NEW YORK — Choreographer Rashaun Mitchell shepherded his dancers into the woods and asked them to wander around.
“I’m not the kind of choreographer who works alone in the studio and then puts movement on his dancers,” says Mitchell, 33, a former Merce Cunningham Dance Company member. “I have to be with them and watch them improvise. I can’t foresee what they’ll do. That’s how I generate material.”
So, as an exercise during a late summer residency last year at Dragon’s Egg Studio in Ledyard, Conn., into the forest they went. He asked them to take turns being group leader. But none of them had ever been in those woods before, and they all got lost.
“When we made it back to the studio,” he recalls over coffee in a Russian restaurant on the Lower East Side, “there was absolute silence. Then, one dancer burst into tears. The outpouring began. They talked about their feelings of vulnerability, and their childlike emotions came to the surface. When emotions come to the surface, something happens to the body, and new things emerge. That’s how ‘Interface’ started. Ultimately, I deconstructed the physical movements that accompanied those emotions.”
On a program with Mitchell’s reconstruction of Cunningham’s 1965 dance “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run,” “Interface” will be performed July 26 and 27 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, copresented by Summer Stages Dance at Concord Academy.
Danced by Mitchell and three others to a score by Thomas Arsenault, “Interface” will include atmospheric designs by artists Fraser Taylor and Nicholas O’Brien. At a recent private performance of the piece at the Bar-yshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, Mitchell and the other dancers — Silas Riener and Melissa Toogood, former Cunningham company members, and Cori Kresge, a former Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group member — rolled over each other’s backs, staggered across the room, and intertwined in a wild mixture of movements and facial expressions. “Interface” is a far cry from a Cunningham work, but then that’s part of what makes Mitchell, who performed in the 2004 revival of “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run,” so unusual. Because of his combination of talents, he became one of the first individuals to be asked to participate in the new Cunningham Fellowship program, which facilitates the restaging of Cunningham’s works.
“How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” is danced in tandem with a reading of witty, very brief stories, written and originally read in performance by John Cage, Cunningham’s collaborator and life partner. Not as complex as Cunningham’s later works, “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” is extremely playful, with a lighthearted atmosphere. In a 1966 New York Times review of the piece, a thoroughly won-over Clive Barnes describes brilliant dancing that’s “languidly” upstaged by Cage, who sips “what looks like a rather questionable red wine” while “succinctly pouring out the charming trivia of his life.”
“It’s one of my favorites,” Mitchell says. “It’s very funny. You get the feeling that the dancers have a physical goal.”
Robert Swinston, director of choreography for the Cunningham Trust, will give Mitchell an intensive workshop in restaging before Mitchell teaches the dance to students from the Juilliard School and Tufts University, who will perform it at the ICA. “Rashaun is an excellent dancer and understands how Merce worked,” Swinston says. “He’s also a choreographer, so he knows how to see movement, and to convey what he wants, in ways that dancers may not know how to articulate. And he’s young, so he can demonstrate. All this makes him very well suited to the undertaking.”
The Cunningham Trust has been training and deploying former Cunningham dancers to restage works at university dance departments and companies around the world for years. But with Cunningham’s death in 2009, and the dissolution of the company in 2011, ensuring that his works are revived well has become more daunting.
“We have resources, such as videotapes and Merce’s notes, though often they are very cryptic,” says Patricia Lent, director of repertory licensing for the trust. “But best is having the stager be someone who danced the work. You have to have an interest in detail and find complexity interesting. You also have to learn how to communicate the spirit of the work. He wanted his dancers to extend everything to the limit.”
Mitchell was 25 when he joined the Cunningham company. Growing up in Atlanta, he knew he wanted to leave the South, and leapt at the chance to attend Concord Academy and Summer Stages as a high schooler. There he studied with Richard Colton, cofounder of Summer Stages. “It changed my life,” Mitchell says.
He went on to Sarah Lawrence College, and after graduation came to New York and started taking classes at the Cunningham studio. “I didn’t particularly like his work at the beginning,” he says, “but as I watched the dancers every day, I fell in love with it. I was thrilled when I got into the company.”
Unlike most dance troupes, it offered its members a steady salary, health benefits, and regular European tours.
“It was the best gig in New York,” Mitchell says. “Merce was such a singular person. He was warm and challenging. He invited you to show who you were.
“I also remember those moments when he’d become grandfatherly, and we’d all gather around him to hear his stories. They stay with me.”
Correction: Because of reporting errors, a previous version of this story misstated the given name of the Merce Cunningham Trust’s Robert Swinston and mischaracterized the dancers who will perform Cunningham’s ‘‘How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run’’ this summer at the Institute of Contemporary Art.