by Byron Woods
INDEPENDENT: I know your history with the company goes back to the early 1990s. What was it about his work that made you seek him out?
JEAN FREEBURY: I had seen Points in Space on TV when I was 16; I didn’t understand it at all at the time.
I had [Cunningham dancer] Catherine Kerr teach me in London for the first time, but I had never seen the work, and it was a mystery to me. I was very curious and quite amazed at what she could do. But she was pretty intense and I was a little shy, so I never asked her anything more. I was pretty young; it was my first year outside of Canada.
I think I actually saw the company do an Event in London, but at the time it still didn’t get me.
I hadn’t seen very much of other kinds of dance besides ballet until I was 20; originally, there was zero modern dance in Alberta.
I remember the first time I saw the company, live, in 1990. I was on spring break from the [UNC] School of the Arts. I went to City Center to see them; the program was August Pace and Fabrications.
I was totally blown away; they had a kind of physicality that I really liked. I was 21, and at that age you’re looking for movement you’d like to do, that you’d want to perform.
When I saw the company, I said I really have to try this; I have to figure out how to get here.
But really, it was the physicality in what they were doing, more than the choreography, that got me when I first saw them.
What was it about their physicality?
It was familiar and not familiar. It used a lot of technique I’d had already—Graham and ballet— but in a completely different way.
But I’m also really attracted to rhythm, and Merce’s work had incredible rhythm, and timing.
And risk: There was a lot of risk. The way the dancers move, it was there. People think it’s not risky but it really is.
First of all, there was Merce’s idea that there’s no “front” in his choreography.
Yes. “Front” is wherever the dancer happens to be facing, no matter where he or she is, at any point in the performance.
It had this way of freeing up the space. And though a lot of his technique was very much related to ballet, another difference was this: You’re not “presenting” anything. You’re not presenting movement. You’re doing it.
Say more about that.
You’re not presenting something to an audience; you are dancing in space. I think that’s kind of normal modern dance these days; but I hadn’t seen a lot of that.
His dancers were really just involved in movement in space. You could see them in a different way. They weren’t characters. They weren’t trying to be something or someone else.
I’ll paraphrase a really great quote—I think it’s from John Cage—that describes how I feel about watching Merce’s work. Instead of looking at a chair on stage—or whatever objects or even dancers are there—you are looking at an environment with chairs or people within it.
His work invokes its own space, its own environment.
There’s something that’s really freeing about that, for me, when I watch the company dance. It’s about space; it’s not about having a center.
Merce always quoted from Einstein: “There’s no fixed point in space.”
That’s definitely in his work: There’s no center; no fixed point. It’s about space.
Your eye is not directed: You can choose to look at what you want to look, but you’re not being directed to look at something.
Using chance operations is how I think that came about—that idea that each thing happening in that space has its own weight and value. And that it’s up to you, as an audience member, to choose what to look at.
What other differences did you experience in his work?
The second time I saw the company was at an Event. Ninety minutes, no break, in the middle of the summer, outside at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center.
There I saw the stillness. And the meditative quality. It had its own rhythm.
I saw more of the space and the stillness; more of the balance, the poise, the elegance, the groundedness.
Tell me more about the stillness.
I remember when the time stopped. It was like time didn’t exist. It felt great; it felt like I was totally in a different place.
I have it vividly in my head. Patricia Lent had to do this balance and relevé [a balletic move in which the dancer rises from a flat-footed position onto full point, balancing on the tips of her toes].
It went on, forever and ever. Then she went out of it, but it was really slow: really controlled movement.
How did that stillness differ from your usual experience of a dance?
It was very different; it was a profound change.
Most of the other work I’m looking at is about the beauty or the ugliness. It’s more descriptive; it has a more emotional tone.
Merce uses space and time instead.
I think it had to do with the concentration of the dancers. The work required a lot of concentration from me, watching it, and from the dancers. You could see and feel their concentration.
There’s not a lot of work like that, actually, that’s so slow and so controlled, and can go on for… long periods of time! (laughs)
And you’re thinking there’s no way they can sustain, maintain the moment. And then, amazingly, they do.
The timeless quality is the concentration of the dancer. You can’t just be so outward. There’s an inwardness that dancers have to have in order to do that; to be able to concentrate and do what they’re doing. There’s a balance between inwardness and outwardness.
What it boils down to is being in the present moment. Being aware; having an awareness.
In my experience, almost all performances are always about the next: The next moment, the next line, the next movement, the next scene.
It’s as if most performances were a tour bus of sorts; very carefully engineered, through weeks of rehearsal and tech, to take us on a smooth, effective ride through a series of environments and events, and then deposit us at the end. We control as many variables as we can in the theater; we painstakingly construct this vehicle to take us through a terrain, without ever breaking down, without stopping. It’s a theme park ride, of sorts.
But when you’re constantly going somewhere, you never have to deal with the implications of being anywhere, of staying anywhere.
On a tour bus, you tend not to invest in your immediate environment. After all, you’re not going to be there very long.
So. You’re not fully here, wherever here happens to be, because you’re leaving, since the ride remains in motion. Nor are you there, because the show’s still (and here’s a verbal clue) running.
You’re actually sort of no place, I think.
There's almost something frantic in that aesthetic about its constant insistence on the next. Not the here, the now, the us, the this.
The more I’ve examined that tour bus, the more I must confess I want it to break down. Irreparably. Leaving us stranded, with one another—perhaps a friend or two, but mainly a group of strangers—a long way from our neighborhood, our native habitat and, most of all, our comfort zones. We’d learn something that way.
In performances, the meditative quality, the stillness you’ve mentioned is among the rarest of things. Because when it’s invoked, the tour bus actually stops.
I take your meaning, because I’ve experienced it, sometimes with Merce, sometimes with others.
But with all that said, I’m still very aware that in Cunningham’s work we’re still very much in the presence of some very fearsome engineering.
Let’s change direction for a few moments. How important do you feel is the work you’re doing?
Here at ADF?
It’s very important. It’s an opportunity for the students to experience Merce’s work, but also to experience what it’s like to work in a group situation for six weeks: what Donna Faye Burchfield calls the experience of “like being in a company.”
Plus six weeks is a lot of time to set the piece.
Well, it is and it isn’t. But in general, in most cases, you don’t get this much time.
I’m sure Merce made Inlets 2 in a month.
I’ve had a lot of time—and I needed it, since some of them have never had Cunningham before.
So far it’s been an enjoyable experience. I haven’t felt rushed, which is really great.
Cunningham was famously reticent, with the public and his dancers, to use verbal descriptions about the interiors of his work. He strenuously opposed ever quantifying the specific meanings, identities, symbolism or narratives, if any, that funded individual gestures, scenes, dancers' parts, and entire works.
No one will ever know his exact intentions, artistically. And it’s fine; what’s wonderful about that is that it gives you the freedom to experience it directly, yourself.
There’s almost a Taoist sense to it. But having danced and taught the work to others, how would you describe Inlets 2?
It’s difficult. I don’t think it’s one of Merce’s most difficult pieces, but it is substantial.
He made the original work, Inlets, in 1977, in a residency in Seattle with Morris Graves, John Cage, and Mark Lancaster. The same phrases are used in both pieces.
They were on the Northwest coast and I think you can see that when you look—though I don’t want to say too much more about that. For my own experience, I can say I do feel like the patterns of water are expressed: The way that water moves through inlets; something bigger is coming into a smaller space. The work has a circular feeling to it.
When the dancers stop in their phrase and stand in certain positions, I often think of seaweed. It’s almost like a frieze, in some ways, but in others it’s like when seaweed washes up, and comes to a stop on the beach. That’s my own particular take on it.
What’s it like performing it?
The level of concentration, the difficulty of it keeps you very much in the present moment. The fact that you’re not dancing to music means you have to be really aware of the space and the people around you, because you’re cueing off of their movement. That’s generally not unique anymore, but it was when Merce started, and it was something new for me.
Conventionally, dancers have light cues, sound cues based on a certain lyric, a certain beat or phrase, technical cues involving set pieces or curtain. Not so much with Merce, then?
There’s a beginning cue, and specific cues related to lights. But beyond that, you’re really relying on each other’s movements. There’s no other cues.
You must stay in touch.
You must stay in touch.
There was one exception: Ocean, in the mid-‘90s.
It’s a very simple design. It’s in the round; the audience and the musicians surround the performance area.
There were digital clocks placed all around the space. Everything ended at 90 minutes, and the clocks counted up to 90:00. We did have some time cues, and Merce had some pauses in the piece. Initially we didn’t have many cues, when we first started performing it. Then (laughs) we got a few more.
So some nights, it had more of an elegiac feeling—and other nights you were, what, just trucking? (laughs)
Sometimes we had to do it and we’d be really really fast (laughs), but some nights it would be very very slow. Other nights it could be sort of slow. (chuckles) Anyway, early in the piece, we had more cues so we were able to have a little more consistency.
But it is interesting that a piece can, very consistently, take the same amount of time. When we were running pieces with Merce, we would often be only a couple of seconds off from the day before.
Two seconds out of a 30-45 minute work, without meaningful external cues? That’s accuracy.
There was a sense of time—that you were making time.
You’re making these inner… you’re creating movement in time. You’re not always following. When you do something over and over again and you understand how long something is supposed to be, it’s a great feeling. Then you can play with it.
And you don’t need music to do that. Yes, you can play with music because it’s metered time, and you know it. But with Merce’s work you can play with the time itself.
Let’s say I have a solo. It has to take the same amount of time in each rehearsal, each performance. But within that time, the individual movements could be a little different every time I did them; one gesture a little longer, the next one a little shorter.
When you vary the time a certain gesture takes, you have the potential to create new meaning.
Right. Merce gave me a lot of things I could do that with. I would be given solos that were, “Repeat the same phrase six times—but do it differently every time.” He gave me things that I could play with.
I mean, we never talked about this. But I have a feeling—it’s my own interpretation of what I think he found interesting. I know it was something I really enjoyed.
The other thing I’d like to mention is that, in Merce’s work, there are very few things that are totally synchronized. His focus really is not to make people be in the same place in the same time. There are moments when it happens, and those moments come out for a short period of time and will recede very quickly. Much of it depends on the dancers doing it as well.
It gives you this kind of freedom, to do the movement together; if you’re doing all the same movement, you can play with a little bit with each other. It’s something that naturally happens; and very difficult to do in sync.
Let’s go back to the experience of performing Inlets 2.
It’s very quiet when you’re performing it, and it’s a little scary because there’s not a lot of sound. There’s not a lot to hold you up out there; there’s nothing really extra. The costumes are very revealing; they’re leotards and tights. It kind of looks like a classical ballet.
But it has a very particular feeling—it’s the feeling of being really naked out there, though we’re not, of course. It’s not a negative feeling, but you do feel like you’re just out there. I don’t feel that in a lot of his works, but this is one where I feel that greatly.
It’s as if you were out somewhere really beautiful, early in the morning, all by yourself. I mean, there are other animals, other things around you, but you’re all by yourself. It has that kind of tone for me. There’s a quietness—and a pristine nature about it, too.
I see that John Cage’s musical score for the work includes four musicians blowing on water-filled conch shells. Will that be live during the Reynolds Theater performance?
Yes! I haven’t seen them yet, but I know they’re practicing; three musicians who are part of the music department at Duke; one’s an MFA. I’m very excited.
I hesitate to ask this, but I will. In another generation, it would probably have been called the Kennedy question. Do you remember where you were when you heard of Merce’s passing?
I was in New York. And I knew he was going to pass away.
He knew that he was going. He had had his company over to his apartment a couple of weeks before, and I actually got to go and say goodbye to him.
I think I was in my apartment when a friend called to let me know.
I don’t know. There are a lot of things that are up in the air. The hope is that something will be there. But it’ll be there in a different way.
A trust has been established where his works can be licensed to be performed. Still, when a choreographer dies, his or her work is in jeopardy of vanishing.
I think it is. Maybe not right now, but definitely it will be different.
Part of the difference is his technique. You have to be training in it for a while; it’s something that requires a certain amount of time. In our company, some people took to it right away; for others, it was a few years later before they were saying, “Okay, cool.”
If you don’t have people who are training in the technique, it’s a very different thing.
Then, after you’ve learned it, it has to feel natural. It’s not just being able to perform the work and look good. It’s also about feeling natural doing it. And you can’t really rush that.
A revival is difficult. Because you have the responsibility of presenting the work in a way that’s physically representative of the movement, but also you don’t want to present something that isn’t…fully embodied.
Some physical vocabularies fit on certain people like a cheap suit on a Saturday night; sometimes, it just isn't such a good fit. You’re describing a process by which a series of movements—perhaps a sensibility as well—finds a home; one becomes at home in it.
The people can pick up the movement, but their own experience will affect the way it’s done. You can’t get away from that.
Even Merce’s own company looks differently today than it did in the ‘70s. It has an absolutely, completely different look. It’s the people. It involves what the dancer’s backgrounds are, their training: what they’ve done to get here.
And the work is also different. It’s changed. The requirements are very different for what they’re doing; what he made in the ‘90s and the 2000s is very different from what he made in the ‘70s.
There's a difference between one generation that's inventing something to start with, versus the ones coming later when a body of work has already been generated.
His recent work is definitely more linear than his past work, but it’s physically different; it’s had a physical development as he added things.
In the ‘70s he added a lot more. He really refined how the torso worked into a kind of language; before that it wasn’t a language so much. There were more subtle directional changes within the body in relation to the legs.
And the dancers would come in and already understand what the group before them had done. He could build on that understanding; Merce kept building on that.
In the ‘90s he added a whole arm vocabulary that I was there for, which I’m sure you’ve seen, which made the work incredibly complex and much longer to learn. That developed.
He was developing a language, throughout.
In recent years, the dance program at Duke has helped reconstruct parts of Antony Tudor’s 1934 suite, The Planets. Before her death, Muriel Topaz shared with me just how harrowing a process that ultimately was: Two dancers were still alive from the company that performed the work; one of them was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease by the time they began the reconstruction.
Genre theorist Janet Gunn has observed that autobiography is the attempt to preserve something in the process of vanishing. Sixteen years in, I’ve come to believe the same is true when it comes to writing about the time-based arts.
I conduct interviews; I write on what I see because, in too many cases, history has taught us that the written record is the only thing that ultimately survives most productions and almost all performances. I’ve invested over a decade in that writing, among other things, because I didn’t want it to vanish without a trace. I want it to continue.
Cunningham determined that he wanted his company—the constant source for his work—to disband after his death. It’s a decision that must ultimately have some effect on how, or if, his work survives.
A few moments ago, I asked you how important you felt was the work you are doing at ADF. In a larger sense, I’m also wondering how a person who teaches Cunningham’s works feels about doing that work at this point in time.
Since I’ve seen his work and experienced it for so long, it’s interesting to me that I would feel this way. But when I get in the room and start teaching the phrases and working with the work, I feel really confident in what I have to give them. I know what I’m looking for. I really feel like I don’t have to question how I see the work and how it unfolds.
It’s a really great feeling—the sense that I have is so there, that I think I don’t have to question it. It’s very clear. It gives me a lot of confidence: Yes, people who worked with Merce long enough, they have a lot of information. They’ve done it, it’s in their bodies, and they can trust that work and share that experience with others.
I think that will last for a while.
After that, I don’t know. After that, it’s getting a little loose; you don’t have a direct line to Merce, and that’s a very important line, because his work is also about his sensibility. Even if you have his notes and the videos, it’s not the same. It’s not like having a music score. You have some video, but that doesn’t always show you everything.
The timing, the way things happen in space and time are very particular. If you’ve done it long enough it becomes a part of your physicality and your sensibility as well. Everyone’s interpretation of that is a little different—and that’s also okay.
But without that, it would be difficult, I think. If the work is set by people who haven’t experienced his work directly from him, in his company, I’m not sure… It would be different, very different.
I can understand the whole situation. I think it’s sad in some ways. But at the same time, there’s something very specific about his work.
A lot of the dancers won’t have the training. But the training isn’t everything either. A lot of it is the timing—a lot of it is about time and space.
I think time will tell. I think people are trying to figure out what that means.
I think we’ve got quite a bit of time; we could be setting work for quite a long time.
I don’t think I’ve probably thought about it enough.