Dance

A Crowned Prince of Modern Dance Royalty

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.”

Anna Finke

Photo by Anna Finke

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.

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Mitchell demonstrating for his class at Tisch

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.”

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Photo from rashaunmitchell.org

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.”

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Photo by Stacey Mark

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.

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Mitchell with his class at Tisch

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.”

The Table of Silence Project: Remembering 9/11

There is beauty in tragedy, and devastating events can inspire works of art. Any form of art has the power to bring people together, whether in conversation or conflict. However, more times than not it serves as a healing mechanism and a common language that people share and understand together.

I attended The Table of Silence Project 9/11 held around the Revson Fountain in Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center on Thursday, September 11th, 2014. The performance, featuring over 100 dancers from various schools and companies, three vocalists, two percussionists, and three flutists, was brought into production by Buglisi Dance Theatre in partnership with Dance/NYC, The September Concert, and Rossella Vasta. The show began at 8:15 a.m. and concluded with a moment of silence at 8:46, the time when the first plane hit the North Tower, followed by a procession outwards as the dancers exited the plaza. Spectators viewed this performance circled around the fountain, as well as from the balcony above, for those who work at Lincoln Center and had access from the inside. The performance began with the dancers, dressed in white leggings, creme and white blouson tops, bare feet, and streaks of white paint on their faces, circled around the fountain, then progressed with them moving sporadically outwards and down the steps at Lincoln Center, until finally, they regrouped into concentric circles around the fountain. While NYPD officers stand at the bottom of the stairs, Lincoln Center security guards are stationed at the pillars around Lincoln Center, as well as at key points between the dancers and the spectators, manning pathways for the dancers to pass through. In many ways, both in character and in mission they are apart of the performance. In character they seem to play a role in helping the crowd remember the many officers who worked and lost their lives on 9/11, while in mission they serve as vital parts of the performance, making sure it runs smoothly, efficiently, and uninhibited by spectators. After the first circle begins to disperse the dancers glide onto the stairs freely, spontaneously pausing in five distinct positions; In one they stand perfectly erect with their arms crossed over their chest and their palms toughing each shoulder. In the next the same erect position is held except this time their gaze is directed upwards and their arms are lifted up in a V formation. In the third the dancers are in a lunge with one hand pressed out and behind them, and the other covering one of their eyes, their bodies twisted towards their outstretched arm. In another the dancers hold their hands clasped in front of them, in a praying position, and in the last, the dancers lowers down to the ground as if having fallen, their heads towards the floor, knees bent, and arms in a lowered push up stance as if having broken their fall. These five positions are repeated numerous times and in a different order by each dancer as he or she makes their way to the steps. At 8:46, during the moment of silence, the three vocalists each sing a resonating note creating a harmony that vibrates through the crowd and onto the streets. Each dances nobles leaves the grounds and descends down the stairs at the side of Lincoln Center. The crowd doesn’t waver until the last dancer has exited.

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When asked where he was on 9/11/01 and what this tribute means to him: “I was in third grade, and I didn’t really know what was going on, but I remember she was my favourite teacher in the world and she just cried her eyes out. I was a dancer in it for two years, and this was my first time getting to actually see it. I think it’s a really beautiful statement of what art and dance can do to bring people together. I mean I cried. People probably have work at 9 a.m., I mean like people probably have work in 10 minutes, yet they are standing here watching this ritual to the very end.” – Corey Snide, 20, spectator, former dancer.

When asked where she was on 9/11/01 and what brought her here: “Umm…I came here because um my friends father is dancing in it, and um, I was 11, I was in the city, I was 11 when it happened, and I was at school, and my dad came and picked me up, and I didn’t know what happened till he came. And then we got back to Queens somehow, I don’t remember, um, we got here late, so I didn’t get to see the beginning of it, but…. um… just now watching someone react to it, was very intense, cause I realize this is uh, like a visual for people who are still grieving, people they lost over a decade ago but that never goes away.” – Ali, 24, spectator.

When asked what it meant to be apart of this performance: “Whatever else happens, this is the most important thing I will do today. It has been such a privilege to be out here with my fellow New Yorkers and to give us all an opportunity to remember, to feel, to come together, to take a moment of silence with ourselves, with each other, and with the world.” – Helga Davis, performer.

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As I walk up the steps to the crowd at Lincoln Center I look at the busy street behind me and notice that on this one day, occupied commuters take a minute and pause, look up, and notice the memorial being performed. It is almost as if New Yorkers awarenesses are heightened on this day. I am curious to know if it out of fear and self protection, or out of respect and thoughtful remembrance. The silence resonates through the crowd. It is so hauntingly quiet that even the usual chaos of the city is tuned out by the reverberating sound waves echoing from the vocalists. The interrupting sound of a dogs single bark is sharp and piercing. Some commuters seem to divert their daily path as they pass by Lincoln Center, questioning at first if this is a worthwhile interruption on their journey, many of them deciding it is. A woman dressed in all black removes her sunglasses and dabs her mascara. She stands a minute more then slowly walks away from the performance. In some cases this performance seems to have become less about remembrance and more about a spectacle in a way. Spectators almost miss the beauty and presence of the show as they hide behind smart phones and cameras recording and picturing the event. However, you can see in the security guards faces, and in a select few viewers that this tribute is a very real memorial, something to bask in rather than capture. Though very few people leave their place, as some remove themselves from the crowd, the remaining spectators mosey into their spots, respectfully trying to get a better view. An older woman that is apart of the performance cries at 8:46. Before the moment of silence she claps castanets creating a noise which reverberates through the crowd. A man holds his Yankees cap, in his hands which are crossed at his waist. Three students walk by in clamorous chatter, with Starbucks in their hands, oblivious to the ceremony. Not one of them break their conversation to look up and notice the tribute. Spectators are interrupted and many look over at the teenagers, seemingly surprised at their ignorance. At 8:45 stage manager stationed by the drums give vocalists a one minute warning. She nods ten seconds before 8:46. At 8:46:50 she counts down alerting the vocalists of the time they have until breaking the note. A woman arrives in an I (heart) NY shirt, the phrase written on top of a hear shaped American flag. Her outfit seems intentionally selected for this day. For an outdoor performance, I found it very interesting how the crowd stood, unwavering until the last dancer descends down the stairs. Even after the performance is over, a stillness holds the crowd in place before they continue on to their daily journey. A couple, one performer, one spectator, stands in a long lasting hug, at the fountain after the performance. After the performance, dancers emerge from all openings of Lincoln Center in their pedestrian garb, once again blending in with the spectators.