It is the midst of autumn and the crisp breeze of the impending Minnesota winter chills the air. Just outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota, in an even smaller city called Waite Park sits Rainbow Quarry, a dug out, oblong section of granite that falls 150 feet below the earth surface.
Although artistic in its natural form, Rainbow Quarry is certainly not the most common space for performance art. However, for modern dance mogul Merce Cunningham, it was the ideal destination for the 2008 re-staging of his piece, Ocean, a work featuring 14 dancers and 150 musicians, orbiting the stage as the audience observes seated in a circle around them.
Among the 14 dancers was Rashaun Mitchell. “It was all lit up and was just the most unbelievable, most beautiful thing ever” he said. “It was really cold. You could see your breath on stage as you were dancing, so it was a little dangerous…but it was worth it.”
This performance of Ocean, is just one of the many risks artist Rashaun Mitchell,36, has taken in his still thriving career. He is a connoisseur of creation, and cannot be singularly placed into a box labeled with a specific art form, as his many crafts and facets of interest, intermingle and are displayed through “messy magic” in the form of movement.
He has been consumed by a passion for movement. Even in simple gestures, like walking down the street or sipping from a mug of herbal tea, you can see the eloquence in his mobility, the willingness in his effortless grace.
For most dancers, the studio is a safety net and a sanctuary, a laboratory for invention. For Mitchell, it is a place that is calling to him now more than ever before as he refocuses his talents on teaching and choreography and speaks about his choice to gravitate from stage to studio.
After leaving the Cunningham Company in 2011, he currently teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and is also a working choreographer. He has performed on stages throughout the world, including the Palais Garnier in Paris, and as his boss, Sean Curran, Chair of the dance department at NYU, puts it is; “a crowned prince of modern dance royalty.”
Mitchell has spent countless hours both on the stage and in the studio and his attention to detail has allowed him to cultivate a vast vocabulary for movement and an intuition for creation. “ I think my interest in dance is not so much in seeing exactitude or perfection but in seeing something that I don’t understand, something more ambiguous,” he explains. By knowing all the rules, he allows himself the freedom to break them, and the results are exquisite.
A descendant from Cunningham, who was a descendant of Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, Mitchell is expertly versed in his technique and also tenacious and innovative in his invention. In attendance at his latest Dancespace piece was Curran who described Mitchell’s evening length work as “idea driven,” “high concept,” and “a real mind at work.”
“It was work that was hard to penetrate, but work that made you lean forward. Hard to figure out, but wonderfully so,” Curran explains. At one point in the piece the dancers navigated the stage in a wide set, second position gallop, the “Rashaun Gallop,” as Curran has coined it. Mitchell has cultivated his own form of movement invention, and through it has developed a unique artistic voice. “I left the theater and I looked around as I was walking home, and there was nobody looking and I tried to do it [the Rashaun Gallop] down the street,” Curran laughed. “It’s like when you leave the theatre humming the tune, Rashaun made me do his dance.”
As an artist constantly discovering, Mitchell turns to improvisation to unearth new material. “I try and locate something I haven’t discovered yet,” he said. “I think when you’re performing you’re fully in that moment and not thinking about what is going to come, or what has come before and you’re just in that place where things are growing and changing,” he explains.
In his teaching, Mitchell leads by example. “He is an extremely humble human being who is willing to give himself and his practices,” said Alexandra Wood, third year B.F.A. at Tisch. It is not singularly due to his stardom that Mitchell demands respect in the classroom. You can tell through careful observation that although there is a strong admiration for Mitchell and his legacy there is also a mutual respect and transfer of energy between him and his students. “Everything inspires me. My students are inspiring to me,” he said. “I don’t always remember that, until I’m in the moment, and then I’m there and they’re giving me something and there is an exchange and energy between us.”
Along with teaching modern technique in the dance department at NYU he has also been granted the license to re-stage Cunningham works, which he recently did with the students in NYU’s Second Avenue Dance Company (SADC). “ His subtle ecstasy for his craft is contagious,” Wood explains. “ I have written everything down in my journal that he has ever said to me.”
Dance is very much a social ritual, a way of communicating with others, but it is also a way to understand yourself. “The ritual of the everyday,” as Mitchell describes it, allows you to return to your practice and check in with yourself, a necessity for any artist, or person working on the daily grind.
Mitchell’s ability to simultaneously reflect and refocus allows him an advantage in the studio. His experience with Cunningham was overwhelmed by the intricacies of Cunningham’s work, but also rewarded him with a foundation of endurance, and a curiosity to understand complexity. “I admire his ability to roll with the punches, and to work on projects with the upmost flexibility shaping the outcome. He’s very resourceful,” said Silas Riener, Mitchell’s partner, fellow dancer, and collaborator in an e-mail interview.
As a teacher and choreographer, Mitchell now focuses on transferring his ideas on to other artists bodies. Although he does still get urged into performing, he is primarily working on creating. “I’m at a point now where I don’t dance for anyone else. I do my own work, and I can do the things that I feel comfortable doing for my body,” he said.
As he speaks, there are moments when his whole body expresses the words, as if the eloquent sentences he is relaying are merely an extension of the answers inside him. He speaks with his hands and his arms, trying to make the feelings he describes almost tangible. You can see the glimmer in his eye as he describes one of his most memorable choreographic experiences, something difficult to find in a person who has already successfully completed all of the goals he has set for himself thus far.
He describes his first choreographing experience where him and his dancers were in a glass walled studio in the middle of the woods. “I had never worked with everyone together, so I wanted to foster a bonding experience,” he said. They went for a walk in the woods and the conditions were that each person had to lead at least once and that the walk must be completed in complete silence. “Of course we got lost,” he said. Once they found their way back to the studio the energy was electric. “ There were just tears,” he said. “It brought up all these feelings for people about loss of control and about being lost and made everyone really raw, and then I was like, “ok, let’s dance.””
Mitchell is a natural born leader and creator. From performing inside Rainbow Quarry to facilitating the means needed for vulnerable collaboration, he is a risk taker. In his skill and technique he certainly is “modern dance royalty,” however in his choreographic endeavors he has also become a master of movement. With his constantly evolving and authentic voice, he is sure to defy boundaries, blur the lines, and set new standards for the dance world. He truly is “a mind at work.”