Lindsey Drury’s ‘Run Little Girl’ at Merce Cunningham Dance Studio

On February 25th and 26th, the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio had its final performance before shutting its doors forever. The last piece, titled: Run Little Girl (after a line from a poem John Cage wrote at age 4), was choreographed by Lindsey Drury, a Seattle native and non-Cunningham dancer. In her own words, Drury states, “Run Little Girl is performed as a folk dance haunted with demons, struggling in schisms between collectivism and individuality, feminism and misogyny, memory and anti-sentimentality, formalism and folk art”. We talk with her about the experience of showing her work in that space, what it meant both to her and in a larger context.

Interviewer: Cressa Perloff

In the Flesh: Hi Lindsey! Ok, so location, not only the physical space, but the cultural implication of a location of where you perform, is a theme you seem to always touch on. Why is location so relevant to you and how have the different locations you’ve made art in informed your work?

Lindsey Drury: Well, with the last piece, with Run Little Girl, the location had a lot of things happening for me. A lot.  First of all, I have an issue with institutions. Institutions, especially art institutions, their location becomes their identity in a way. The physical body of an institution. But since coming to NY it’s been really hard to understand what my work means in the social sphere because the institution always acts as the middle man between myself and my audiences. This is also my first self-produced work and I knew that I would have to put it in a place that I had no claim to. I would have to be an uprooted little trespasser. And I guess I thought ‘well if I’m gonna do that, I should make my dance trespass in the place that would be most inappropriate’. And the situation at Cunningham was so interesting and crazy. Both relevant and not relevant to me. It’s ending and it’s closing and I’m starting, I’m a baby. It has a huge historical relevance and mythology to it and I have none. And there’s something about wanting to infringe upon the delicate walls of a space like that with my irrelevance. It attracts me. When you say that my work often deals the space where it is what do you mean? I’m curious.

ITF: Let’s put it this way. Of the 2 works that I participated in of yours: One was in a home about homes. And the weird rituals that happen in the rooms of homes. And the other was on a beach in Salt Lake City and we were pretending that we were indoors and there was electricity  and it was fall and there were leaves. There was such a sense of locational confusion.

LD: The sociology of an audience is always very interesting to me. In Salt Lake City, people were prudes. So I tended to push at their prudishness. In New York, they’re not prudes, they’re disgruntled and distant. You know, they don’t want to feel here, the audience. They want to feel after they leave and talk about it over wine. They don’t want to feel it when they’re in there. So I kind of end up screaming in their faces a little bit. Not meanly, but just like—and my dancers just sit in their laps and are like ‘love me’ and it’s such an intrusion. I seek to intrude upon them. It’s become increasingly important to me to deal with the situation at hand. I want to deal with where we are. I mean that’s huge to me. I just hate dances that—I do, I just hate them, I have a problem— that go into spaces and refuse to acknowledge they’re really there. They drag in a whole other mythology and a whole protection so that they don’t have to be where they are. I think that’s nuts.

ITF:  So you were talking about intruding as a fledging in this great space, so my question is what are you trying to say about Merce? You poked fun at him, but you also genuinely honored him in some ways. So how did the choreography itself honor or avoid him? And what are you saying about the broader concept of a ‘dance great’?

LD: Oh my god. Well first of all, let me say this: my art-self wants to be a man.

ITF: Woah. *Laughter*

LD; It’s true though.

ITF: Well you do have that manly voice of God in [Run Little Girl].

LD: Oh yeah, my self has almost got to be a man in that piece.

ITF: When you were speaking [on a loudspeaker] over the dancers you spoke as though you were… Zeus.

LD: I loved it. I really— it took me a while to get comfortable with that level of authority. Well first of all, I think that Merce had a stick up his ass. A big one. Second of all, I think he’s a genius. I think as well that what he did in dance was very important because he opened up a lot of possibilities and a lot of amazing people ran with those possibilities. Like I could go into it but I’m not gonna go into it. So he was kind of experimental enough that he gave people the opportunities to think about dance differently and to get out of old habits. That was huge. He’s also like, honestly, you know I saw the last shows at BAM and I’ve seen a lot of his shows and I’ve taken his technique classes and I’m just like, why all the regimentation? Body regimentation as well? Why the de-sexualization of the body? Why the streamlining of the body? And I have a lot of questions about that. And I really think it’s pretty anal retentive, his movement signatures. You know that’s okay, but it does really make me wonder why that was attached to all this freeplay. I’m not really answering your question very well. But my thought on Merce is that I do honor him. Thank God for him. But I do feel like, if at this moment when we’re all saying good bye to what he did, if we don’t start to look at it and also be like “and what did he do that we should never do again?” or “what did he do that wasn’t God-like?” or “what did he do that made him just a person”? Those are really important to me. I mean I have dealt with death in really important ways in my life and the things that I really needed to remember from those deaths were also what separated me from these people and made me different. I also think that Merce and John Cage are the epitome of masculinity in relation to dance and that part of what in the end made them so successful, had something to do with that masculinity and our culture’s, in some way, ease in attaching itself to that kind of masculinity. Because even if it was really fucking weird, at least it fell within the lines of intellectual authority that follow men. Merce allowed people to take dance seriously in new ways, in part because of his manhood. And I identify a lot with maleness. Not—I mean obviously I’m so female, look at me. I’m not a great example of femaleness, but I am a very clear one. *ITF laughs* But I’ve always intellectually identified with a masculine quality. Obviously that has a lot to do with the fact that our culture identifies intellectualism with men over and over and over again. And so when I read books I tend to identify with the male characters because the women are not really people fully, they are more like objects. Even in feminist literature I find it again and again. It’s like men are this kind of free-floating thinking brain and women are this like body with different kinds of beauty attached to it or ugliness attached to it. I don’t know how to explain it better than that but I do know that in my head I think from a maleness and I think that my culture has done that in some ways, and I’ve participated in developing that in myself. I put my own work in there as well to sort of contend with that. To deal with it. That was the longest possible answer ever.

ITF: Yeah, you didn’t answer the question.

LD: I don’t even remember what the question was.

ITF: How did the choreographic process and the movements themselves honor or avoid Merce and make a broader statement about the concept of a “dance great”?

LD: Oh! Well, I definitely avoided him in movement quality. I did not avoid him in chance. I attached on to that and I ran with it. I did not avoid him in being authoritative. I did not avoid him in collaborating with a sound force that is non-musical or, John Cage would hate me for saying that. But I freely played and discussed with my sound artist the whole damn time. We were in cahoots. So we didn’t split our roles or maintain our independence as Merce and Cage sought to do. We were in bed together, mentally. Merce and Cage were only in bed together in real life, not in their art. In a lot of ways we sought to bastardize what they did to fit us as women. We were like “Well shit, you know, we’re women, we like to talk it out, hash it out”. I’m sorry that this is generalizations but, you get a group of like 12 women in a room together and you start to notice things. And I don’t think it’s in our natures but I definitely think it’s in our socialization. But also to use the generalizations of what it is to be female and to use that as a conceptual basis for bastardizing what they did. That was definitely there.

ITF: Throughout this piece you self-reflexively commented— in many different ways through speech, costume, movement— on that this was an all-white female cast. So how did this piece comment on this normalcy in the dance world? How did your piece exemplify whiteness and femaleness?

LD: Whiteness and femaleness is a conundrum in dance. This I can say. I didn’t want to avoid the obvious, okay, so deal with the situation at hand. Therefore I am not going to pretend that my all-white all-female cast is something other than what they are. I wanted to look at it for its problems, to critique myself. It wasn’t intentional to have a cast like that, but it ended up that way. And I looked at them and I thought “You know I could make a really great dance in purple unitards for the Brooklyn Arts Exchange or something with this cast. And you know I could make it dance-y, I could call it something like Floral Exchange” I don’t know. Bring that cast out on to a stage space and if I am in the audience I will start rolling my eyes at that moment. Here’s the crazy thing, all of those people on that stage are in their own ways insane and dedicated. Put them together in a group and all of a sudden there is a connotation. I just needed to deal with it. I don’t know what to do about it. I know it’s important to me to challenge the kinds of people I’ve been working with as an artist. But there’s a problem with doing that because then you start tokenizing people and you start thinking of casting them on the basis of what ethnic diversity they bring to your stage. For me, I’m just trying to figure out how to deal with the conundrum and how to call myself out on it too as I deal with it. That’s all. I’ve got no big way of solving it. But I also do think that all of those women on that stage have dealt with their own profound struggles as people who are dancers. Because they are easily marginalized in the dance world. To be a woman in the dance world in my humble opinion is 9 times, 10 times, 100 times harder than being a man. There’s just a lot of us. And it’s easy to demean us. It’s easy to think that we’re a dime a dozen. It’s easy to think of all of my performers as a dime a dozen. And it happens all the time to them, in all different kinds of situations. And I think it’s very de-humanizing. And I’m angry about it. On their behalf. I’ve seen all of them and what they’ve gone through and the auditions they’ve gone through and the opportunities they’ve come so close to. And the ways that they’ve been abused by artists, the way that they’ve like stomached misogyny and the way that artists have shat on them along the way because they’re so expendable. And on top of it in each of their own cases they’ve stomached it, and they have kept at it, but they have also not freaked out.

Sometimes I think that what I want them all to do, in my piece too, I was like “come on, come on, come on”, I wanted them to just tear the whole place apart and just scream and spit at me and fucking leave. Because, they should be that mad, I think. I think they should be. They should be that mad at me for taking on the role that I took. I took on the role of the patriarch and I put them through hell. And they took it. And they were obedient to it. I even invited them not to be. But they would still be. And to me there is a huge question inside that as well about how deeply women have been trained to be obedient.  And how deeply dancers as women have been trained to be obedient. I want to find a way as well to incite dancer rebellions. *Laughter* Against that. And I have no interest at all in doing it with male dancers. I don’t need to incite their rebellion. They were rebellious enough to even show up to a dance class at whatever age it was that they went. And from then on women coddled them, held them, carried them to the top. *Laughs* I’m done with it. I can’t participate in that anymore. I don’t know what to do for them. I feel like I have something to give women performers. And that’s even patriarchal. I know that’s patriarchal, but I do. I feel like I can participate in a liberation. I am such a patriarch. I am. But you have to understand, I’m the choreographer. My world by nature is patriarchal. Like Martha Graham, she’s such a fucking patriarch, you know, my role is that. So I had to deal with the monster being that. And knowing that I am that to the depths of my soul. Like there is nothing else that I would want to do other than force my horrific ideas on to the bodies of innocent people *Laughs* That’s what I want. And that’s disgusting. That’s a disgusting desire. Why is it that I want to order people around? And I love dancers because you can order them around, oh my God, they’ll go and do it. And they’ll do it with class and beauty and sass and they’ll do it and it’s funny and it’s charming, whatever, they’ll do it full out. It’s insane. I get so much pleasure out of that. And that’s sick. But I do. And so do they. And that’s sick too…

read the entire interview in the forthcoming issue of In the Flesh.

Watch a clip from “Run Little Girl”.