Should We All Move To Lexington? An Interview with Stephanie Troyak

Photo by Stephanie Berger

Seventeen years ago, as a senior in high school, I attended a guitar concert in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I was convinced, at the time, that I was very much capable of being a successful professional musician. The guitar concert had been my mother’s idea – she bought me the tickets and talked me into attending. Never heard the guy, I thought. Hopefully it won’t be too painful.

Thirty-one years before I attended said concert, Takoma Records released an album called 6- and 12-String Guitar, by a guitarist named Leo Kottke. He was twenty-four years old at the time of release. In a review by Rolling Stone, Carl Bauer wrote about Kottke “…(his) music can invoke your most subliminal reflections or transmit you to the highest reaches of joy.”

A year prior to that records release (and forty-nine before I would witness her work live), Pina Bausch, the hugely influential choreographer who has reshaped the field of modern dance, choreographed her first work, which was called Fragmente. She was twenty-eight years old.

Fourteen years ago, I encountered a mountain range. While I traveled often as a child, it had always been within a road-trip’s distance; for the first time, at twenty-three, I took a train across country, ending up in Seattle, passing through the unimaginable beauty of the Rocky Mountains during a Montana sunset. At morning light we had passed into Washington, the Cascade mountains all around us.

Roughly one month ago, another first – I physically encountered the work of Pina Bausch, at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, where two of her master works, Café Müller and The Rite of Spring, played from September 14-24, 2017.

And one week after seeing that performance, I sat down at Café Mocha with Stephanie Troyak, a dancer and recent full-time addition to Tantztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (that’s the name of the company). I had contacted Troyak out of the blue and she generously agreed to meet.

Allow me to fit this all together.

When I first encountered Leo Kottke in North Dakota at age eighteen, it utterly destroyed my idea of what being a guitar player meant (thanks, Mom). Later, I would recognize that same feeling of being exploded from within when I, for the first time, encountered an actual mountain. Up close, the sheer immensity was devastating; a combination of joy and terror overtaking the rational mind, a sense of melding, of changing, of transformation – and of loss.  The soul of the wanna-be artist genuflecting at the foot of the real thing; a hill, which is all I could ever be, was not in the same league as a mountain.

Similarly, there is no way to prepare one’s self to witness the work of Pina Bausch live. The documentaries and videos of her work give you a sense of it, but – again with the mountains – it’s akin to experiencing a nature landscape on film. You get it, but it’s not nearly the same.

I wasn’t expecting to be impacted by Bausch’s work in this way. I’m not even really a fan. I understood her work to be historically important and was expectant to learn why, but the ‘why,’ post-viewing, felt as unreachable as the mountain’s summit when viewed from its base.  And out of the why came a how – how was it possible that this work was made? And where were the emerging contemporary giants-to-be of the field? I couldn’t stop thinking about the word “artistry.” Would I, no longer a musician but instead an aspirational creator of movement-based theater, ever be able to make work that approached the level of rigor, authenticity, and intensity that Bausch’s work contained? Would anyone, ever again?

I needed to talk to someone.

Pictured: Stephanie Troyak

“There’s a giving over, a loyalty, a trust. People moved to Wuppertal for her,” says Stephanie Troyak, over coffee on her last morning in New York City prior to jumping on an airplane bound for Ottawa, Ontario, where the world tour would continue.

A bit of back story – in 1973, Pina Bausch became the director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet; within in a few years, the institution had basically become her own. Over the course of her career, she gathered a company, who came to live with her there in Wuppertal, Germany. Pina Bausch died there, in 2009, but her company remains.

I asked Troyak about that – does it feel like a communal experience, living there, working like that?

“I have my own apartment, I live really well. It’s not expensive to live. I don’t feel trapped – of course the days are long and schedule is tough but that’s kind of like every company job. They want you to have experience, that’s what you bring to the work.”

I had positioned our meeting as a chance to further discuss the show (Troyak dances in The Rite of Spring, as well as a number of other works that were not shown during the current tour), but my mind was still maddeningly fixated on artistry. How can we make this? Can we make this?

Troyak, who is also a choreographer, considers this question as one might attempt to describe what a mountain looks like from the outside if one lived inside that mountain. There is extreme specificity involved (“I remember, for three or four scenes, I wasn’t walking correctly.”) There is also a dedication to technical form that generates an emotional response: “Every choice and every smile and every emotion that arises is not staged. The smile is part of the choreography but what you feel out of it is not fake or manipulated. The Rite of Spring is a dramatic and powerful piece, but as a person inside of it, of course you can go in knowing what’s going to happen and feel this emotion already. If you step back and let the movement tell you what’s happening, it is dramatic, you don’t have to do anything extra, and that’s when it feels really real. When I’m huddled next to girls with sweat and dirt on their face, I feel this power and intensity, but if I’m trying to be intense and powerful, it won’t work, it happens because of the choreography.

Troyak, sensing that a discussion of form and content alone won’t quite answer the question, tries to isolate what makes working for Tantztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch feel different in hopes that we might imagine it being equalled. “The more that I’m there and working on Pina’s stuff, and the ones who have never worked for her, we ask questions like this all the time – how did this come to be?”

“We’re trying to figure out how she got there, what her mind was doing, what they did. I don’t know if anyone will do what she’s done.  People copy techniques – even in Café Múller, this repetition, when she created this piece, it wasn’t really used, it was very new to the eye – why am I seeing this over and over?  Now people use it all the time.”

There is an unrelenting sense of command in Bausch’s work. The dancers are impossibly specific, yet somehow wild and free. In the moment that Troyak references above, a dancer repeatedly falls from the embrace of another dancer, while a third dancer resets the picture, placing the second dancers arms exactly as they should be, placing the first dancer into those arms, positioning the head so as to suggest that the two dancers are kissing; and as he walks away, she falls, he returns, he replaces her, he walks away, she falls, he returns, he replaces her. The pace accelerates to a comically manic speed, yet the choreography remains exactly – exactly! – the same.

I try to imagine being in a position to ask a performer to master something at this level. First, there has to be an idea, but then, the sheer time required to perfect a moment, especially one that requires lifting, falling, the possibility of injury from hitting the floor. Can a younger generation of less supported American artists demand this of their performers?

“It’s already changed my perception of how I want to create in the future,” Troyak says, speculating on the possibility of making her own work. “I do like to collaborate with my dancers when I create, but there is a certain level of artistic ownership or detail that I haven’t ever done before.  It’s the (lack of) time, I think.  This showing is in two weeks and I have this dancer… I think this level of direction in the studio, I feel sometimes people I know are very direct and specific about what I want, but to really know what you want… is something to think about for me in the future, to really realize why the movement is doing what it’s doing, not throwing away transitions, I’m realizing how important everything is.”

In New York, it seems like there’s never enough time. The relationship between creator and performer is often fluidly collaborative, and the hustle is everything. Performers rush from job to job, sometimes attending three (or more!) rehearsals in a single day. There is, then, a constant re-filtering effect. Learning choreography is one thing, performing it well another – but embodying a collective aesthetic, in the way that the Tantztheater company does so effortlessly (doubtless only as a result of extreme effort over a span of years, decades even), this seems like an improbable thing to expect from New York performers.

Troyak reflects the experience of the dancers who have been with the company for many years. “People loved her,” she says. Still, there was a sense of – if not fear – a fierce desire to please Pina. The dancers would present her a sequence or movement phrase, and she would say “okay, well maybe do that in a bathing suit in a duck thing and you’re pouring coffee on yourself.  She would take ideas and manipulate them to what she wanted. She would keep doing scenes until they were right and then make them remember what they did. ”

Is it possible in present-day America, as a creator or company leader, to be both feared and revered? What might one offer to earn such a vaunted position?

How about housing and financial support? Wuppertal has a population of 345,000, so an equivalent city in America might be Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. What if the Heinz Foundation (say) created an endowment to fully fund the career-long development of a creative company, complete with housing and unlimited time and space? Would you move to Pittsburgh for that? Or Wichita, Kansas? Or Lexington, Kentucky?

“In Wuppertal,” Troyak says, “it’s just your desire and work. I feel like I can come home, live well, rest – there’s never really rest – but it’s close, it’s central, I don’t mind living there, it has its charm.”

After we pause for an ambulance to pass by, she adds “It’s kind of sad coming back to New York. When I landed I was so happy, I was like, I love New York. But who would I dance for here? You do this here and that there, even the major companies, it’s not a steady job. Bill T. Jones dancers get paid bi-weekly and if they don’t rehearse during a week, they don’t get paid for that week. You still have to do other things on full-time companies here.”

So, I ask, what are we do to?

“Well,” she responds, “one of us has to do something.”

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