Dancers at Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company in conversation with Donald Hutera

Catherine Cabeen

Catherine Cabeen joined the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1998. In thesame year she received her Certificate of Dance from the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. Catherine began her training in St. Charles, Illinois with Pamela Bedford and later studied in Seattle, Washington at Cornish College of the Arts. She has performed with Harakti Multi-Media, Pearl Lang Dance Theater, Maher Benham’s Coyote Dancers, Analysis Dance Company, the Martha Graham Ensemble, Spectrum Dance Theater., and in her own work.

Leah Cox

Leah Cox grew up studying ballet in Houston, Texas, and graduated high school from North Carolina School of the Arts. She continued her dance training at Texas Christian University where she graduated in 1998 with a BA in philosophy, minor in religion, and an emphasis in dance. Leah was a member of McCaleb Dance in San Diego, CA, and was a guest artist with Lower Left. She has worked with Kim Epifano, Stephanie Gilliland, and Nina Martin. Her own work has been presented in San Diego, California.

Donald Hutera: What does the 20th Anniversary Season mean to you ?

Catherine Cabeen: We talk a lot about where this work has come from, and where we want it to go. Bill’s impact on dance history has as much to do with who he danced with as the movement they did, and the politics that were inherent in it. When he talks about Blauvelt Mountain [a 1980 dance], he says that he and Arnie [his creative and off stage partner] were trying to build a piece that was very post-modern, based on structure, time, repetition, formalism. But when people watched the dance, they saw a black man and a white man who put a lot of sexual and racial politics on top of what they were doing. Bill’s always had his own signature style, aggressive and charismatic.

He is tempermental but also, more importantly, socially conscious. That social consciousness underscores all of the beautiful, florid choregraphy that he’s created. At the same time he really broke into the formalism with all of this stuff about humanity and skin colour, that if our bodies are our mediums, we need to look at the fact that we’re all so different. The diversity of his present company reflects a range of humanity. And yet more of us are more formally trained than ever before, which is something that he really likes and wants to work with. So moving into the future is gonna be really interesting, because Bill wants to transcend the politics of his identity and make dance that is transcendental and abstract.

Leah Cox: Bill being demanding and saying what he wants is sometimes different from what he really wants. Like recently it’s been, ‘Oh, the dance of Baryshnikov!’ I was like, ‘I dunno. That’s not me, and that’s not this company.’ Yet we’re all informed by his view of the world.

Donald: Which can be very contradictory.

Catherine: Well, one of my favourite quotes is Walt Whitman saying, ‘Do I contradict myself? Yes. I am vast. I contain multitudes.’

Donald: What about that victorious, tribal boogie curtain call at the end of last night’s show? [Jones and company sometimes stomp and whoop it up onstage, an incredible and honest indulgence that makes it seem as if they’ve just defied the odds and won.] I imagine that’s something neither of you would do in any other company.

Leah: It’s a very funny thing. The first time you do it it’s like, ‘What the hell is going on?!’ We don’t do it every night. And it’s never told ahead of time. Last night was one of the first times that I felt it came from us, not Bill. He asked us, ‘Do y’all wanna dance off?’ Because he felt something. Everyone had gone out and done a BIG bow last night. Normally we’re all like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But last night something happened. And he knew it.

Donald: There was a real ‘Top this!’ feeling. Like with [dancer] Denis [Boroditski]

Leah: You can’t top Denis!

Catherine:  Denis was running out right before me to take his bow. He looked at me and said, ‘To jump or not to jump?’ I was like, ‘Jump, boy!’ [laughs]

Donald: I understand that many of Bill’s dancers make work on their own, on the side, as it were, when there’s time. Is he supportive?

Leah: Of us having individual voices, yes. Very supportive, without being active. My understanding of the company before I ever came to it is that everyone who works with Bill has their own voice. And many of his dancers do go on to make their own work.
 
Catherine: Bill has hardly ever gone to see any of his old dancers’ new work.  I don’t think it’s a policy, but something to do with the equanimity he wants to give us all. He just can’t see anything. It’s interesting. At the end of a company class he asked a very poignant question about ‘What kind of art do you like versus what kind of art do you make?’ I said, ‘Well, do you wanna know what we think right now? I could answer, but we have to get our notes, have an hour break and then do a performance tonight.’ He looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘No, I don’t wanna know.’ But before we went he said, ‘Will you all please write me and let me know?’ Because he definitely cares what we think, how we think. But he’s kind of like, ‘Do it, but I can’t look at you.’

Leah: He’s like this. [covers her eyes like a mask] In keeping with the Phantom theme! It’s like, ‘I can’t help but look, I have to look, I don’t wanna look!’
 
Catherine: Like a little kid. [both laugh] I think it has something to do with the fullness in his own life.

Donald: Well, how much else can you take on board when you’ve got ten individuals with really strong personalities working for you?

Catherine: That is, and I’m sure you will agree, Leah, the blessing and the curse of this company. Sometimes we have discussions and it’s like, ‘Well, thank goodness we all have something to say.’ But a discussion with ten dancers, Bill and Janet [Wong, rehearsal director] can take hours. I mean HOURS! On top of that we have about fourteen ballets in our repertory right now, so everyone’s brain is swelling. But God forbid it’s easy! I wouldn’t have become a dancer if I wanted things to be easy.

The Body – A Dancer’s Tool

Donald: What keeps you doing it?

Catherine: Hope is the soundbite. I really have faith in human beings. Being alive is a wonderful gift. I’ve gotten to know some incredible people. Dancing is a way to illuminate the connection between us, and the connection between myself and the earth and myself and my sense of the divine. Also, dance is something humans can, and should, do.

Donald: And other humans should watch it.

Catherine: Definitely! I love watching dance as much as I love dancing. Vicariously you get a sense of breath and joy and human connection. That’s so important, especially when the world’s dissolving into these 2-D screens. Europe is maybe not in quite the fix that the States are, but the tactile is becoming increasingly precious. Dance, because the body is its medium, is necessarily tactile. I’m optimistic. I always hope that the people on this planet will come together. Dance is this little tiny microcosm of possibility where that actually happens. Especially in Bill’s company, with us all looking and being so different and coming from so many different places. We come together and make something beautiful. Like ripples in a pond.

Leah: For me, dance is something that is all me. My body is the tool. Not like a singer, but the WHOLE body. That’s the vessel. I used to play the piano, and I loved it when it was not me. When it was something else to master. It wasn’t there throughout all of my day.

Donald: Whereas now you’re with your instrument all day. You’re living inside it!

Leah: Yes! The instrument and I are one.

Catherine: I like that some days better than others!

Leah: Some days I wish my instrument would leave. ‘It hurts today!’ As dancers we live all day with these emotions and responses. But you have to create a new context with them, on a stage where it’s abstracted. And as much as it feels like I fight with my instrument a lot, there’s a lot to master in it. But it is quite important to me that it is me just dealing with my body and doing it. I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s maybe very selfish. I don’t think so much about what I’m giving others, whether they’re enjoying what I’m making or not. It’s a very personal thing.

Donald: But ultimately all those investigations you’re doing, all that instrumentation, only fully comes to life when there are people around to observe it.
 
Leah: The performance is the ground it happens on, a very live place where all of it comes together. Feedback is going on. I’m listening to the audience and it’s listening to me, and somehow we’re figuring it out. I’m not so concerned about what the response is. What’s important is that we’re having this experience together.

Catherine: That’s what’s so interesting about being a dancer. We spend hours, weeks, years focusing on ourselves, fine-tuning internally and finding out what we can do physically, and it’s all at the service of sharing it with somebody else. With hundreds of other people, hopefully. That isn’t selfishness. You have to really examine yourself so that you have something to give.
 
Leah: It forces a full life. As you say, an examined life.

Catherine: As a dancer you want to be like a pool or a mirror, so that hopefully someone in the audience will be able to see what they wanna see instead of what you’re pushing on them. At the same time the piece itself has something to say, and you need to make sure that’s clear as well.

Leah: Some of Bill’s work is very technically demanding. How is it that I can execute this stuff in class, and why does it all change in performance? I can nail it, but there’s a very calm energy that I have to harness. That’s not something that we naturally go for in this company, or that is encouraged. Not that it’s not encouraged. D-Man [in the Waters, a crowd-pleasing company staple] is not about that. Yesterday [dancer] Malcolm [Low] and me were going across the stage at the end, and I thought, ‘What is this? It’s not in the piece for me to laugh right here, but I’m having so much fun right now!’ It was appropriate. So the audience won’t say,’ Why the hell are those two dancers talking and laughing onstage?’
 
Catherine: We see Trisha Brown’s and Merce Cunningham’s work. They can sort of dissolve the dancers’ identities into geometry. It’s not necessarily about the individual. Bill’s work goes between those two things. There are times when it doesn’t matter what I’m doing except that I’m going with Malcolm or Leah across the stage, and we’re doing the same thing. At other times there’s more space to play and be alive, and use facial expressions and real-time, real-life interactions with the other dancers. There’s a duet I have with [dancer] Ayo [Janeen Jackson] in Mercy 10 X 8 on a circle [from 2003] that is so full of our friendship. There are little tiny things in it, winks and nods and handshakes, things like that, that make my life fun and wonderful. She carried me out last night. We were in the wings waiting to go on and she was like, ‘How ya doin’?’ I go, ‘Okay. A little bit tired, but I’m alright.’ She was like, ‘Oh, do you want me to carry you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she carried me out! [laughs]

Donald: And that’s allowed?

Catherine: We didn’t get a note on it yet!
 
Leah: We are allowed. That’s one of the things I always tease Malcolm about. ‘Uh-oh, Malcolm changes the choroegraphy!’ But if we play to keep it alive, Bill will allow it. And when it doesn’t work, he’ll say.

Catherine: ‘That was a bad choice.’

Leah: He watches every show. If he’s not performing, he’s out front mostly.

Essentials. . .

Donald: I was wondering, what are a dancer’s essentials for life on the road?

Leah: Good books! Or do you mean like in order to perform? Epsom salts.

Catherine: Candles and matches.
 
Leah: Foot tape.

Catherine: Warm pyjamas and enough underwear.

Leah: For sure!

Catherine: I always bring markers so I can draw, too. That’s what I do for fun.

Leah: Something to make the room your own. I used to always bring my scarves and hang them up.

Catherine: Exactly! Cover the pictures with your own colour.

Leah: And you need your little balls to roll on.

Catherine: I have a little mini-thigh roller. Oh, and tennis shoes. Ya gotta have comfortable shoes! You can’t be playin’ around in high heels all the time. You also need one formal outfit that makes you look unbelievably fabulous, so that when you have a bad show and there’s a party afterwards you can just go, ‘Well, how about this?’ A hot outfit! [laughs]
 
Donald: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? As a person or a dancer. You choose.

Leah: Christine Wright is a marvellous teacher. We both go to her ballet class. She comes to each Bill T Jones/ Arnie Zane Companyperson, looks at you and what you’re doing at the barre and then goes to the next. She’s methodical. She always knows how to get me, but this one I’ve never forgotten. She said, ‘Leah, don’t just be correct. Make it feel like Leah.’ That is the greatest gift in the world that I’ve ever been given. I don’t use it just in class, or just to dance. I use it in my life any time there’s something that comes in and makes me feel out of sorts. I don’t know what to do, I’m lost, I’m edgy, I’m dissatisfied. I just go, ‘Make it feel like Leah.’ And it goes to a place where intuitively I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what I need right now, and it’s going to be alright. I go back to the source, y’know? What is that essence of you? It’s very wise.

Catherine: Homer Bryant was my ballet teacher in Chicago when I was twelve to fifteen. He would say, ‘The fun is in the discipline and the discipline is in the fun.’ It was a way to give a little focus in dance class. I’m really grateful that as a kid he set that in my mind. It is about having fun, but the discipline is no joke. And discipline, which is so hard and so painful, is the liberation of being able to do whatever you want. Once you’re secure, you can play. The other advice comes from Dudley Williams, an amazing Alvin Ailey dancer who said to me, ‘You are only as good as your last performance.’ That can be harsh and painful, because some days you don’t have a good show. But it’s also an unbelievable way to keep in the present moment. I don’t ever let the dancing go because it was fine then, or imagine that it can’t be better. There’s also something about dance being transient which is also painful. Because we don’t get to build up a whole lot of anything. But it’s also the gift. You always have this wonderful opportunity to do something new and better and best.

Donald: As Merce Cunningham once wrote, ‘Dance slips between your fingers and your toes.’ [Laughter]

See also:
Tour(s): Bill. T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company 2004