Ahead of CCN-Ballet de Lorraine's performance—and continuing Northrop's celebration of the legendary Merce Cunningham—I was thrilled to chat with the Cunningham Trust's Patricia Lent, one of the original dancers in Fabrications.
Not only did Ms. Lent perform in the Northrop premiere 30 years ago, but she taught the piece to the CCN-Ballet de Lorraine dancers. She will return to Northrop on February 16 to take part in the performance preview, and see the show that has become a significant part of her life.
Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you come to be a dancer? What do you do now?
I studied ballet as a child, and on through my teenage years. I stopped dancing when I went to college (University of Virginia), but then began again in my final year with an inspiring teacher named Nora Shattuck who encouraged me to pursue a career. I eventually made my way to New York where I spent a year-and-a-half studying ballet and training at the Merce Cunningham Studio before being invited to join Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC).
I danced for MCDC for 10 years (1984-93), and then White Oak Dance Project from 1994-96. I then earned a master’s degree in education and taught elementary school for 10 years. In 2008 I joined the staff of the Cunningham Dance Foundation. A year later, I was named by Merce to be a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust, and currently serve as the Trust’s Director of Licensing. My responsibilities include initiating and overseeing projects in which Merce’s work is shared with professional and student dancers worldwide.
How did you come to work with Merce Cunningham? What was it like working with such a prolific choreographer?
Like most of the dancers who worked for Merce Cunningham, I began by taking classes at the Merce Cunningham Studio. I first went to the studio in 1982, and began in the elementary class (this was expected of everyone new to the studio). I studied there daily, and was eventually invited to join the company class, which was taught by Merce and other senior teachers. I became an apprentice for about six months, and then joined the company in January 1984.
My years dancing for Merce were life changing, exhausting, and immeasurably gratifying. At that time, Merce was creating on average three new dances each year, and the company was touring and performing a great deal. We danced and danced and danced. The work was challenging, and Merce expected his dancers to inhabit, articulate, and push the limits of the choreography. It was an awesome responsibility. We were given very precise instructions when new dances were being made, and then relatively little feedback thereafter. We were left to find our way in the movement; to figure out how to dance it as fully as possible. It took courage and self-reliance. Fortunately, I was surrounded by an extraordinary group of dancers—my fellow company members—who were a source of guidance, motivation, and humor.
Tell me about debuting Fabrications at Northrop 30 years ago. What do you remember about the performance? What do you remember about Northrop Auditorium?
Fabrications was a co-commission of the Cunningham Dance Foundation and the Walker Art Center. Merce began choreographing the dance in New York, and then completed the dance during a three-week (I think) residency at Northrop. I remember that we worked in a basement studio that was wide and shallow. In the later sections of the dance—the ones made in that studio—there are many entrances that begin with slow walks into the space from the wings. I think that had to do with the shape of the room. Our studio in New York was exactly the opposite. It was narrow and deep, almost a square space, which made for a different spatial configuration in the beginning of the dance.
I remember that we barely finished the dance in time—that often happened—and were learning material right up to the day of the premiere. The Northrop stage felt vast after the studio, and the dance was able to spread out. There was a big emphasis at that time on moving big—big steps, big shapes, vigorous runs. The stage at Northrop encouraged and rewarded this. It was my first time on the Northrop stage, but we returned many times during my years in the company.
What was happening in the world at the time? How was Fabrications received by audiences 30 years ago?
The late 1980s were a fertile time for dance, and in particular for American modern dance. That’s why we were working and touring so much. Fabrications was well received from the very start—in part because Merce was in the dance. He was in his late 60s at that time, and was still dancing in every show. Typically he was in one of the three dances on the program. Fabrications became one of our “closers.” We danced it countless times.
What makes the piece so special? Were there any challenges you found in rehearsing and/or performing the piece?
Fabrications had a lush, majestic quality. The movement was vigorous and athletic and rhythmic. It also had an intensity—a sense of drama and community, not defined but ever present. In the beginning of the dance we seemed more separate, but as the dance goes on, there is more and more physical contact—partnering and touching. By the end we felt connected, a complex tribe, or herd, or team.
The movement is difficult to execute, but it gives back. For me, the dance felt very complete, like a purposeful journey.
How do you think Cunningham’s work, and perhaps Fabrications in particular, translates to audiences today?
I think the mark of a masterwork is that it is both “of its time” and timeless. The movement in Fabrications is very characteristic of the material Merce was making in the 1980s. It’s almost nostalgic for me to demonstrate the phrases, to watch the dancers dance them. And yet, when dancers encounter this choreography for the first time, in this decade, it somehow feels familiar and inviting—almost remembered. I think it may be the same for audiences—something distinctly from the past, but speaking to the present.
How does it feel, in a sense, to be coming “home” to where it debuted?
I sit outside the dance now, which is the most profound difference. Fabrications looks and feels different from the inside—from the stage, from the wings. It’s entirely different seeing it from the front.
I first taught the dance in 2002, when the Cunningham company was celebrating its 50th anniversary and asked me to help revive the dance. I was astonished to see it from the outside—to see how the various activities and sections worked together in space and time. To see how time unfolded. As a dancer inside the dance, I was caught up in my own personal journey through the dance.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to teach the dance again, this time to CCN-Ballet de Lorraine. It was a wonderful experience. For that staging, I had access to Merce’s choreographic notes, and was able to study the structure of the dance—to make discoveries about how Merce developed and organized the phrases, and wove the groups together. Just last month I had the opportunity to return to Nancy to work with Ballet de Lorraine again, in preparation for these performances. Another return.
I’ve been dancing or studying or teaching Fabrications for 30 years—over half my life. It is deeply familiar and yet still unpredictable. I look forward to experiencing it again at Northrop.