John Heginbotham’s debut at Baryshnikov Arts Center
John Heginbotham, a performer with the Mark Morris Dance Group since 1993, a 2012 Jerome Robbins Foundation New Essential Works Fellow, and an all-around New York dance darling, will debut his company, Dance Heginbotham, this week at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and this summer at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Known for quirky, humorous, often dark and wryly theatrical dances that are choreographed to unlikely music choices, he premieres two new works this week, Closing Bell (NY premiere) and Twin (world premiere). John met with Aaron Mattocks to talk about making dances, being one of the busiest men in show biz, and how he first fell in love with Merce Cunningham.
Aaron Mattocks: My first question is related to John Jasperse, actually. You performed in his Excessories back in the day, and I was interviewing him for The Brooklyn Rail and talking about how he got from Excessories to the Fort Blossom duet he’s about to show again. He was telling me how he gets to a certain point with a dance, and it gets performed, and then there’s this thing afterwards that he keeps thinking about, and he realizes that he actually has to go further with it, so he continues investigating. Trajal Harrell was just interviewing Sarah Michelson in the most recent Performance Journal and she was talking about a similar thing, about Devotion at the Kitchen and Devotion Study #1 at the Whitney, and her process of looking at the last dance and saying “Where did I go easy on myself? What did I not figure out, run out of time with, or did I get lazy? What did I fail at?” Her whole idea for the Whitney Biennial show was basically just two steps from Devotion at the Kitchen–she didn’t know the answer to those two steps. I’m totally paraphrasing, but she says she just spent a year or so trying to discover and then answer the problems that she left unresolved. I’m thinking about you, and Twin, and what has come before. Do you have that same kind of question that you’re trying to answer, that carries over from piece to piece?
John Heginbotham: I’ve never consciously thought about it in that way. However, I’m definitely aware that there are themes that show up in my work. I’ve made up enough things now that I can look at those themes recurring. For me, a lot of them have to do with a solo figure versus a group. In Champ that exists, in One-Man Show that exists, in the solo I made up called Waltz Ending that exists, it exists in Twin in a very soft way. It sort of exists in Closing Bell. That’s a theme that keeps arising. I’m assuming that it keeps arising because I haven’t found the answer to that question in a satisfactory way, so it continues to show up and I continue to want to look at it because it’s mysterious to me. There are other things that are cropping up, having made more pieces.
Something that is a theme outside of the work, that then ends up being inside the work is my nearly 14 years with the Mark Morris Dance Group and hearing Mark’s voice and watching him choreograph so often. Either embracing his influence, or trying to distance myself from his influence is something that occurs to a greater or lesser degree in every piece. Also, I would say the idea of character is in nearly every piece.
Aaron: So how did you come up with the idea to work with Aphex Twin? Does it have anything to do with Alarm Will Sound and their album of transcriptions? Mark introduced that CD to me several years ago–I think that’s when I first became aware of Aphex Twin’s music.
John: Me too. The whole way that I even found out about Aphex Twin was through the Alarm Will Sound recording.
Aaron: You didn’t listen to him before?
John: Well, somebody gave me a mixtape in the 90s that had “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” on it… But here I am, I have to create another piece to go on the BAC program with Closing Bell, and I went through many, many different ideas. At one point, I considered having a live string quartet on stage; at one point I considered hiring a composer and I went fairly far with that, but it turned out not to be the right direction for this piece. And then, I remembered this Alarm Will Sound recording, and started listening to the acoustic versions of Aphex Twin, a lot. I was commissioned to create a solo by a student named Lindsey Jones, at SUNY Purchase, for her senior solo, and decided to use something from Aphex Twin for that.
Then as time was running out for a concept for what I was going to do at BAC, I started listening in a more focused way to Aphex Twin, and decided that if I wasn’t going to have Alarm Will Sound playing the music on stage, that I might as well use the original material,. And I essentially created a suite of compositions, that felt like one piece. Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, who also composes under other names, is an extremely, extremely prolific composer. So there’s an extreme amount of material to choose from.
Aaron: There’s something to me that feels natural about your ending up with Aphex Twin, because it has a club sensibility to it. Not all of it, because there’s several albums of ambient work, similar to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports–he’s just creating sound. I love that. But then there are all these heavy, beat based things. And to me, I guess because of your Fisherspooner background, I see you having a relationship to the club, somehow. And yet I don’t know that I would call you a club kid…but maybe there’s something about you I don’t know. I mean, I’m sure there’s lots of things about you I don’t know.
John: I’m like a club grandpa. (laughter)
Aaron: But does that come up? Because you’re doing very rigorous, structured work to this music, it’s not that you’re replicating a night out.
John: No. Well, there is one section, which is just the full cast dancing. No, even that is pretty tightly structured. I mean, I never was a club kid. But I’ve ALWAYS been very attracted to electronic music. Since I can remember. I like rhythm, and I like a pulse.
Aaron: I’m going to try to trap you with something. As we both know, Mark Morris once famously said, in response to the question “What is your philosophy of dance?”–“I make it up, and you watch it.” Do you feel that you have a philosophy of dance?
John: I honestly feel that Mark’s philosophy is such a beautiful philosophy. It’s very simple. And what he’s saying is, whatever comes out of him, that’s the piece. And he doesn’t describe it any further than that.
Aaron: He’s a dance maker. He makes dances. We are an audience. We watch them. That’s the simple structure.
John: Even though I have some things under my belt now, I still feel fairly new to the world of constant choreography. So I’m going to rest on his philosophy right now. It’s a solid structure for the moment–and I like it.
Aaron: The broader, more fair question: what makes you driven to be a choreographer? You have such a fantastic career as a dancer…I think about this a lot. You dance for a while, you get to a point where people ask “Why don’t you try making something?” and for me, I don’t really understand the need to make. I’m not compelled in a way that I think other people are. So, what drives you to make? To be more than a dancer?
John: Well, I love concepts, and I love puzzles. Also, it’s not like I danced for a really long time, and then one day late in my career said, “Why don’t I try choreographing something?” I started making up really teeny, tiny dances, probably three years after I started taking dance classes. I think I was maybe 11 when I first choreographed something, and I loved it. And since that time, I have regularly made something. In college in particular, I made up lots of stuff. But I was always very attracted to the short, short story. Everything I made up was under ten minutes.
Aaron: It’s like O. Henry.
John: It’s like O. (laughter)
And then there was sort of a hiatus after graduation, when I was starting my career as a performer, but then shortly after that there was always a project. Why do it do it? I like ideas, and I like theater in general. So I like ideas on stage. That is compelling to me, to put something on stage that’s going to be viewed by myself and other people. And I like the process of trying to figure out how to make up something that I feel good about. I never want to show something that I know is bad. I mean, nobody does.
Aaron: I was just reading your article in Dance Magazine, the “Why I Dance” feature, and you refer to the movie Singin’ in the Rain. Do you think that the movies have something to do with your interest in the theatrical? You’ve done music videos, different kinds of experiences, the theatrical concept album show, a cabaret…
John: I love variety in theater. And I am very interested in a lot of ways of showing performance, and I did grow up watching musicals on TV, in the theater, in the live theater, not just the movie theater. But I remember the first time I was introduced to the work of Merce Cunningham, I was in high school, and I loved that. I loved it. And it was … I’m sorry, that’s not true. (pause) Elementary school.
Aaron: Oh! I thought you were going to say, “Sorry, that’s not true…I hated it!” That’s not how that went.
John: No. I saw a PBS Dance in America which included Merce Cunningham’s Duets, and I thought, “Oh. Great.”
Aaron: For some reason, when you said “The first time I experienced Merce Cunningham’s choreography…,” I wanted the end of the sentence to be, “…was when I was onstage performing in it.” I don’t know why, but somehow I imagined you in a tilt being, like, “Oh my god, this is Merce Cunningham.” That it could somehow be a surprise. Standing next to Jean Freebury.
John: Oh my god I LOVE Jean Freebury. I really love her.
Aaron: So I was talking with Annie-B Parson last night, and with one of her former administrators, who is relocating to Detroit, and he was saying that the part of New York that he doesn’t like is that everybody is constantly busy. That we have to do so many things to survive, and he was tired of that. And Annie-B, in this wonderfully positive way, spun it back, and said, “I don’t see it as people being busy, I think New York inspires an incredible productivity.” There’s something really wonderful about that approach, because I often feel so bogged down with being busy, but I look at you in comparison in order to give myself a bit of a meditation, like, “Thank god I’m not as busy as John!” You’re dancing full time with MMDG, but there is flexibility, more so than for other members of that company, in the way that sometimes Mark Morris lets you go, and sometimes you let go of Mark Morris. Also you were dancing with Pam Tanowitz, and you’ve been creating this work Twin. Why do we take on so much? Is it just because we love these puzzles, that we love to solve these questions?
John: Ok, well, this is a super easy question for me to answer. It’s just, I love it. I love having that kind of variety in my life. That Pam Tanowitz show was really so fun for me, and so scary. It was very interesting for me to do that show. I love Mark’s work, and I love being a part of it. And I hope to god that in one sense or another, I will always be a part of that family. And I love making up dances.
Aaron: I think that’s the perfect place to stop.
Baryshnikov Arts Center
Thursday, May 10 at 8pm*
Friday-Saturday, May 11-12 at 8pm