Bloodlines: Exploring Heritage, Lineage, and Legacy
“I’ve had a company for thirty years. It’s taken me time to research and articulate a specific language, in the old fashioned sense of building a language, that is Petronio technique. I took great pains to do that, because in the drift of post-modern thought, that kind of idea was disappearing and that’s something that I could do and wanted to do, and that I felt I should do. At the end of twenty-five years, I’ve got this amazing language. So, now what do I do? Do I spend the next twenty-five years just using that language to speak? What do I do?”
“Once you define a language, it can also become a prison. I have principles that are about discovery and ways to shift expectations for myself as an art maker, but with a language there’s a danger of having a predictable response within that framework. I got nervous about that. So, I began to invite collaborators, most recently Janine Antoni because she uses her body as well in her work, and because I really wanted her to interrupt my language.”
“Then Merce passed away and then Trisha Brown (who I danced with) got sick and was no longer able to make work. My great influences, people I admire very much in the dance world and two people who really opened the doors to me being who I am as a dance maker disappeared. And it just made me, besides being sad, wonder what to do with the rest of my life.” – Stephen Petronio
Stephen Petronio’s experiences, though unique to him in many ways, introduce questions that artists across all disciplines have asked for generations: how do we understand ourselves once our formative forbearers are no longer with us? What do we do with our ancestors’ legacies?
Stephen’s comments also draw our attention to the fact that children of the post-modern dance world are facing a pivotal moment in history. Laurie Uprichard, executive director of the Stephen Petronio Company (SPC), explains that “Judson is fifty years ago, and even though it was really a blip, two years maximum, in time, it had such an impact. People are really revisiting that time.”
SPC is one of a range of artists / organizations revisiting the Judson era over the past few years, and is taking a stab at these questions of heritage and legacy through its new project, Bloodlines. Bloodlines seeks to honor SPC’s lineage through performing works over the next five years by choreographers who have had particularly strong influences on the company’s work. The project’s inaugural performance will include the first restaging of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest by by an American contemporary dance company, alongside a SPC repertory piece called Locomotor / Non Locomotor. The company will perform at the Joyce Theater, April 7-12.
In preparation for the premier, I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen and Laurie, as well as with former Cunningham dancers Andrea Weber and Meg Harper who are working with SPC to restage RainForest on behalf of the Cunningham Trust.
As I began to digest the thoughts and experiences of my conversation partners, I felt that a particular sentiment Laurie shared really captures the value and urgency of this moment in time and what Bloodlines is trying to address: “Because a lot of that [Judson era] generation is still alive and with us but may not be for much longer, I think it’s really important not to freeze them, but to honor them and pay attention to what they’re still making and doing.”
In our conversation, I mentioned that I felt fortunate to be part of a generation that might still meet the figures of dance history textbooks on the street. “And you will!” Laurie responded laughing. “Or in an audience, in a café…” Incidentally, when I finished my interview with Laurie and made my way to a rehearsal, I ran into Vicky Shick on the corner of 17th and Broadway.
Impact of Legacy on Contemporary Artists
As the interviewees began unpacking the word “legacy” and its somewhat imposing suggestion of immensity, complexity, and weight, our conversations often veered towards the individual impact various legacies have had on the interviewees as contemporary artists.
Former Cunningham dancer Meg Harper expressed that, “in terms of legacy – I don’t know exactly what that word means – but, I will say what Merce’s aesthetic has meant to me. It has informed my whole life. Not just my artistic life, but my whole life. Values that Cunningham and Cage taught me, that I experienced with them, that’s what I carry with me.”
Andrea expressed the major impact of Cunningham’s work itself: “There’s absolutely a technical component to the work,” she shared, “but there’s more. The way the back moves, the way the legs move in separation of the torso and the feet’s connection to each other and the focus and use of space…every choreographer works a little differently. It takes time to realize that foundation of Merce’s work and technique.” Meg agrees: “as dancers, we were trained so thoroughly, and it was very difficult training, so many hours working in class and in rehearsal, that now is in our blood.”
Stephen remembered the first time he saw Trisha Brown’s work live, after reading about it and forming a mental image: “When I saw Trisha’s work, it was like, ‘I know this.’ I’d imagined something like that in my mind. It was shocking. I feel that very much with Trisha, that kind of sequential fluidity just resonated with how I danced and how so many people move in general. That’s the part of her legacy I feel most strongly in my work today…I’m also very interested in a kind of linear extension in space which maybe [Steve] Paxton and Trisha are not so interested in…So I feel like that kind of diagonal grid base from Merce Cunningham is very interesting to me.”
All three artists feel strongly conceptually and physically influenced by their dance ancestors’ legacies, and Laurie echoes the sentiment from her vantage point: “If I go to see [a contemporary choreographer] I can say ‘I know that they danced with so and so and so and so,’ and conceptually they’re either influenced by that or they’re turning their back on that.”
Dance Heritage and Moments that Shape Us
As a person with a remarkably wide lens on the field of dance, Laurie’s heritage lies in her experiences as a dancer with choreographers like Kei Takei and Irene Feigenheimer, as well as in her experiences in administration and curation. Laurie shared, “there’s certainly an incredibly rewarding feeling about being in a theater and watching an audience watch an artist that you invited, and seeing how they respond. At Danspace, I always stood at the back of the house and watched the audiences while I was at the shows.”
A particularly significant moment: “I was sitting at the Project Arts Center in Dublin, Ireland watching Vicky Shick. It was Vicky and Jodi Melnick and I was feeling sublime thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is just [inhaling] so gorgeous…and oh my God, I’m so glad they’re here’…just as I was feeling sublime, two young women in heels clacked down the stairs of Project and clacked out the door! I was like ‘ohhhh shit, there goes that sublime moment!’”
“We found out later who they were,” Laurie explained. “They had read in the brochure that there was live music.” Vicky Shick’s collaborating composer Elise Kermani’s score was mixed live on a computer during the performance. “There are no instruments. And the two women felt like they were being cheated. So, it was kind of interesting learning what you understand as live music and what somebody else understands as live music.”
Just as Laurie’s dance curation experiences shaped the way she approaches her work now, Andrea’s and Meg’s reflections on restaging RainForest make clear what it is that makes them the seasoned dancers and teachers that they are.
Andrea shared that, “These restaging projects have been very special. You’re very nervous going into them because you’re like, ‘Can I do this job? Will the dancers realize this piece?’ And then you get to the end of it, and it has become this beautiful thing. We’ve worked really hard and we’ve had such a wonderful time being able to work on these projects together…but I feel like in one month I’m going to sleep really well.”
“Another thing about this period of time,” Meg expressed, “is that with the studio at City Center we have come together with our colleagues, former members of the Cunningham Company, so much more than we might have otherwise. So, it’s very joyous, really, to – across the generations – see each other in one spot because we’re all going to see the same thing or take a class.” To Andrea, Meg added, “To be with all of you again is a beautiful thing.”
Andrea: “To pull it back to lineage, you go to these events – these premieres or first nights of a show – and there are people from the Cunningham Company that you have not seen in a long time that might be in your line or lineage of who you replaced in different pieces. I feel like I’ve gotten closer to a lot of the people since the Company has closed because of this.”
“It is very powerful,” finished Meg. “The studio up at City Center is a very strong nucleus. We know the class is going to happen and people come in from out of town, from all over the world, actually, and class gives people who don’t have the opportunity now to see Merce’s work, to see it up close…see the workings of it. They can see it in a way that they never could before. We get to know each other in new ways. We’re not dancing together. We’re colleagues that have known each other for many years and now everybody has a different kind of life, everybody has to support themselves, all doing different sorts of things. But we come together and watch the work, take class, or teach class and so we work together in a new way.”
Andrea agreed: “There’s a common language because we did this work together. Yesterday we had a showing of a work that we staged in North Carolina and there were three men sitting in the back row that had all done the piece with the Cunningham Company. They were talking about how they could feel the pulse in their body…It’s something we all share. But, we’re not on the stage anymore. The tide has turned and life goes on.”
Personal Heritage and “Blood” Lines
In a conversation about heritage, I felt remiss not asking about my interviewees’ family heritages. With an Irish background, I was curious whether Laurie felt her Irish heritage had influenced how she thinks about the world and her artistic work.
“My father was really very strongly culturally Irish,” she shared, “he talked about it all the time. So, I never felt that Irish growing up because I was kind of like ‘Oh stop!’ I didn’t really know my grandfather because he died when I was five.” She commented that whenever she is in Ireland, she feels, “I know these people, I get it. I know why I am how I am.”
In a similar vein, Stephen spoke about some patterns in his choreographic work and how “looking at the history of my work, it’s very much about a team or a family, and of course I come from a quintessential Italian family, so it’s always very social. A lot of times everybody’s talking at once, so on stage in my work, you’ll see various voices or bodies expressing themselves at once. Kind of like a boiling stew. That’s very much from my southern Italian thing where there’s always a lot going on.”
“I was named for my uncle, Stefano, who has now passed away but was from Puglia, Italy. I love my family very much. My family is very important, and they always show up to see my work. And in fact, last year I did Locomotor, and Clams Casino did the music. My cousin who took me to my first dance performance, that’s her son, and now he’s a famous hip-hop composer. It’s a small world.” As Stephen put it, “It’s family.” The April 7 performance will include a world premiere of SPC’s Locomotor Non Locomotor with Clams Casino and a work by Cunningham. “It’s physical Bloodlines and conceptual Bloodlines.”
How We Address and Live with Legacies
As I started to get a feel for how legacies, lineages, and heritages have shaped these individuals, I wondered how these influences manifest in Bloodlines. Stephen, a choreographic child of the Judson movement, shared that, “I’m choosing to bring [the Judson era] into my world because I feel like my world needs to expand. I think that romantic notion of a single choreographic vision is useful at certain points but it’s just not working for me and my work. I see where it’s brought Merce and I see where Trisha has ended up, and that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t feel right for me. I feel like this is the moment where I have the capacity, the company, and the wherewithal to curate my relationship to those people and I’m very excited about that.”
Meg spoke about one of the challenges of approaching legacy from a restaging framework. She explained, “the issue when you’re staging anybody’s work, for us with Cunningham’s work, is that we want to recreate it in as true a fashion as possible. It’s going to look different because there are different people, but we want to transfer the same kinds of values, the same timings, the same focus, that we remember and that we see in the videos onto dancers that maybe don’t have very thorough Cunningham training. At the same time, dancers now are so well trained and so open minded, so we’re encountering people who are so open to what we’re trying to tell them and able to change. It was a really good surprise that they didn’t need to have gone to all this rehearsal and training of the Cunningham technique.”
Andrea followed, “there’s this special, special thing that happens when that embodiment of the movement starts to happen. It even comes down to the dancer’s focus in space. We saw that happening today at rehearsal. It was exciting. Also, as a teacher and a stager, with Merce, I always felt a sense of being myself in the company even though the steps were really specific and I had to work really hard to achieve a particular thing. It still felt like I was myself on stage and so I can only be myself in sharing the work.”
Stephen remembered, “the first time we were in rehearsal, I realized we use our pelvises very differently than Merce does. His is always facing where he’s going, and mine is often facing away from where I’m going. His pelvis is often on one horizon in space when he’s moving, and my pelvis dips and swings all over the place. It became very clear from the beginning that the pelvis and the center of Merce’s body are fundamental to that technique, and I much more work from the distal end of my body; not so centric. It’s very challenging for the dancers to make that transition.”
On the experience of working with different Cunningham artists throughout the restaging process: “We’ve had Andrea Weber, who is probably the youngest of the bunch and who staged the whole thing. Then we have Meg Harper who is from a generation or two above her, then Gus Solomon, who was in the original cast. Gus just came out of his own good heart. He’s not part of the Cunningham Trust. He didn’t talk about anything mechanical, he just talked about imagery. I think my dancers are a little bit afraid of whether they will do Cunningham’s work justice. And he basically gave them images and said that it’s not about whether you’re doing it right, it’s about how you embody it, and that was really beautiful for the dancers.”
According to Laurie, “there are many ways to approach legacy. Bloodlines is Stephen’s very personal response…the motivation for it, what’s driving him, his interest in doing it; it’s very Stephen and it’s very interesting to see somebody get so passionate in that way. But it is only his and only one way. I don’t think it’s the only way.” Laurie pointed out that others who are reviving Merce’s work in the US are students. “In Europe there are ballet companies doing the work of Merce and Trisha – Paris Opera Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, Rambert in London…so right now SPC is the only professional contemporary dance company in the US that is doing this work. And that’s important because ballet companies don’t do the work as dancers really trained in a more grounded release technique. Students are great, but they’re still very young as artists. I think everyone is discovering his or her own approach right now. I mean, you’ve got the Graham and Limon companies still trying in their own ways to figure out what it means to be a company named for a pioneering modern dance choreographer, and yet you’re doing other people’s work. Paul Taylor is playing around with this right now and Trisha Brown Company is really trying to figure out what its future is.” Similarly, Laurie mentioned, the Cunningham Trust has done pioneering work thus far, and they are still open to a variety of new initiatives. They recently gave out two new grants, for example. “I don’t think that was ever in the plans before, so I think it’s a very exciting time in a way because the best path for each company is going to be a different path and yet they’re all still experimenting.”
Understanding Our Own Legacies
With these conversations in mind, it became clear that these four individuals were part of my heritage. I wondered whether they had thought about their own legacies and how those might shape future generations.
Laurie paused and exhaled deeply. “I don’t have any idea… I haven’t even thought about it. I do feel optimistic I guess. I’ve had the great fortune to work with people like Abby at Danspace, Ellie in Dublin, you and Hind coming through Dublin too, Joanna in Paris, and Jourdi here at SPC. I’ve been in contact with a lot of younger very smart women who are working in this field and maybe if there’s anything…I got to give them the benefit of some of my experience so as they go forward they have some history.”
Meg replied, “Well, I live in the present. What moved me yesterday was what people said to me about how their experience of what they got out of the restaging process really moved them. And that’s everything to me. I went home on the train and I just thought, ‘I just treasure these comments and these feelings and these kids, and some of the things that other people said.’ For me it’s not that everything’s going to disappear…Because we’re teachers and dancers, each day, I ask myself what we can do to fulfill what we’re supposed to be doing and try to figure out ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’”
Stephen expressed, “There’s going to be a legacy whether I control it or not, so…I have thought about it quite a bit. One of the things I want to leave behind is a place for other dancers to make work. I was raised in the suburbs of New Jersey by a truck driver and a housewife and there was no art in my life, and dance completely transformed my life. I didn’t know anything about dance and part of the reason I think I succeeded was because I was dumb enough to think that I could do whatever the Judson movement said: ‘if you could give yourself a framework, it’s a dance.’ So I took that very seriously.” He explained that as a young dancer, “I didn’t have the technique. I was making dances before I met Trisha. I believed them. I believed that I could do whatever I wanted to in my life so long as I had a clear conceptual framework for it. And that transformed my life. And it’s given me a sense of joy and pleasure. I see that there’s a real devaluing of concert dance in America, especially as commercial dance becomes more popular. My fear for it is that the economics will force it into a certain direction, and they already are forcing it into a certain direction. So I would like to try to preserve the unfettered creative impulse for choreographers.”
To bring these thoughts on heritage, lineage, and legacy in relation to Bloodlines to a digestible close, I would like to share a last thought from Laurie:
“I think one of the things I feel very strongly about is that it’s extremely important for dance history to be transmitted via the stage and not just books and not just lectures and not just research,” she stated. “I’m not against it but, I feel it’s not a living response to history and it’s more of a distancing response to history in some ways. I heard somebody lecture about Yvonne Rainer back in 1999 and I felt like she was fossilizing her, when I knew Yvonne as a person and that she’s still sunny and alive…Richard Move does an impersonation of Martha Graham. Of course he’s six foot two and Martha Graham was tiny, but he did a wonderful series of shows at a club called Martha at Mother in the West Village, and people like Merce Cunningham came and sat on a tiny little stage with Richard dressed as Martha and they talked to each other. It was fabulous. They really taught dance history in such a great way. And Richard was very serious and very rigorous about his research and he did sections of Graham pieces and they were absolutely perfect. It was not a parody. It was very serious. But, the circumstances made it slightly absurd. It was just great.”
“So, I think it’s really important that people do what Stephen is doing. I just feel that living contemporary artists who take this seriously as part of a contemporary practice instead of as a fossilized historical past, is really important.”
Special thanks to Stephen Petronio, Laurie Uprichard, Andrea Weber, and Meg Harper for taking the time to have these conversations, and to Janet Stapleton for her incredible support in helping to make these interviews possible.