DEVOTION

Writer/Performance Editor: Kerry Stichweh
Director/Photographer: Michael Williams
Video Editor: Bryan Saunders
Photo Assistant: Jesse Dreyfus
Digital tech/Retouching: Becky Siegel

(Interview follows)

MELISSA TOOGOOD & KENNETH PARRIS III

“We met at another dancer’s birthday party while Melissa was an understudy with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC),” he explained. She was from Sydney Australia. He, a visual artist raised in Austin, Texas. In 2008, soon after they began dating, Melissa was accepted into the renowned MCDC, so he naturally began to spend time around the dancers and Cunningham’s work. “I was so moved by Merce’s genius, it changed how I saw the human body move through space.” It was through watching that work and Melissa’s daily quirks: the discipline of class to prepare her body for rehearsal, the food in the fridge, the morning foot-ice-soak, that he truly began to realize the physical rigor required of a dancer at that extraordinary level.

It was that same year during the company’s last tour before Merce passed away, while watching the masterpiece, “Sound Dance,” when Kenneth had an epiphany. The performance space at Jacob’s Pillow had an outdoor backstage crossing and during this incredibly energetic and grueling performance as the dancers made their way outside to cross, Kenneth saw steam swirling from their bodies. The light was just right and in that moment he knew the story he needed to tell: How these dancers who looked idyllic and perfect on stage were simply individuals doing their job, coming together to create something more than themselves. These larger than life performers were ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Kenneth wanted to peel back a bit of the mystique of the stage and expose just what it meant for these dancers to do this incredibly challenging work.

He also knew that a two-year world “Legacy Tour” was being planned for after Merce’s imminent passing. So, he considered the historical importance of documenting the event and just what it might mean for the dancers who shouldered the responsibility of carrying the work forward. He was concerned for Melissa and how she would hold-up not only physically but also emotionally while mourning Merce’s death and the ending of the career she had just begun and had worked her entire life to build. He was interested in just how all the dancers would be able to go on. The MCDC dancers would all be unemployed at the end of the tour because after 58 years, the company was scheduled to disband. Melissa explained how she began training at the age of three, so she pretty much had been dancing her entire life and came to New York City specifically to study with Merce Cunningham.

After several months of pitching the dancers to allow him to record their off-stage moments: in dressing rooms, while traveling, in green-rooms, during physical therapy, at meals, the mundane aspects of life on the road, the dancers graciously agreed to allow Kenneth into their lives. “It was asking a lot of the dancers to take their off-stage time and put them back in the spot-light,” he explained. The result has been a series of paintings and drawings, “104 Work Weeks: On Tour With the Merce Cunningham Dance Company,” which gives an intimate glimpse into the lives of dancers on tour, specifically focusing on moments before and after performances.

In 2009, Cunningham passed away and Melissa became one of the last company members to go on and realize the late choreographer’s wishes. “Being a member of the MCDC was a huge honor, and being on the legacy tour was a huge responsibility, a different type of responsibility than other tours,” Melissa explained; “I realized that every time the audience applauded for us, they were applauding for nearly 60 years of Merce’s achievement.” This was unlike other tours where a dancer might hold in their body the knowledge of four or five pieces from the repertory. The company reconstructed and revived seven historical pieces from the total of 17 repertory masterpieces and events being presented. So there was a huge amount of material that had to be learned, rehearsed and remembered in the body. She explained that in those two years the company had a total of 55 tours across the world. There were also times when a dancer became injured, requiring a last minute covering of a role. But always, the dancers and company were triumphant in those moments, pulling it out on the stage sometimes the day the new material was learned. Kenneth commented, “being a dancer is like early punk rock, like you are almost crazy to do it.”

Melissa and Kenneth were married in February, 2011 during the beginning of the second year of the tour. It was a once in a lifetime experience they wouldn’t trade for the world. They traveled to cities such as Hong Kong, Moscow, London, Berlin and Paris, she presenting Merce’s life work and he documenting those who made the work possible. Melissa recounted many treasured moments including how the last “Fast Dance” was performed in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum amidst an exhibit of swords; how in Hong Kong while riding in an open double-decker bus with fellow dancers, Brandon Collwes and Dylan Crossman, how when the bus turned a corner they smacked into a huge billboard depicting the three of them along with Merce who had been stylized with a Chinese coiffure; in Moscow, how a large crowd stood across from the theater cheering the performance, giving Kenneth a moment of glory as he was mistaken for a dancer. They loved how each theater was unique and Melissa mentioned her favorite was the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, which housed a version of the infamous mural by Diego Rivera, “Man at the Crossroads,” originally commissioned by Rockefeller Center in 1933.

She went on to explain how the company worked all day, every day and she often didn’t even get a moment to explore a city, adding how thankful she was that the presenters would organize interesting dinners and events with the local people. Kenneth joked, “eating different foods in different places, your stomach gets screwed up and you gotta get on the stage in a unitard.” The tour was intense, especially as newly-weds. “When in a relationship with another artist, usually you can take turns being the other’s support, but, when you both have something that is happening simultaneously, that’s when it becomes stressful,” she said. It finally occurred to them the last weeks of the tour that Kenneth could go into the hotel lobby late night to finish his drawings so that she could sleep with the lights turned off. They both expressed how amazing it was that no matter where they were in the world, even with the differences in language, that dance spoke to the audiences, moving past certain barriers unlike other art forms.

It was during our interview as Ken painted the final strokes on his piece that portrayed several dancers in an embrace after a curtain call, when Melissa became teary. The dancers were surrounded on the stage by Andy Warhol’s, “Silver Clouds Installation,” the set for Merce’s masterpiece, “Rainforest.” She was clearly recalling the moment. I asked her whether she felt Kenneth’s series accurately depicted the range of experiences of the dancers on tour. “Kenneth captured the energy of experience rather than an actual true snapshot,” she said; “through his color use, the way he organized the space, how he’s layered different aspects of the tour, the highlighted expressions and connections between the dancers. I get emotional when I see it.”

While Ken has been painting, Melissa has been far from unemployed. She has worked with nine different choreographers so far, with more projects in the works and with two of her projects resulting in nominations for the 2013 New York Dance and Performance awards: the Bessies, for her performance in Rashaun Mitchell’s, “Interface” and Pam Tanowitz’s, “The Spectators.” She was also a 2013 Merce Cunningham fellow and has continued to tour and teach both domestically and abroad.