Already & Not Yet: Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in Conversation with Claudia La Rocco
Over the last decade, I’ve gone from being a dance critic who covered Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener from afar to a friend, collaborator, and sometimes curator. The duo has performed their own artistic work regularly on the West Coast in recent years, as well as teaching and contextualizing Merce Cunningham’s repertory, which they did in August during the two-week Signals from the West residency. The first time we ever sat down together was for an interview; this fall — on my birthday, in fact, a good present — we got together again to reflect on those years, particularly as they relate to themes explored in Signals. —clr
Claudia La Rocco: So, ten years ago we met. You were both still in the Cunningham Company.
Silas Riener: Merce was dead.
Rashaun Mitchell: He had died, yeah.
CLR: And I wanted to write a piece about what it was like to be in a company, one of those epic companies, and to know that it was ending. We did a long interview at Silas’ apartment — you two weren’t living together yet — which was published in The Brooklyn Rail, as part of a Merce celebration. You had just started to choreograph, Rashaun. I think I’d already reviewed one of your works.
RM: The one with too many steps?
CLR: It was such a glowing review!
RM: “Not all the steps were necessary.”
CLR: Everything else I wrote was so nice —
RM: That was the only critical thing, and everything else was quite complimentary.
CLR: Which you don’t remember! [Laughter]
RM: It was my first thing ever, and it was like a fifteen-minute piece, and it got reviewed in the Times.
CLR: Because I was there to review Jonah Bokaer —
SR: I was in the Jonah piece. It was called STACKS.
CLR: You were in the Jonah piece. So yeah, things were really different.
SR: You’re at our house now, in upstate New York, in the Catskills. We just harvested Concord grapes, and we are spending time together. I don’t know how to describe our relationship, since we’ve had many relationships.
RM: It’s nice to mark time. I don’t think that I had realized that it had been ten years.
CLR: I was thirty-two, you were thirty-one. You were —
SR: I was twenty-five.
CLR: Twenty-five! Gosh. I was a New York Times writer, you were Merce Cunningham dancers. Now we are the former those, forever contextualized as thus. And we just did the Signals workshop and that project is about transmission and it’s about legacies and lineage and time. You know, one of the commissioned artists, Christy [Funsch], said she thinks of her lineage not as a vertical but as a field, as a horizontal. I think I do both; there’s definitely figures in the past that are important to me, and that are tyrannical for me, but there are also friendships like this one, my foundational relationships. The Signals project is in part about looking back at something from a place, time-wise but also geographically. We’ve commissioned contemporary West Coast artists, Bay Area artists, to be in conversation with Cunningham’s modern work. And he comes from the Pacific Northwest, as do several seminal “New York” dance artists. Trisha Brown, Mark Morris. And then they go, right?
RM: They go to New York. They go to the big city.
CLR: I think it’s often seen as a one-way street, when in reality the exchange is much more fluid. You’ve done various things on the West Coast in recent years, including working regularly in LA and the Bay Area, presenting your work as well as facilitating Cunningham projects. You attended an Anna Halprin workshop not too long ago, and we’re sitting and looking at your dance deck in progress.
RM: It’s a direct reference.
CLR: Yes, there’s a direct visual reference in front of us to Anna Halprin.
SR: You know, it’s been a big year, Merce-wise. Rashaun is a member of the Merce Cunningham Trust, and the Merce Cunningham centenary celebration has been on the horizon for a long time. We’ve been involved in lots of different ways with all of that, and I think we knew — particularly because of Signals from the West — it was going to be a lot of thinking about teaching, re-orienting the way things are thought about or taught with Merce’s work. That workshop was the culmination of a huge amount of diffuse research around the potential of pedagogy around Merce’s work. I’m reeling from it a little bit, because it went so well — I can’t wait to see what the artists do, but it almost doesn’t matter to me because the process was really positive and rewarding. We were able to connect with people in a new way around this person’s work — which is all separate from my own individual feelings of how it’s hard to be a “former Merce Cunningham dancer.” How that will never not be a majority stakeholder in my known identity.
CLR: Right. When I was teaching at Stanford a few years ago I sent a picture, I think to both of you — I was giving a talk and I was advertised as “former New York Times dance critic” and we were joking that I should do the whole lecture in the past tense.
RM: Yes, yes, yes. Did you ever do anything like that? Because that’s still a good idea, by the way.
CLR: That’s a future project for us all. [Laughter]
RM: It’s interesting to reflect: ten years ago, when we were doing our first interview with you, there was this sense of the possibilities of what we could do or where we could go. There was a sense that there were things to be discovered and there was an opportunity — I mean, in a way we were being kicked out of the house, so you have to go and like, figure it out. And we did turn our attention to the West Coast a lot. Especially because we were both interested in travel and there was something about, I don’t know, the myth of the Great Outdoors or the call to the West or something that was present and nascent.
That idea dovetails really beautifully for me with this idea that Merce had all of these aspects of himself in his artistry that are mostly unknown, or get swept under the rug or left behind. My interest in this post-Cunningham time is looking at how we can uncover those things and make that information available to people. There’s such a reductive read on what he is — and what his work was and how it operated. It’s been interesting to try to figure out ways of diversifying that conversation.
CLR: Can one or both of you say like, what’s the two-sentence, reductive Cunningham read?
RM: Chance. We’ll just see what happens.
SR: Dice! They roll dice!
[Please imagine comically exaggerated voices and facial expressions, as well as expansive gesturing.]
RM: Sorry, that was the comical version. The answer-with-words version is that people think they know how Merce made dances because they know the words “chance procedures,” or they understand something about John Cage. The reality is that the systems he worked with were so complex and so labor intensive, and they were not a part of the process the dancers really ever witnessed, other than to see like, scraps of notes or him rolling dice. The majority of the work of understanding any questions about how or why or with what methodology this work was made has not been done yet. During the workshop we were trying to let people in on some of the constructions or structures or methods with which the work got made.
SR: There’s another side of this, which is I’ve heard people question or mistrust the idea, even, that he used chance to make dances: how is it possible that someone could have done that and made decisions through systems outside of himself when all the dances look the same?
RM: And it’s a very interesting question, actually, because like, how does that happen?
CLR: You both had said that there wasn’t a blueprint for designing this workshop: it was an experiment in its own right. I’m curious about the ways in which working with these ten artists, from Alex Escalante, who had a personal relationship with Cunningham as his assistant in the late years of Cunningham’s life, to artists from non-dance traditions who were like, “Oh Cunningham. He collaborated with John Cage, or something?” — I’m interested in the ways in which that was liberating, or the ways in which it was stymying.
RM: It was liberating in the actual exchange with people in the moment. Leading up to it, there were so many unknowns and I would say it was much more stressful to imagine how it would play out? And to prepare for the different eventualities; how to keep one person engaged and challenged while another person is entering from a much more novice level. That’s a challenge for any teacher or any leader or any organizer. We thought about that a lot, and we had many conversations where I expressed my — [Laughter] — my anxiety about the situation. But the thing is, in the end — and I want to say that this is specific to the Bay Area or to the culture there — it wasn’t an issue at all. In fact, everyone came with such openness and such willingness to move across their own border lines, you know?
SR: I always get nervous when we talk about “the Bay Area” or “California” as being one thing.
SR: But there are characteristics that —
RM: It feels very stereotypical to me. And you can say the same thing about New York, and there would be arguments for and against whatever statement.
CLR: They’re true and they’re not true.
RM: Yeah, exactly.
SR: My feeling about that is that the ten individuals in the room were all really bright-eyed and willing through whatever magical proposal they received. However it was framed for them, they came being like, “Okay, I am here.” You’re right, we did work really hard to try and think about how we might construct a workshop or a process around the people that they actually were. Because they were all really different from each other, and some of them are dance artists and some of them don’t consider themselves to be dance artists.
CLR: Different for sure, but connected by all being artists who are doing interesting things in rich and diverse communities of makers. And they’re all curious. I didn’t get any feeling of, like, “I’m from here and this is my position and I’m not moving.”
SR: I felt really ready to have identity politics conversations and whiteness conversations around this work. Partly because those are interesting conversations to have, and those conversations have not really been had around Merce’s work because it’s all, swathed in the protection of abstraction somehow, which is really being dismantled right now in a very important way.
RM: But it’s swathed by people from the outside, not the inside. He never used the word “abstraction.” He also, I don’t think, ever referred to it as white, but it is white.
CLR: That generation didn’t necessarily see the ways in which they were white. They were like, “We’re counterculture because we’re queer or we’re poor or we’re doing work that isn’t accepted.” But they wouldn’t see the ways in which they were part of a mainstream —
SR: Which, maybe they weren’t at the time.
RM: There were instances in which, you know, the one Black member of the early company — Gus Solomons Jr., who was from Massachusetts touring the South and encountering segregated situations, and being shocked and trying to deal with performing in that context. Carolyn [Brown] talks about it in her book. The company members were willing and bravely forged their path forward and through that. So I think the narrative for them was that: we’re progressive, we’re inclusive in some ways. Even though obviously they could have gone a lot further.
SR: To think about what actually did happen at the workshop, I felt like people were scared that they were going to have to Dance, capital D. And maybe without really thinking about it, Rashaun and my practice has been moving more and more toward a much more open way of thinking about dance — it’s a continuum that includes people where they are. And so I felt like what we were able to do in that workshop is overlay an ongoing creative practice and re-orient the relevancy of Merce’s work. People in the workshop even said this — his work is seen as elite or separate or —
SR: Yeah, like not allowed to be for everyone.
CLR: Which is true on one level right? You went to his studio and you were chosen or you weren’t. I’m thinking of a friend’s experience going there and being told, you don’t have the right body for this. So, that is a thing that happened.
RM: It is a thing that happened. But I think the only thing you could really assign to Merce in this narrative is a role of maybe, possibly, neglect; I think that if Merce had been aware that students were being told specific things about their bodies, he wouldn’t have liked that. I don’t know, but that’s my feeling. So what we’re talking about is a story about one individual who came in and studied with one individual who actually was never in the Cunningham company, never performed the work, was somehow a sanctioned teacher of the work —
CLR: But that’s often the case, right? The hardening of the thing into the legacy.
RM: And it’s such an interesting thing for me to talk about, think about: how the work and the artist and the role of the artist get extended into these other subjective places —
CLR: And stunted by them.
RM: And stunted by them. And the apparatus around the work becomes in a way, synonymous to the work, or is the way that the work is represented to the public. Those are different things, but they get collapsed and there’s a blurring there. Part of my interest is in siphoning those things out and making those distinctions clear. Because Merce would have never said anything like that, to anyone.
SR: Well, and one thing that we did really get to do in the workshop, which is so important and it seems really stupid to even say it, but like, we did the work. We taught the steps and the structures of the dances.
CLR: I took a Cunningham class. I’d never done that!
SR: You actually did.
RM: Everyone did!
SR: Everyone did.
CLR: Everyone did.
RM: And this is the other thing about the unspoken aspect of transmission — you’re bringing so much of your own individuated, subjective experience to the situation. It’s hard to distinguish when you’re a surrogate of someone else and when you’re yourself. We’ve really drawn upon our own discoveries and our own practices and our own experiences as teachers —
SR: And as artists.
RM: — and we’ve used those things —
SR: You have to!
RM: — as tools for, I don’t know, getting to a deeper truth about Merce.
SR: I feel both really fortunate and also it’s difficult to always be coming back to Merce. It’s really rich, because the work is really rich. But he’s always there.
CLR: Well, let’s go back to Anna Halprin. Megan Metcalf, who wrote the piece for Open Space about RETROFIT, your Desire Lines project at SFMOMA — which we should also talk about — once told me, when people would ask his opinion of the Judson Dance Theater artists, Cunningham was pretty non-committal. There was a generational gap or he didn’t feel that what they were doing was in keeping with what he was doing, or he didn’t feel part of it, or I don’t know — I’m on thin ice here! But, what she did say is that he would recommend Halprin for East Coast gigs rather than the Judson crowd and point to her as an important figure. And I know that for your Marfa performance with Phillip [Greenlief, the saxophonist], Halprin was obviously a referent, and you, Rashaun, took a workshop with her. I’m curious how you would talk about Halprin as an influence and as source material. I interviewed her once on her dance deck, and she said something about like, “Oh yeah, Cunningham blah blah, Rauschenberg blah blah, they get all the attention because they’re men and they’re from the East Coast.”
RM: And they did, and it’s true. [Laughter] And I guess that’s the narrative of the East Coast-West Coast divide also, like going way back.
CLR: Which is also a reductive narrative, but also not untrue.
SR: Yeah, I think it was — sorry, the robins are being super creepy. They’re like —
RM: They’re always creepy.
SR: — those kids who weren’t invited to the party, but they’re at the party and they’re like, “You guys hanging out? Can we come and hang out?”
RM: The Anna Halprin thing came from a very specific place, because we were commissioned to do a performance in Marfa that was a celebration of her. And so it seemed like a no-brainer to go and study with her and try to have a direct experience with this person that I was supposed to be like, referencing or emulating or celebrating. I don’t know which came first, chicken or egg, but I have always been someone who has identified as an improviser, even before I was a Cunningham dancer. Even before I was a dancer, period. So after leaving Cunningham, I think it was one of those bucket list things to explore: how can I go back to a source, you know? So many things have been watered down. Everything has been sort of proselytized, what’s the word, dispersed, disseminated. Let’s go study with this person who may not be around very much longer and see what they have to offer. I remember when we left the Cunningham company and Jamie Scott started dancing for Trisha Brown, I was like, how do you go from Cunningham to Trisha Brown? Like, how do you go from one aging legend to another aging legend? Wouldn’t you want to work with someone who is younger and you know, going to be able to make work for a little while? [Laughter] So this was my version of that, and it was just a one-week workshop.
CLR: With Sophia Wang, another of the commissioned artists, as one of the participants.
RM: Sophia Wang! Who I love. And I think there was an interest for me in continuing to open the space of where dance could be. I danced for Merce for eight years, and then two and a half years before that as an understudy. And my most memorable, activating experiences of dancing that work was always in non-traditional spaces. It was outside, or, “Oh, we have to do this performance in this weird banquet hall.” Or in a warehouse or for film or something. I found those experiences to be much more challenging and engaging; there was more space to explore questions that I had that weren’t given to me. And so I wanted to work with this person who had been a pioneer of taking dance into other contexts. But you know, it all circles back to Merce always, all the time, which is sort of frustrating and kind of beautiful and poetic. Because he was there, you know, he went and performed on Anna’s deck. He was friends with her. And this is another aspect of him that I think people would never think was there, you know? Artists aren’t unchanging, perfectly arrived at things. It’s like, we evolve, people go through different experiences. Merce was someone who, when he was younger and when he was able-bodied, was very much experimenting with the form and basically just saying yes to whatever came his way. And then of course everything got, you know, standardized, and now we know him as this monolithic thing.
SR: Well, he got funded. He got essentially infinitely funded, funded forever. Which does a really different thing to someone.
RM: The new 3-D film by Alla Kovgan does a really good job of portraying that narrative and that struggle. This long period of time when he was working, before he was accepted into the canon, right?
SR: I remember my first dance class. I was nineteen, so it’s a clear-headed memory for me. The felt experience of that wasn’t inside of childhood or adolescent confusion; it’s just like, adult confusion. And so, in approaching these workshops, or approaching thinking about people who don’t consider themselves dancers or don’t have dance training — it wasn’t that long ago that I was also that person. Like everything else, that has informed my approach to teaching this work, which people see as really rarified or really special or different or hard. I also was going to say something about Merce and Judson — I’m not an expert on any of this.
CLR: Megan Metcalf will fact-check all of us.
SR: Megan Metcalf will tell you that all of those Judson artists were taking class at Merce’s studio. Half of them were in the company. Merce was older than all of them and very much not included. And there are a few pieces from that time that really look like Merce trying to deal with Judson. There’s props sometimes. There’s tasks. There’s definitely Merce being like, “I need to relate to this relevant information as well. It’s the ’60s.”
RM: Merce always had that stuff in his work — but he didn’t center it in the same way.
SR: My totally unsubstantiated view is that he was pissed about Judson getting a lot of visibility and him not being a part of it. It’s inevitable: you don’t want to take your parents to the club with you. Of course he grew up, of course he got older, of course there were younger people bucking the system.
CLR: If Cunningham’s the dad who isn’t going to the club with Judson, is Halprin in that case the grandmother?
SR: She went to the club.
RM: They were more contemporaries, but on different coasts and doing completely different things. And maybe neither of them had completely defined what they were doing yet.
CLR: Well it’s interesting, Silas, for you to describe having the adult memory of the person who takes that first dance class, because Halprin goes the other way, right? She goes towards people who aren’t dancers —
RM: Does she though? That wasn’t my experience in the workshop.
CLR: Well, I’m thinking of her disavowal of concert dance, which was decades ago and perhaps doesn’t reflect where she is right now — but for a time she certainly was moving away from that world.
SR: The other thing I wanted to mention was the nature dances and the West Coast. People always point to Merce’s drawings of birds and his being from Centralia, Washington, and these works that he did that were considered nature studies. People relate those works to a felt sense of the outside world, and they connect that to where he was from, not his entire life living in New York City.
CLR: Do you think that’s incorrect, or a simplification —
RM: I think he was observant no matter where he was.
SR: I have difficulty with it when it’s like, “The Blue Period.” Or like, this was a sequence of études that he was working on. There are so many ideas in his work, and they’re all on top of each other and he’s not talking about them. And so yeah, there’s absolutely a kind of nature time. But you could also look at it through a lens of Zen Buddhism and things happening and things not happening and a million other ways. They’re super, deeply constructed experiences of time that have many, many systematic layers of asking questions, receiving answers to those questions, and putting those answers into grids and matrices. And so all of that, altogether, to reduce it to, “Yeah, it’s a nature study, because he was doing nature studies at that time.” I don’t know.
CLR: “He liked birds!”
SR: He really liked birds.
CLR: Who doesn’t like birds? Could we talk a little bit about Desire Lines and its different iterations? It’s a work or a process or a practice that you’ve done now in a lot of different places, including SFMOMA. Its first full iteration was in Madison Square Park?
SR: Yes. That’s the first time we called it that. Which was in the summer of 2017.
RM: Well, we came up with the concept when we were working on the Anna Halprin piece. And it had come from our — our hiking practice. I don’t really call it a “practice.” Since that’s annoying.
SR: I do think that at some point we realized that the hiking that we were doing was in fact, a practice. The larger frame for me is that Rashaun and I make work together, which requires a lot of talking to each other all the time, about everything. And maybe I’m so stupid, because that’s what everybody is doing all the time — but because we make work together we always have this internal dramaturgy, needing to constantly explain to each other all the things that are happening. It’s different than the idea of an art practice as a solitary thing, there’s no figuring stuff out on your own.
RM: And not just explain, but negotiate, navigate, the process of decision-making; like, the layers of processing that you go through and compromising. It started to feel like a kind of microcosm for how one could be in the world, in a way that was fruitful or engaging.
SR: Moving through space — much like what we’re doing right now, which is occupying our hands — is a register for my thinking that is very particular. I think different things when I’m moving through space at human speed or bike speed or car speed.
RM: And tracking yourself through time, and the duration that it takes and the smaller increments of your attention as you move through different environments. All of that felt analogous to dance-making. And then of course, it actually does seem to activate the brain and creativity in a specific way, because you’re active in your body.
SR: Are you literally finding all the green ones and eating them?
RM: Yes, she loves the green ones!
CLR: I’m helping.
SR: I think after being in an environment like the Cunningham company where decisions are made from top down and there’s a really specific, finite aspect of the work that you’re involved in — we just were interested in exploring other things. Bringing in other people’s agency, and responding to environments that were complex or changing, felt liberating and felt like something to explore that was outside of the very large shadow of Merce Cunningham.
CLR: The overall practice of Desire Lines starts at first during a residency you had in Water Mill. You’re outside, you begin a “noticing” practice, it’s informed by being in Marfa and being attuned to Anna Halprin and that whole body of work, much of which is outside and site-specific. And then you do it in Madison Square Park, which is also outside. So then when you move it to SFMOMA for RETROFIT, which is very much inside and is a pristine white space —
SR: Yeah, it was the first time we’d ever done anything like that.
CLR: — what are the negotiations that are necessary for that, and can you say it’s site-specific if it’s in a white box in a museum?
RM: I don’t think we used the word “site-specific”— everything that I’ve ever made, even if it’s in a theater, I would say it’s site-specific, in the sense that it’s made for that particular place; it’s responding to the features of the space, its history and its surrounding culture.
CLR: So what’s the specificity that SFMOMA’s Desire Lines is made from?
RM: Well, it was part of the Rauschenberg show, in a way.
CLR: Which again — after escaping these big names, puts you right up against one.
RM: Again. But I think we sidestepped that by looking at Anna Halprin and thinking about, yes, we’re in a white box.
SR: We sidestepped, but we didn’t dodge it. We were like, this is how we’re approaching this relationship.
RM: We did dodge it.
SR: I don’t think we dodged it at all. We brought in essentially everything that the museum considered trash, or things that they wouldn’t mind if we used, and we made them a part of the show. That’s a direct reference, quotation, to a process that Rauschenberg did with the Cunningham company. So, I don’t think we were dodging —
RM: I don’t think it’s a direct reference to what he did with the Cunningham company. It’s a direct reference to what he did, period. And he did it before, during, after the Cunningham company.
CLR: But those Cunningham years are formative for Rauschenberg.
RM: Sure, sure. And they were for us too.
SR: Well, one of the parts of Desire Lines that was really on display at SFMOMA, is like a rolling in or achieving a comfort level with the idea of transgression: approaching that white space and being like okay, we are here, we’re allowed to be here. We want to do the right thing for this space and also the wrong thing. And to come into this space — not to be totally punk about it, but to accept that part of the world that we’re trying to create is this form of queer utopia that is like, yes we are bouncing off the walls right now, we are building a fort. We are building a mountain, we are building a tower. We are destroying the tower. We are constantly building and destroying all of these things. And there were so many different parallel audiences at RETROFIT. The curators would come and like —
RM: [Describing Silas] He crosses all parts of limbs and admires.
SR: They were so consider-y with what they were considering. And then there were people who could not be less interested in the thing that they were watching.
RM: Cell phone, taking a photo of this for Instagram.
CLR: And people who loved it and stayed, don’t forget that part.
RM: People who loved it and stayed, which was really beautiful.
SR: Sometimes the double cross-y curators also stayed. I think there’s something for everyone in that work; it’s constantly mutating and evolving in the way that it is passing through time, and it never really knows where it’s going necessarily. So there’s all of these ways that yes, it is very carefully crafted to appease a serious visual art audience. It’s also trying to be interesting to look at. Like, for everybody.
RM: But I think it more comes from considering found object-ness and how can you make something out of what you already have that is intrinsic to a space; something that is available to us in every moment and can change daily so that you can just be exactly working in the moment, versus arriving with an object of a dance: a thing that has very clear parameters and has to be mounted in a very specific way.
CLR: Never mind an object for a film that is a dance as well, which Tesseract was, and how complicated and intense that project was.
SR: Exactly. And a lot of Desire Lines was in direct reactionary response to feelings that we had with Tesseract. I mean, there was parts of it that had been seeded earlier, but Tesseract had a profound effect on us — a deep desire to work differently. To work with what you already have, to not come in with restraints that must be met. To not be rigid.
RM: What’s here, what do you have? Okay, let’s make something out of that. And this is a thing that I would say Phillip Greenlief helped to influence. I really admire the way that he centers the improvisational moment and sort of almost scoffs at preparing. But in actuality, his whole life is a preparation for the thing that he’s doing, and so how can you be effective in an improvisation and in a spontaneous moment? Well, you need to have some tools, and you need to develop some ideas. And so I think that’s where the practice of Desire Lines started. A lot of it was drawing upon our own organic response methods that we developed without really even necessarily communicating or acknowledging with each other over the years, because we have an intimate relationship. And wondering, is this transferable? Can we make this legible, communicate this to other people?
SR: And while I think that’s super cool, what you just said [Laughter] —
RM: But it’s wrong.
SR: No, it’s not wrong at all. But it’s also informed by — for me — the experience of watching transmission with Merce’s work. Because it is in some ways a most rigid form of transmission of steps. It’s these steps and this rhythm that take up this space —
RM: It’s this and not that, yeah.
SR: But you watch different people do those things, and suddenly you’re like, wait, they’re both doing it but they’re —
RM: Completely different!
SR: There’s really different information coming out of them. It’s because that person is a different person. And whatever narrow window Merce’s work allows you to occupy in the agency of choice-making, different people have different approaches to that.
RM: But let’s stop talking about Merce.
CLR: Well, that makes me think of the ways in which Desire Lines is site-specific that are about the people who invite you and then either help or impede. When we all had the residency together at MANCC [the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography], the post-RETROFIT residency, there was a showing that made it really clear — what you’re trying to do isn’t an institutional critique in the shallow way of like, nyah-nyah, we’re going to poke at this. But it is about what is the offer to us, what is allowed, and what do we do within that?
RM: And what’s the residue once you leave?
CLR: What’s the residue. I think of Frank Smigiel and his team and their care and interest in what you were doing at SFMOMA.
RM: Yes. The permission that we were given at SFMOMA I had never ever experienced before. It allowed to us to make the best work possible, and I don’t know how to translate that to other situations, because it’s so specific to individuals, you know? I mean, institutions are individuals: a group of individuals carrying out a mission.
SR: I mean, we re-oriented the entire project to bring it to the Joyce Theater because we knew that in a proscenium space, there was no way they were going to let us do literally any of the things that we did at SFMOMA.
RM: And there was no way that the framing around it would be the right framing.
CLR: Not only was the White Box not a theater space, but at that time it was in a new building that was still figuring itself out: what its limitations are and its rules. In that way you could say — forgive me — but one could say that SFMOMA was going through its own Desire Lines of what are the institutional routes under which it wants to travel. What is the bureaucracy that we’re going to circumvent? “That’s what we say we have to do officially, but there’s a workaround.” And Frank has a really beautiful approach. Phillip Bither is like this also, people who are working inside major visual arts hubs who have a real understanding and a desire to see a performance on its own terms.
SR: I’ve only experienced that kind of generosity in a visual art context, which is really interesting. I feel differently in performances spaces. I feel more confined. And in visual art settings, I don’t know if this is necessarily good or not, but it feels like there’s a little bit more room around the artist and more respect for like, let’s make whatever we need to make possible for this artist to do what they need to do. I don’t feel that in dance spaces, generally speaking. You know, we did something similar at MoMA PS1 for Greater New York — I mean, I don’t think that piece was as successful as RETROFIT at SFMOMA.
CLR: It was a transitional piece, I think.
SR: It was a transitional piece, exactly. It was us trying to really like, exorcise Tesseract, while we were in the middle of the process of Tesseract. But I felt similarly treated there, by the whole team of people who were basically there to carry out our vision. I mean, it’s a really lovely and spoiled thing to have as an artist. After doing Desire Lines and performing at BAM and having this like, perceived success, to go back to the Joyce Theater completely confining because of the economics and the nature of like, the speed of production.
CLR: But it doesn’t have to be the economics, right? The best art experience I ever had was working at The Chocolate Factory. The economics there are incredibly confining, but there’s absolute freedom and respect for what you want to do as an artist.
Often, my default is to roll my eyes at how visual arts spaces deal with dance. And there is good reason to roll one’s eyes. But there’s a way in which visual arts institutions see, recognize, honor, accept contemporary dance as an art in its own right. Whereas still, many larger performing arts spaces continue to be ultra conservative, dismissing how artists are working now as “experimental.” So while I do get frustrated with how visual arts institutions — not all of them, but some of them — misunderstand and colonize other forms, I also absolutely recognize that there’s very good reasons why dance artists are drawn to working in those spaces.
RM: Totally. We were given the time and space to do what we wanted to do. I mean, we had our own gallery 24/7; we could decide the mode of production, the mode of presentation, the audience relationship. And typically that happens in site-specific situations, because you’re inventing the spectator relationship in the frame. RETROFIT was super generative for us, and it wouldn’t have happened without that.
CLR: It remains one of the most deeply nourishing and pleasurable and exciting experiences that I’ve had as a watcher and a writer. It just — yeah, it was profound.
I’m also interested in what it’s like now to come back and do a workshop with artists and do another performance at The Lab, with Phillip Greenlief and Evelyn Davis. You have an ongoing relationship with San Francisco.
RM: Yeah. It’s very strange. Because in a way, I feel like San Francisco has experienced our art, or the work that we make, more genuinely and more than New York has.
SR: Do you think that we take different risks because we know we’re not in New York?
CLR: You’re wrong.
SR: And… scene.
RM: Maybe. [Laughter] Yes.
SR: By the way, this is —
CLR: Reader, note that Silas Riener is —
RM: Squelching in a very sexual manner.
SR: If I had like, a nineteenth century Italian floral dress and could take my shoes off and get in this — it’s like squishing eyeballs!
CLR: So… maybe you do and maybe you don’t take more risks in the Bay Area than you do in New York. Maybe you feel enabled because you’re having conversations with different types of artists there?
SR: Different types of artists, different types of people interested in our work. If we had had Desire Lines ready to roll out when we performed at PS1 for Greater New York, we might have tried to do it. We needed PS1 in order to do SFMOMA, and we haven’t had an opportunity to produce work on that scale in a museum installation space since then.
RM: And it remains one of the most profound experiences for me as well.
SR: We do have these different spokes of our work, which are in some ways competing and in some ways contradictory. I would imagine that someone on the outside might look at it and be like, “Who are these people? Like, what are they — what is this?” But I think that the throughline is always that we’re trying to be exactly where we are.
RM: Right now.
SR: Right now. And that might be a proscenium theater, it might be a field in the desert. And so, looking at space, looking at time as a thing that is changing and that is specific and contextualized.
CLR: When I was doing the morning warm-up with you all, in the workshop — I’m sure I didn’t have this thought at the moment, but thinking about it now, it’s interesting to reflect that of course, we’re dealing with this thing in the past, but what felt really beautiful about that is that it felt so present. I’m here with these people, some of whom I know really well, some of whom I love, some of whom I’m just meeting, some of whom are virtuosic, technically trained dancers, some of whom have no relationship to their bodies. And it just felt very — like, we’re in the present. I think I also was expecting that there was going to be a lot more of a discussion about why are we dealing with this dead white dude? It’s 2019, why can’t we move away from that? Sometimes that conversation just makes everyone feel alienated, but the discussions we had were so generous and generative. That’s to do with all of the people who were in the room, of course. And I think it’s also to do with our sharing a physical practice, one that takes its cue from the practice you two have developed around being present. It makes things a little bit gentler or easier.
And it’s also how you both are as stewards, right? The first day you were like, “As a Black queer kid who has a club background, coming to Cunningham, it was foreign.”
RM: I think you offer that and you say it really baldly. You notify the room, “I’m with you. I understand the questions that are here and that are circulating.”
SR: One of the deepest tensions in thinking about and understanding Merce’s work is you still have to do it. What we started to get to at the end of that whole time with that group is like, oh, they did this every day. And we did it every day: this is a practice, this is class. We do class every day.
RM: I remember as a young person being in studios where I was given information and asked to do things that I didn’t have context for. And it was just like yes, this is what you do.
CLR: You do it because you do it.
RM: And I would be very excited about doing it. So it wasn’t necessarily critiqued from me at that time, but as I became a teacher and I started thinking about how to be a good teacher, a successful teacher, it felt like I needed to give context for things. And you know, you can do that in subtle ways, you can do that periodically, you can do that in a big, grand gesture. There’s lots of different ways to do that. I think it puts people at ease to know exactly where you stand as the transmitter of this knowledge, and that you also are aware of all of the other questions and critiques that are going on.
But at the end of the day, all of these people in that workshop agreed to do this project. So on some level, they were already past that question, and past concerns over whether their communities or peers wouldn’t understand why they’re engaging in the work of a dead white man. At the end of the day, this is a moral question that everyone has to answer according to your sense of yourself as an artist and your career trajectory. These ten artists wanted to engage, even if it was outside of their comfort zone or outside of their knowledge, they wanted to be there. Or at least, were willing to do it and to be able to have an opportunity to show their work.
CLR: I have these conversations with colleagues at SFMOMA and artists I work with through Open Space. For some people, working inside of an institution is anathema: why would you contribute to an edifice that rests on imperialist, colonialist foundations? It’s an inheritance of all of these ugly things. Which is true, absolutely. And then there’s the other position that is, I want to be inside of the thing to try and push from the inside out. And I respect that also; for me it changes all the time —
RM: There’s a third perspective of like, I just want to know about different stuff. And this happens to be a thing that happened, and I can learn from it regardless of the politics inside of it.
SR: Not regardless, but just like, also part.
RM: Also part of the politics.
CLR: There was somebody at the second open studio who had studied with Cunningham — no, she danced with him I think. But she made the point of now in retrospect of course we see these two people as part of the patriarchy, part of the canon, part of the white cis male thing we’re trying to dismantle. But they also couldn’t live openly as gay men and they lived in tough conditions and you have to also take that into account. And Danishta [Rivero; one of the commissioned artists] said something really beautiful in response, which is that you get to hold both of those things: there is this whole system and structure that is appalling and that continues to exact a terrible price on people. And within that, there are individuals like Cunningham and Cage, who on the one hand benefit from that system and structure, but also are not only that system and structure. And how you decide to hold those two things together is a fundamental decision that we each make.
RM: Well we have to critique our parents, because we have to advance things. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that they developed, they moved things forward in their time. It’s so easy to say, “Oh, they didn’t get this far.” I find those arguments to be quite boring because clearly, there’s only so much progress you can make in a lifetime or in a generation or like — I don’t know, a lot of times as an artist, yes you’re part of culture, but the work demands that you live outside of society to some degree. You’re out there on your own limb, and you’re inventing — you’re in this rarefied place, right? And so it’s a double-edged sword, is what I’m saying, and I think it’s easy, so easy to critique things that have come before. It’s not an interesting engagement to me. Let’s like, look at what happened and then let’s move forward.
CLR: Or to the side or backwards.
RM: There’s stuff there. There’s stuff there that we can use and we can glean —
SR: That seductive progress ideology is so — I mean, maybe it made a different kind of sense when those particular individuals were beginning to make work and they were like, “I want to make work that’s the opposite of the things that were coming before. I want to be in defense of a different kind of thing. I have a new, different kind of newness, progress, resistance, rejection.” All of those things, in a lineage of visual art in the United States, were more straightforward when you could refer to the thing that had just happened. It’s a very different time now — for me a lot more interesting, and a lot more complex and characterizing those particular artists as limited in their advancement… for me, it’s not the way.
RM: It’s a dead end! I mean, it’s literally like that preteen kid who’s like, “I hate you mommy! You won’t let me wear lipstick!” Versus, you know, when you get a little bit older and you’re like, “Oh wow, actually my parents were really amazing and they persevered through all this crazy shit and yes it was flawed.”
CLR: They didn’t get it all right.
RM: They didn’t get it all right. But now, I can do all these wonderful things and I can make something new in the world. I think it’s the difference between that.
SR: I also think that whatever we’re trying to do in our work has a dimensionality in relation to “already” and “not yet” and a kind of circumspect approach to this seduction of progress —
RM: And linearity.
SR: — we have no choice but to be in conversation with the lineage. That has always been a part of us and that has left an indelible mark on my literal, physical body; my actual body shows the scars and the effects of that approach.
RM: Yeah, I don’t bend over before noon.
SR: I can’t do stuff because I did stuff. I think a lot of people right now are re-approaching the linearity of process and reframing what might have to come next. There’s a circumspect approach that we are trying to bring to this lineage and history. Yes, this is a fixed thing. Yes, these were actual people. We’re attempting to look at it in a different way, and that also involves describing it in terms people can understand. I mean, for me at least — Merce’s work was the thing. It was so exciting. And so that excitement infuses my teaching. When I’m like, yes, it’s the same as yesterday. Guess what? Already and not yet, all the same. But different too.