Eating up & carving out: Cynthia Oliver and David Thomson discuss “Sister”
1. Could you give a transcript-like description of what happens in the dance, from your point of view?
Cynthia: No, I can’t. That would be antithetical to the way in which Tere constructs his work, and the way he wants folks to live in it. I will say that David and I—and the audience with us—are on a journey that is full of multiple referents. That calls upon gesture, rhythm, sensing, eating up, carving out of space, time, materiality, humanity, that depends upon, responds, and counters each other’s presence and particular movements, expressive and visceral negotiations.
David: Too complicated to write…
2. When performing Sister together, how do you feel the other one’s role in the work relates to your own experience?
David: I feel Cynthia’s role is more dramatic, her rhythms more complex than my own as part of her identity in the piece. There is a dryness to some of our interactions that speak volumes compared to the wild movement that at times seems an exterior layer to the relationship. The duet is physically demanding and the intensity of this journey binds us as if we were siblings with a secret language in a larger world, where memories are interwoven with the present. At times it reminds me of Cocteau’s Les Enfant Terribles.
Cynthia: David is my counterpart in this work. My brother, my sister, confidant, support, a multitude of things. Relations. But at the same time, not necessarily—our two respective worlds are spinning. Happening to be in close proximity. Happening to be the same. Happening to be different. Different even when we are doing the same.
3. What possibilities do you feel the duet structure has (that you perhaps discovered by being in this work)?
Cynthia: I will say that the duet requires intimacy, a closeness of working together that a larger work might not. Tere depended on our familiarity, on our similarities and differences, on the ways we talked about, live and compare notes on our respective realities. As a trio in the studio, it was also very intimate and fun. It was also very challenging and exhausting. It is afterall a Tere O’Connor work! (Hahaha.)
David: I think of the duet structure as a coexistence that is manipulated via various aesthetic lenses which can be wildly variable, and hence full of possibilities. I feel I learned more about how Tere works, and his choreographic interests, than about the duet structure specifically. His interest in rhythm, memory, cause and effect, and visual reference deeply shaped the material.
4. How well did you know each other before doing this piece together/how did you meet?
David: I can’t remember how or when we actually met. My first memory of Cynthia was when she performed with David Gordon’s for a showing in Tribeca sometime in the mid/late 80’s. She wore a white top and short white skirt. I remember her doing a promenade in arabesque, she was beautiful. During that period of time we were two of the small group of dancers of color working in the downtown scene: her with David Gordon, and I with Trisha Brown. We reconnected again during my residencies with Ralph Lemon in Champaign-Urbana over the last 12 years.
This duet came about by a chance during Cynthia’s 50th birthday bash in New York a few years ago. I had just taken Tere’s MELT choreographic workshop and the three of us were chatting over the punch bowl (my memory of the moment) when he asked us if we had ever danced together? We hadn’t. He said he would make a piece on us.
Cynthia: At my 50th birthday party, we were all there chatting and Tere asked how long we had known each other. We said, “Forever.” He asked if we had ever worked together and we looked at each other quizzically and realized that in all this time we hadn’t. At that moment he said, “Well I’ll make something for you both.” We laughed and said we would hold him to it. We didn’t need to. Almost a year later he called and said that if we were still interested, he would like to make a duet for us as the final piece to the three works he would construct for BLEED.
5. What specifics have you learned about one another in the studio? (Habits, learning styles, needs, wants, aversions, practices, humor, etc.)
David: She cleans her feet with a wipe after every rehearsal.
She doesn’t sweat, but glows.
She can make me laugh with just a look or quick phrase.
She has a clarity of in intent in and outside of the studio.
She has beautiful sense of weight.
Cynthia’s energy, perspective, wit, willingness, and dancing has fed me throughout this process.
Cynthia: David is a conscientious, inquisitive, generous and hardworking dancer and partner. It has been a thrill to work with him and Tere. Because they both have a history—both went to SUNY Purchase together—being in the studio with them was often hilarious. Aside from Tere’s penchant for the jokes, hearing the two of them reminisce was its own entertainment.
David and I would also have our moments together as we compared and contrasted our experiences as island people. (Tere loved this part and would ask us a lot about our respective “home” cultures). David’s folks come from Jamaica and mine from St. Croix. We compared and contrasted, competed and teased (in a very Caribbean way) and laughed a LOT. Also the fact that we are all around the same age. We have many of the same reference points, cultural markers, etc. It was great and funny and hard and exhausting being in that room together for hours during the making stages and working and reworking or reshaping of things. It was a gift. I swam in Epsom salts for weeks, but look at where we are! With time and touring and revisiting the work it has steeped like a subtle and mysterious tea. It has stained us and we it. I look forward to seeing/hearing how NYC audiences respond.