The former Merce Cunningham dancer on performing solos by the legendary American choreographer at the 16th annual Modern Dance Festival this weekend.
Photo: Reed Hutchinson/CAP UCLA Tamsin Carlson performs in Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event at UCLA’s Royce Hall
Fort Worth — Thanks to the Merce Cunningham Trust, audiences across Dallas-Fort Worth will get to experience some of the revolutionary American choreographer’s most memorable solos as well as new works inspired by his methods at the 16th annual Modern Dance Festival, presented by Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth (CD/FW) in collaboration with the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
The festival’s roster includes works by many well-known locals in the modern dance genre, including Loris Anthony Beckles (Beckles Dancing Company), Kerry Kreiman (CD/FW), Muscle Memory Dance Theatre and Momentum Dance Company. Other familiar names include Lynn Lane and Jennifer Mabus of The Transitory Sound and Movement Collective (Houston) and Mel Mobley and Tina Mullane of M2 (Monroe, LA).
Also participating in this year’s Modern Dance Festival is master teacher and former Cunningham dancer Tamsin Carlson. The associate artistic director of Vox Dance Theatre in Los Angeles, Carlson was a member of R.U.G (Repertory Understudy Group) for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1996 to 1999. From 1999 to 2000 she performed with Lucinda Child’s 25th anniversary tour and also worked with Jonathon Appels, Charemaine Seet, Ellen Van Schylenburch and Beth Toll.
Carlson is a graduate of the Arts Educational School and London Contemporary Dance School. She has been working with Rudy Perez as a member of his ensemble since moving to Los Angeles in 2000. She also is currently the chair of modern dance at the Colburn School and is part-time faculty at Renaissance Arts Academy.
This weekend Carlson will perform the Cunningham solos she learned for Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event. This special project originally took place on April 16 in New York City, Los Angeles and London and featured 25 dancers at each location performing a selection of 100 solos by Cunningham.
TheaterJones caught up with Carlson to discuss her introduction to Cunningham’s Technique, being part of the Night of 100 Solos event in Los Angeles and performing excerpts from these solos for audiences at the Modern Dance Festival this weekend.
TheaterJones: How did you get involved with the 16th annual Modern Dance Festival?
Tamsin Carlson: Kerry Kreiman contacted the Merce Cunningham Trust for potential performers from the recent Night of 100 Solos (Cunningham’s Centennial performances) for the Modern Dance Festival. I was one of the dancers who performed in Los Angeles. It was a wonderful coordinated event, with performances taking place in New York and London as well, all on the night of April 16,, 2019. After contacting the Cunningham Trust, Kerry reached out to me and we found the dates worked within my schedule of teaching and performing and I was thrilled to be able to participate.
Why is it important to you to be a part of festivals such as the Modern Dance Festival?
I believe festivals and performances in alternative spaces to be vital, both culturally and for reaching audiences. For making the work accessible, for connecting with wider, more diverse audiences and to potentially inspire and exhilarate with dance those who might not ordinarily be exposed to such an experience. And as this is Merce’s Centennial year, it is important that his work be an ongoing part of that celebration of world dance. With the Cunningham Company no longer performing, it is always a special opportunity to see his work in live performance.
Please talk about your history with the Cunningham solos you will be performing.
What was so wonderful about learning the solos is that all of the dancers got to work with actual stagers (former Cunningham company members) from the Cunningham Trust rather than learn the work off of video, which often happens. And what was particularly rewarding and special with regard to my four solos I performed in LA is that I got to work with each of the original Cunningham dancers that the solos were created on. They are Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Victoria Finlayson, Banu Ogan and Lisa Boudreau, each wonderful to work with. And as always performing Cunningham, it is an eloquent connection directly back to Merce, who I knew in New York and was on faculty at his School.
How did it feel to be a part of Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event?
To say it was an honor to participate in such an event is absolutely true, but to your question about how did it feel, I found it to be incredibly moving and somewhat transcendent, if that doesn’t sound too abstract. To be a small part of this worldwide cultural celebration of Merce, and to add one’s efforts to such an amazingly gifted and dedicated corps of dancers unified in celebrating a special life and fulfilling the expression of that life on stage. There were four generations of dancers in Los Angeles, all of us in awe of Merce’s enormous, indescribable body of work. We found rich community together during the rehearsal process and culminating performance, an experience none of us will ever forget, but we now get the opportunity to share Merce’s work with others such as during the Modern Dance Festival.
Describe your introduction to Cunningham Technique? Did it immediately feel right on your body? Were you intimidated by any of his choreography?
So interesting you phrase the question that way, because it did immediately feel right on my body! In a way I feel Cunningham has been a part of my life forever, and this is very nearly true. I first encountered and fell in love with Cunningham technique as a teenager in London when I was at dance college. I then sought out teachers throughout London who were teaching Cunningham technique.
When I moved to New York in 1996 it was with the primary aim of studying at The Cunningham School. I was thrilled to become an understudy (what was called R.U.G.) in 1997 and then to join the faculty in 1998. Merce’s choreography was so intimidating! As well so thoroughly physically and mentally demanding, but also absolutely exhilarating for the same reasons. With Cunningham there was and is no halfway — you just had to dive in and give beyond that which you thought you were able!
For those unfamiliar with Cunningham’s Repertory Understudy Group (R.U.G) what was the purpose of this company?
We were literally understudies in the classic sense that should a dancer become injured, the understudy was ready always to perform in their stead, though I must say that rarely happened as Merce’s dancers were always so conditioned and strong. In my time as a R.U.G., the understudies also constituted an outreach program; we were representatives of the School who would tour as dancers the elementary, middle and high schools in the surrounding boroughs of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey.
We performed Cunningham repertory and after performances would hold Q&A sessions with the students. These times also could be so rewarding, to see some of the kids’ faces light up and their barely contained excitement made these tours special in their own right. Also, in later years when Merce would no longer tour with the main company, we R.U.G.s would be Merce’s dancers that he would choreograph on toward developing and staging the work.
What are some of your fondest memories performing with R.U.G?
So many! I mean, I loved being in the studio with the Company whilst Merce was creating new works and being part of that. In my time Merce created Pondway, Scenario, Biped, and he would start by teaching us phrases he had created (Merce often used the computer system “Dance Forms”) and Merce would assign counts for each movement of the torso, legs, arms, head. The series of counts and movements would build to a phrase and over time these counts would morph into a complex rhythm and then eventually you’d no longer count, but simply the rhythm would sustain you in a thrilling way as you navigated such challenging choreography. Merce was a genius and to have had the opportunity to work with him in New York is beyond anything I could have conceived while studying to be a dancer growing up in England.
Doing the tours, when we performed in the schools, I think for the majority of the children it was their first experience certainly with modern dance, and again they were so enthralled and excited by the performances and seeing live work that it was just really moving and created memories I have to this day.
How does Cunningham’s method influence the work you are doing today?
Things from Merce stay with you always. The development of the phrase, the building process, the absolute commitment, trusting in the process of counts to liberating rhythm. I find when creating phrases for class or working on choreography, through Merce I am really focusing on rhythm. Merce’s technique makes the body extremely strong and versatile. It would have to be to perform the work.
When choreographing, I also find ‘chance’ to be an enormously helpful tool. Chance can aid in the placing of phrases in such a way that becomes original and unexpected. You know, it is inevitable sometimes, I find we tend to have impulses that follow some expected or obvious choices, and chance can shake this up, lead to some fascinating outcomes, or sometimes just refresh and reset the work.
Keeping things unpredictable can potentially result in more arresting work, both for audience as well as the performers. Part of Merce’s lasting legacy, I believe, is his unique way of using space; any and all coordinates are potentially important, any facing can be used. Merce was really the first choreographer to make those choices and it reflects on all choreographers today.
> This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.