Exclusive: The Classical Education of Douglas Dunn

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From Coquina, photo by Julieta Cervantes

Back in 1980, when Douglas Dunn was invited to choreograph a piece for the Paris Opera Ballet, he was about as far removed as one could get from the classical world of danseurs and etoiles, pointe shoes and tutus. His provenance was postmodernism — he danced with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and was a member of Grand Union, a collective of dancer-choreographers who staged improvised performances in the 1970s. Until he received the Paris Opera Ballet commission, he hadn’t even choreographed to music, preferring instead to set his dances in silence or, in the spirit of Cunningham, use music without actually dancing to it.

But France was experiencing a modern-dance boom at that time, and American choreographers were in high demand. And Dunn’s resulting work, a 40-minute modern ballet set to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, was a great success.

Starting tonight, New Yorkers will have a chance to see a reprise of this landmark work at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, which is currently hosting the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival. Douglas Dunn & Dancers will perform through Sunday in a program that includes Pulcinella and the premiere of then boss in man?, featuring live music by classical guitarist Tali Roth.

After the jump Dunn talks with us about Pulcinella then and now, and offers a few hints about his new work.

Flavorwire: How exactly did you get the invitation to work with the Paris Opera Ballet?

Douglas Dunn: Michel Guy [former French Minister of Culture and director of the Paris Autumn Festival] saw me when I was a dancer with Cunningham in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and when I was in France performing, teaching and so on, he was always checking me out. Then he came to New York when I was first making group work in 1978. And I remember he was leaning against the windows and watching the rehearsal. We danced for half an hour and he said, “Would you like to come to the Autumn Festival?’ So we went that year and did a piece to no music. I’d been doing solo and duet work, usually using no music, or using a composer who did whatever he or she wanted without talking to me about it.

We went back in ’79 and did a piece on a provincial French ballet company, and the next year they invited me to do this thing at the Opera. That was incredible. I was so scared, I couldn’t even think about it. Then I worked my butt off.

FW: What was it like making the transition from working with your own modern dance company to choreographing for a major ballet troupe?

DD: I had taught prep school in the mid ’60s, and that was my one other experience of dealing with an institution of uptight qualities. I can’t say I loved the Paris Opera environment as a whole. Every year the students coming up through the school have dance tests, and if they don’t pass they’re out. So the dancers were very good, but in very specific ways.

When I got there, they gave me about 40 dancers to work with and said I could choose any ones I wanted out of this group. I immediately chose all the youngest — they were fresh, they had appetite and they were already good jumpers and turners. They were like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ But it didn’t take them very long to see that this was going to be fun, that I was going to ask them to do some daring things that they’d never done. We had a mutual innocence. Luckily I had a long time [three months] to work on the piece. I needed a lot of time to get my feet wet.

FW: What was it like bringing Pulcinella back to life? Is it at all different from the original version?

DD: It’s the same. I’m not someone who wants to alter things just because I might have a new idea. I want to do it exactly as it was. Once it’s made, that’s it — I want that to be sacred. I want to trust it. That’s who I was then. Now is now.

I have so many tapes of productions, so I have to go through these tapes and… try to get back to the raw, original thing. I’m getting older so I can’t always do the stuff physically, which is a drag, but when it comes it back, it comes back through my body.

FW: Can you tell us a bit about the new piece, then boss in man?

DD: It has turned out to be a nicely complementary piece to Pulcinella, which is 40 minutes and very dense. This other piece has six dancers, is very spare and has a lot of open space in it. It’s more serene and more meditative. With the last piece I made about a year and a half ago, Zorn’s Lemma, I saw afterward how space became almost symbolic, and determined how I felt about the people in it after the fact. So in this piece I decided to … make it more spacious than I’ve ever done, both in time and geography.

This is the most vulnerable title I’ve ever made. I care that you think of the word ‘man’ as in male and also as in mankind. I’m guiding people to think about the piece in a certain way, which I hardly ever do. The title is a question … and I hope it’s just a suggestion to consider as the dance goes on. It doesn’t rise to the level of identity politics; I’m too old-fashioned for that. I want it to be mythical, not topical.

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From Zorn’s Lemma, photo by Julieta Cervantes

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From Zorn’s Lemma, photo by Julieta Cervantes