being created for him in California, which is amazing, right? That makes me very happy that some great artist from our country is being given that, while he’s alive, while he’s still with us. So I don’t know that much about the end of Merce’s legacy tour—if there was planning to try to find a space in the US—and if that would just be impossible.
Robert: I was involved in that, and I made an effort. It’s really complicated because after Merce died, the Cunningham Dance Foundation (CDF) signed a contract with Westbeth to remain there throughout preparations for the Legacy Tour. The contract lasted until a certain date, and then CDF asked Westbeth if they could have a rider on the contract, so that it could be extended, in the case we could find a practical means to continue. This was refused. When I was trying to drum up interest to carry the studio forward, I spoke to the management of Westbeth repeatedly, but they wouldn’t offer us a contract.
Kimberly: That’s amazing.
Robert: I think that they were looking for somebody else with more money.
Kimberly: That’s supposed to be a home for artists.
Robert: New York real estate is very expensive. The 11th floor at Westbeth is very large and cost something like $14,000 a month. My fellow MC Trustee, Patricia Lent, who is our licensing director, worked on a dossier to create a Merce Cunningham Center and we investigated different ideas, whether it would be at Westbeth or somewhere else. However, at that time, without any kind of reinforcement from Westbeth, I finally gave upon that idea.
Kimberly: I don’t blame you at all.
Robert: To maintain Westbeth, I reached out to Carla Maxwell of the Limon company and to Diane Madden of the Trisha Brown company to investigate the possibility to share the space, but that was not practical since we all work at the same time every day. I also invited Marta Renzi from Dance Films Association to come look at the 11th floor as a possible studio for filming dance. When MCT found office space in City Center, we made arrangements with Pam Tanowitz to rent space on a daily basis for classes and for rehearsals there. This was the most feasible way to approach the transition. Moving to City Center was within MCT’s financial means and we were able to offer our classes and workshops to the public there. City Center is also close to our hearts because we performed there annually from the late 1970’s into the 1990’s. It made more sense to have an office and studio in the same location, and we have a wonderful relationship with them. I love City Center.
Kimberly: I actually want to talk more later about the Trust at City Center because I’m really excited by it. But to go back to what’s possible there—at the CNDC– I’m curious how your goals have aligned or not with the realities of being there, and the process of navigating an intensely bureaucratic system that has no connection with how we understand arts institutions in the US. Can you give us a glimpse of what you hoped to do and what’s actually possible?
Robert: The administration of culture in France is complex. The CNDC is totally funded by the state government, by the town of Angers and by the region Pays de la Loire. We have a responsibility to them and to the public. It is a wonderful gift and there is a great deal that is possible within our guidelines, and it is more than I could have ever imagined. When the time came for me to start my creative work, I auditioned and took 8 dancers.
Kimberly: Did people come just from your community or from other places?
Robert: From all over France.
Kimberly: So have they moved to Angers permanently?
Robert: No, we are not a permanent company. The dancers are “intermittents.”
Kimberly: Oh I know all about that, I was there this summer during the intermittent crisis.
Robert: When the dancers aren’t here in Angers working with me, they go on unemployment, or they find other work.
Kimberly: I see. So how often do you get to work with them?
Robert: Well, I worked with them for three months the first time.
Kimberly: That’s significant.
Robert: The first rehearsal period was 12 weeks. I made three works that were performed at the end of January 2014: a 45 minute Cunningham Event with the Jackie Matisse décor, a reconstructed Four Walls Doubletoss Interludes and my first creation, Toujours Fidèle, in which I danced with two of the dancers. In March I choreographed Shadowplay for our 20 students. Then, in June, Vicky Shick and I made a duet, a work-in-progress, called Old Bags/Nut Cases. In November I made a program especially for young audiences, which included a stage adaption of Cunningham’s film dance, Deli Commedia, and I choreographed La Boîte à Joujoux to the Debussy score. I did all this in about 16 months.
Kimberly: That’s quite impressive, yeah.
Robert: When we come to New York for the Joyce season, I will present a different, longer Event. I’ve changed it and extended its length to 70 minutes.
Kimberly: Okay, so lets jump forward because there’s one question that I have. You’re coming to New York. This is your inaugural season with this company, with your new identity which is a mixed identity of course—part your very powerful identity with Cunningham, but also you are creating a new phase of your artistic life which creates another identity as a maker of your own work. I wanted to see your work when you came to New York. What was behind the choice to present a Cunningham event?
Robert: The work of Merce Cunningham is my heritage. I work with his technique and it is important that I train the dancers to do his work, because it informs them, challenges them and inspires them. I would be content to present my own work too, but I believe it is necessary to share my experience with the Cunningham work first. The dancers all have different backgrounds and training, so I try to develop a common vocabulary for them. The excerpts of Merce’s dances that are being presented at the Joyce were all created prior to Merce’s work with the computer in 1991. I find that the earlier work offers these dancers a better chance to integrate themselves in the technique and also allows them to find and be themselves. Merce’s work is not easy, since most dancers aren’t used to standing still on one leg so long.
Kimberly: Yes, I know. It’s profound, it really is.
Robert: It is. It takes time to develop.
Kimberly: These projects you talk about that you’ve created yourself, that you can say are really your work—did you have thoughts of sharing those with New York audiences or did you really want to stick to presenting Merce’s work and not conflate those ideas?
Robert: I am proud to present Merce’s work in New York now. As I said before, my most recent program was made for children. La Boîte à Joujoux is 35 minutes and Deli Commedia Variation is 16 minutes, so it is good program length for the young public. I have a desire to communicate, and I wanted to find a way to make a work that people would want to see and that would bring them enjoyment. I was hoping to create some magic with this work. At the CNDC our rehearsals are often open to the public, and I have a great deal of pleasure having groups of children coming into the studio to watch the last part of our class, and then to present a short dance for them. The kids get a kick out of it—they laugh and giggle. I have a daughter, and I wanted to make something especially for children. I didn’t have the need to make more Cunningham work after making the Event and Four Walls Doubletoss Interludes. However, this September I will present a program only of Cunningham’s work, and will reconstruct Place and How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run. Then in 2016 I will make a program in collaboration with the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire.
Kimberly: Oh, great!
Robert: I will choreograph to the music of a French composer named Henri Dutilleux, who happened to be born in Angers in 1916, so we will celebrate his centennial.
Kimberly: Well, I hope at some point while you’re there we, in the states, get to see your work. I think that’s exciting.
Robert: I hope so too! I have sent the Vimeo of Deli Commedia and La Boîte à Joujoux to programmers. I worked with two visual artists, Jean-Pierre Logerais and François-Xavier Alexandre, here in Angers to design the décor for La Boîte. It’s a toy box that opens up like a Rubik’s cube, and every side has a different image, but together they create four scenes. It is a beautiful décor, and I was really happy about the work as a whole.
Kimberly: Good. I hope we get to see it.
Robert: I’ll send you a Vimeo, you can watch it with your child!
Kimberly: Okay! She sees a lot of dance. Lets go back and connect to something you said earlier, about the fact that being in a place that has supported Americans has helped you. But this is sort of a complicated question. There’s a history in France of US artists and choreographers directing choreographic centers there: Viola Farber, Alwin Nikolais, Karole Armitage, but I think you’re the first American in quite some time, which is very interesting. How are you being embraced? What are the challenges, the successes—what is your navigation of the system?
Robert: I think, in terms of the heritage of the CNDC in Angers, the fact that two American artists were its first directors, shows that there is an openness here. But, as a matter of fact, there are quite a few Americans living here.
Kimberly: It’s an interesting moment in dance history because we are dealing with the notion of legacy on so many different levels with many prolific artists. In terms of legacy, there are also living artists we are considering—say Forsythe or Trisha Brown. I’m wondering if there is a connection between this sort of global thinking about legacy, and your appointment there, which goes beyond your lineage with Merce. Is there something larger that we’re all sort of contemplating which has to do with value for history?
Robert: I am not sure. I have been a teacher for many years, and I believe the Cunningham work offers a strong, yet neutral base for a dancers’ training. Beyond that there is also his rich history, his philosophy, and the way he worked in collaboration with other artists. But I also see a great value in other choreographers’ work and believe in sponsoring a diverse approach to education. Of course, Cunningham’s contribution is significant, but our students are introduced to many other ways to move. I’ve taught our students over the course of their time here, and I’m glad that they now know the exercises and that they’re starting to be able to apply their physicality in their dancing. It’s not the simplest technique.
Kimberly: You’re right about that.
Robert: I am grateful to pass on to the next generation this part of my heritage, as well as to inform the students of our shared history. More importantly, I urge them that they find that simplicity that resides in their body. The CNDC is the only school in France with the name Contemporaine in its title and this is symbolic. We don’t offer ballet here for the students’ daily training, but instead offer it as an adjunct discipline along with somatic work.
Kimberly: Yes, talk about that more.
Robert: Well, training in America is much more homogenous on the university level. The ballet and the modern dance techniques are taught together. In France, there is a division between ballet, classic and neoclassic, and the dance contemporaine. I felt an obligation to develop this principal and provide a diverse approach. Not just to bring Cunningham’s work here, and not to align ourselves with a conservatory approach. Instead, I wanted to try something different and to enable the development of a contemporary dancer with an understanding of modern and contemporary dance forms, so that we might learn from the artists who preceded us as well as from the artists who are with us now. In the Solo Project we’ve been collaborating with the CNSMD (Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse) Paris with their department of Labanotation and reconstructing old, masters’ solos, to give our students a sense of their history and a sense of entitlement for their future. There have been many developments in contemporary dance and our students have learned to adapt very quickly to change.
Kimberly: This word “contemporary” can mean so many different things. I’m here in North Carolina, teaching at a competition dance school, where, if I say the word contemporary, it means something very particular. You’re contemporary or lyrical. I just haven’t quite grasped these different notions. Can you talk about your interest in, or who you are interested in, in Europe—who you feel is truly working in a contemporary vein—post Forsythe, post Judson, post Jerome Bel. Are there artists you’ve encountered that you’re interested in either as educators or creators?
Robert: A lot of teaching artists are invited here. Alberto del Saz, who is the co-director of Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance, is an excellent teacher and transmitter of the work. The same is true with Kathleen Fisher from Trisha Brown, who directed an excellent transmission of Set, Reset / Reset for our students. There’s also the very strong work that Cedric Andrieux created here. I have had the opportunity, because of our exchange with Folkwang Universität Essen, to go to Essen and teach there for two weeks, and to introduce the Cunningham work, which was a new experience for them. I’m learning all the time. Last year I went to Senegal and taught at the École des Sables for Germaine Acogny. I was introducing African dancers to modern dance. I was learning African dance too, and it was absolutely wonderful and fantastic. Since I’ve come to live and work at the CNDC in Angers, I’ve had these opportunities and these experiences have awakened me to many new ideas.
Kimberly: So, do you see the idea of “contemporary” being intricately connected to 20th century dance history? Because these are all icons of modern and post modern dance, and I feel like we’re trying to classify the current—the next—movement or moment. We don’t have a name for it, post-Judson or post-post-modern or something. There’s a lot of thinking around these ideas.
Robert: I’ve been asked this question before here in France. I have to say that contemporary dance for me is the dance of today. Everybody brings their definition of dance with them, with different baggage and with different dreams. I think that in France there is a philosophical and conceptual point that they believe very sincerely in their definition of the Danse Contemporaine. I had an eclectic background before I joined MCDC. In the making of La Boîte à Joujoux I was influenced by all sorts of different ideas that came to me from my early experiences as a dancer in musicals, ballet, opera and modern dance.
Kimberly: I think we are in a moment where ideas about virtuosity and ideas of the body and form are being thrown around in really interesting ways, at least here. I think we’re sort of past the notion that to be a contemporary practitioner you’re not allowed to use form or not allowed to make something that could potentially seem virtuosic. It’s a long complicated conversation.
Robert: The last dance I saw that I liked was Empty Moves by Angelin Preljocaj. Have you seen that?
There is rich vocabulary and it is well crafted. The long quartet is accompanied by a recording of John Cage in performance in Italy, reciting his mesostics based on Walt Whitman writing. Throughout Cage’s performance the audience is getting angrier and angrier until finally they are actually screaming at John Cage and he just continues as if nothing is happening.
Kimberly: I did see Empty Moves. It was at ADF this summer. Yeah and the ADF audience, they went crazy for it. It was amazing, but it’s a hard piece, a long piece. When I saw it I had just got gotten off the plane, very tired, and I wasn’t really prepared but I was really excited. I remember dancing at ADF with Merce and people not being excited at all, not that our work was parallel in any way but just the challenge of the work, the idea of presenting challenging work. They’ve changed. Anyway lets move away from that conversation and go to my experience with what’s happening with the Trust in New York right now, and how it’s connecting to what you’re doing. Like you said, City Center has become a training place for people to learn Merce’s technique, and beyond that, there is a Fellowship program that the Trust has created to look at works from all different generations and offer students not just class but access to repertory. I’ve been seeing as many of these fellowship presentations as I can because the first one I saw, I fell in love with Merce’s work in a different way. Seeing it up close in a studio with no production value. Seeing it on bodies that were not necessarily totally perfect in the work, but were really trying. So you saw the beauty of the effort of the body, the rigor, the honesty of that rigor, and being so close to it and being able to admire structure in a different way. When I saw Variations V, I was blown away. It was so radical. I didn’t get to do work like this, when I was a Cunningham dancer, and we didn’t get to see work like that in America. So there are pieces that are being brought out of the fabric of his repertory that our public hasn’t been privy to. The program seems unencumbered by organizational weight. It doesn’t seem to take a lot of money and resources, yet its providing this amazing way—not of keeping history alive, because I think that is a failed project– but allowing it to be vibrant and dynamic. In our American way, it’s making something out of nothing. I’d love for you to talk about how your work in Angers connects with this.
Robert: Well, the MCT established the Fellowship Program before we moved to City Center. We had auditions at Westbeth in March 2012 for students who would be chosen for the free workshops. I was working for the Trust as Director of Choreography and fellow Trustee, Trevor Carlson conceived of the idea. During that summer, I mentored five Fellows, Susanna Hayman-Chafee, Rashaun Mitchell, Susan Quinn, Sandra Neels and Andrea Weber in their reconstruction processes. It was their job to reconstruct the dances, and my job to help them if and when they needed it. Since I was moving to France, we then tried to conceive of the Fellowships in a different way, so we could offer Fellowships and they could be guided by other mentors. The MCT has continued to expand the Fellowships and they’ve developed the program very well, affording many young dancers the chance to learn Merce’s work and preparing more capable stagers to transmit the Cunningham legacy.
Kimberly: Yeah, and it feels like such an uncomplicated way to share information.
Robert: In today’s world, dancers don’t have a lot of money. They need a job and that sometimes interrupts their growth. They often have schedules that are inconsistent. Why not make it easier for them to come to class? Why make it too expensive? Why not give them a workshop that gives them free classes? Then we can all go on the journey together. They are appreciative, they learn and they improve.
The MCT has resources, thanks to Merce’s benevolence, and this is one way we can share his work in a positive manner. All of these Fellowship projects are very important for both Fellows and students to insure the continuation of Merce’s legacy.
Kimberly: Lets see, I have one other thing to ask.
Robert: It was kind of radical for me to leave NY after 42 years, a leap into the unknown.
Kimberly: I think it’s great! Were you surprised when you made it past the first cut for the position?
Robert: No, but I really learned how to develop the patience to go through the bumpy process that it became. Between Claire Rousier and I, and our team at the CNDC, I think we’ve made good decisions and we’re finally seeing some positive results and that has reduced opposition and engendered support. I feel that we have developed a good working relationship with the town of Angers as well as with the administrators of culture in the Ministry. The CNDC is an important part of Angers’ history and culture. I only hope we can arrive at a place where people in America can pronounce it correctly.
Kimberly: Angers? (laughter)
Robert: Well, it’s spelled like Angers. So you need a soft “j” sound for the “g”.
Kimberly: Well, don’t hold your breath for that! Let me give you one last question to round things up: What fears, joys, curiosities—I’m sure there are many mixed emotions—do you have about “coming home” for this New York City season in this dramatically new role, especially to the Joyce where you and I have danced many times together? Can you say a few lines about that?
Robert: First of all, I’m very happy I can return to New York and show what I’ve been doing. I wish to put an end to the perception of some, who think that Merce didn’t want his work seen after his death. In response, I try to explain that it was not his intention that his work not be danced. He always said that if people want to do it, it would make him happy.
Kimberly: That’s what I thought. I thought it was a little bit more ambiguous. Not so black and white.
Robert: With Merce, things could often be ambiguous. But he said this directly to me one day. If people want to dance his work, he would be pleased. The MCT has been sharing his work ever since he passed away and they have expanded its visibility in the US and abroad in universities and in professional dance companies. It seems to me to have been a very good reason for the Compagnie CNDC-Angers to have accepted the Joyce’s invitation to come to New York and show what we have been making. I have been given a wonderful gift to be able to direct the CNDC and its school in Angers, and to be given a budget that has allowed me to create a company. Also, the kindness of the Merce Cunningham Trust has allowed us to dance Merce Cunningham’s work while I direct the program here. I believe that the CNDC’s contemporary dancers can transmit the work effectively, not only the technical parts, but also the humanity of it. This is what I’m interested to convey. The dancers are very passionate, and in fact, sometimes they get so hot, I have to try to cool them down.
Kimberly: (laughter) How do you do that?
Robert: Cool…cool…cool. They are enthusiastic and very emotional.
Kimberly: Well, Merce’s work is very emotional!
Robert: No, but the thing is—
Kimberly: It’s through the body, emotion through the body.
Robert: You have to deal with it.
Kimberly: Are you nervous to come present this project at the Joyce?
Robert: Of course I’m nervous.
Kimberly: It’s exciting.
Robert: I’m presenting things that you haven’t seen. We’re dancing a section from Variations V from 1965.
Kimberly: That is such a great piece.
Robert: And also dancing excerpts from Squaregame, Points in Space, Rebus and Fractions. That’s the longer event. The shorter event for the children and their families includes Deli Commedia, Changing Steps, Numbers, Four Lifts and Scramble.
Kimberly: Well I look forward to seeing it! For me, the Fellowship project also dispels some myths that…well…I think that all sorts or types of dancers can inhabit Merce’s work, and while some might be more technically capable than others, or have had more training, there’s something so much about the will behind the work and the integrity of the rigor that, when that is so present, that is what keeps it alive. Not that the person can do the absolute perfect relevé and hold it for fifty-nine counts, but that there is this attempt that we all endured and that constant reflection on the possibility of failure. Then, the desire to not fail, and that charge that’s created from that.
Robert: Yes, that’s a big issue.
Kimberly: Its profound, that’s where you have that, “fleeting moment where you feel alive,” I think. So seeing that effort, that desire—has been quite beautiful. On all these different types of bodies and personalities. It’s great.
Robert: It requires courage. You don’t develop confidence unless you have the courage first. Then, when you make it through the hazards, you become more confident and the courage you showed can be repeated.
Robert: And then the next day you might have to start over again because you might not feel the same.
Kimberly: That’s true. The next day is the next day.
Robert: I try to instruct the dancers to have a positive attitude about what they are doing, especially when they experience difficulty and struggle. I advise them to say to themselves, “Here I am, and yes, I can do it” and to simply try it again and again. Merce was such a powerful presence, but he instilled a willingness in each of us to venture to go beyond what we thought we were capable of. His presence, or his gaze or the sound of his voice often could set off different, sometimes contrary feelings in all of us, in our consciences. Part of the challenge and, yet, beauty of this process was that it required all of us, as dancers and individuals, to believe in ourselves no matter how many times we failed in our attempts. Ultimately, we realized that it was our responsibility, and that we must dance for our own pleasure and self-esteem and not only for him. This was never easy, because we always wanted to please him very much and to receive his affirmation. Our generation must find a new way to communicate this important lesson in different ways. We have to.
Kimberly: Right, it’s a different world. I just want to say thank you so much.
Robert Swinston graduated from the Juilliard School with a BFA in Dance.
His experiences as a dancer began with the Martha Graham Apprentice Group. He performed with the companies of Kazuko Hirabayashi and José Limón, before joining Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) in 1980. In 1992, he became Assistant to the Choreographer.
After Cunningham’s death in 2009 Robert became Director of Choreography and maintained the company’s repertoire during the Legacy Tour (2010-2011). During this period he assembled 25 Events for MCDC, concluding with the final performances at the Park Avenue Armory Events.
While Director of Choreography for the Merce Cunningham Trust (2012) Swinston created Four Walls / Doubletoss Interludes, an adaptation of John Cage’s Four Walls (1944) and Cunningham’s Doubletoss (1993) for Baryshnikov Arts Center.
In January 2013, he became Artistic Director of the Centre national de danse contemporaine (CNDC) in Angers, France. For Compagnie CNDC d’Angers he created: the Cunningham Event, decor by Jackie Matisse with guest musicians ; Four Walls Doubletoss Interludes; Deli Commedia Variation (adaptation of Cunningham/Caplan Video Dance) and Debussy’s La Boîte à Joujoux for young audiences.
He has staged Cunningham works for companies such as the White Oak Dance Project, Rambert Dance Company, New York City Ballet, and the Paris Opera. In 2003, Robert Swinston was awarded a « Bessie » for the reconstruction and performance in How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965).
Bessie Award-winning performer Kimberly Bartosik creates viscerally provocative choreographic projects that are built upon the development of a virtuosic movement language, rigorous conceptual explorations, and the creation of highly theatricalized environments. Her work, which is deeply informed by literature and cinema, involves complex plays on space, time, and audience perspective, dramatically illuminating the ephemeral nature of performance. Bartosik’s work has been commissioned and presented by New York Live Arts, Dance Theater Workshop, The Chocolate Factory Theatre (2016), Abrons Art Center (2015); The Yard (2015), Danspace Project, French Institute Alliance Francaise’s Crossing the Line Festival, Festival Rencontres Chorégraphique Internationales de Seine-Saint Denis (France), Mouvement sur la Ville (France),Artdanthe Festival (France), BEAT Festival, The Kitchen, La Mama, Mount Tremper Arts, Barnard College, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Arizona State University, Purchase College Conservatory of Dance, and Movement Research at Judson Church. In 2005 she founded the organization daela, to facilitate the development of her artistic work.
Bartosik has received support for her choreographic work from the Jerome Foundation; Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International; New York Foundation for the Arts through Building Up Infrastructure Levels for Dance (BUILD); MAP Fund; American Dance Abroad; New Music USA through Live Music for Dance; and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Grants to Artists (nomination only). Bartosik is a 2010 and 2012 FUSED grantee (French-US Exchange in Dance), a program of the New England Foundation for the Arts in partnership with The Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the French American Cultural Exchange. She is a 2015 Merce Cunningham Fellow. Bartosik’s current project, Ecsteriority4(Parts 1&2), will premiere at The Chocolate Factory in 2016. Ecsteriority4 (Part2) will premiere at Abrons Arts Center in May 2015 as part of Laurie Uprichard’s Traveloogues series and will be presented at The Yard in June.
She has been in creative residence at Centre Chorégraphique National de Franche-Comté à Belfort, France (FUSED); New York Live Arts as a Studio Series artist, Governor’s Island through Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space Program; Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University; Mouvements sur la Ville (France); Joyce Soho Artist Residency Program; La Guardia Performing Arts Center; Jacob’s Pillow; Kaatsbaan International Dance Center; Mount Tremper Arts; White Oak Plantation; and Movement Research.
Bartosik received her BFA from North Carolina School of the Arts, and MA in 20th Century Art and Art Criticism from The Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Research of the New School University. She was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for 9 years, where she created over 19 original roles and toured extensively around the world. She performed in the 2011 restaging of Robert Ashley’s 1967 opera, That Morning Thing, at The Kitchen (NYC) as part of Performa. She was a guest artist/faculty at University of North Carolina School for the Arts (2013), Arizona State University’s Hergberger Institute for Design and the Arts (2014), Purchase College (2014) and Colorado College (2014). www.daela.org