Yvonne Meier, Part 2 by Suzanne Snider

In the second installment of this two-part interview, Suzanne Snider talks with renegade choreographer, Yvonne Meier, about her early years in Switzerland, her improvisational Scores, and being both a mother and a maker

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


The Shining, 2011. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Yvonne Meier is a legendary choreographer and teacher among downtown dance aficionados. Her mythic and fear-inducing work, The Shining, involving a maze of several hundred refrigerator boxes, was recently revived by New York Live Arts. Check out the first installment of this interview, during which Yvonne discusses the recent run of The Shining here. Read on to learn about Meier’s Swiss roots and her later life as an artist in the East Village.

SS What was your life like before you arrived in New York?

YM I grew up in Zurich, Switzerland, on a hill. I had a gigantic, huge garden to play in where I spent almost all my time. The place had ponds and gazebos and grass. You could do everything there.

SS What did your parents like to do?

YM They liked to dance. They would roll up the carpet and start twisting in the living room, and they were heavily into sports. I was very heavily into sports. Skiing, swimming, ice-skating, anything …

SS At what point were you exposed to performance?

YM I learned how to ice-skate when I was three or four and then I wanted some classes, so I took ice-skating when I was maybe six years old. Then I saw this incredible ballet performance on TV of Romeo and Juliet and I wanted to take ballet classes too. I had to force my parents to pay for all these classes. They were not happy. They were like, “Oh my God, too expensive … what do you want to do with this?” So I basically had to talk them into it, constantly.

SS Most people know you as a wonderful improviser, so it’s interesting to think about you doing ballet and ice-skating, which I think of as set movement—

YM —Oh no, I improvised! I had a skating competition, and I had the whole piece set and they put on this music and it was, like, slowly building into some huge explosion, so I changed all my choreography. The whole piece was totally different because I knew the music was building up to this big thing. My teacher was standing there near my mother and saying, “What is she doing?! What is she doing?! What is she doing?!”

SS Was that your first improvisational performance?

YM Yes, it was. When I was 13, I went to the Opera House Ballet School until I was 15, and then I discovered Jazz. I went to the first Jazz dance class in Switzerland, in Zurich. The teacher’s name was Daisy Stern and she was doing some strange technique. Everyone wore boots with heels. It wasn’t Jazz Ballet; they called it Jazz dance. It was Luigi technique.

SS Boots and heels?

YM Yes, but my calves were too fat so I never fit in any boots, so I was just like wearing some funny jazz dance shoes.

SS Were your parents supportive when you started getting serious?

YM They paid for the classes, but they didn’t think I was going to pursue this, professionally. There was nobody we knew … nobody in Switzerland could professionally pursue dance, being a dancer.

SS What did your parents do?

YM My Dad was a CEO for a potato chips company and my mother was a housewife and before that, she was a secretary. Nobody was an artist. Nobody was a performer anywhere in sight.

SS So what happened as you got older?

YM I got a Bachelors and then I got a Masters in teaching. And then I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to study Anthropology, become a visual artist or become a dancer. So I finally went for dance and then I got a four year scholarship from Switzerland, from the government, to study there and to study in New York for three years.

SS Had you been studying other techniques by this point?

YM Yes, I started to study Graham technique and Cunningham technique and I kept on doing Jazz.

SS Did you choose New York?

YM Yes, there were choices, like Paris. Everyone I knew in Paris was so chi-chi and walking around with dogs. I knew a couple of people that went there. And then everyone in London told me that everybody was smoking marijuana and the only place to go, basically, was for Graham technique, so I was like, Hmmm, no. And then I found a book, an Artforum book, about Merce Cunningham and how he was doing pedestrian movement. So I was like, That’s it! For some reason I thought that was politically correct—like pedestrian movement is movement for everybody. So that’s why I decided to come to New York. I wanted to study with Merce Cunningham. This was in 1979. I was 24.

SS What happened when you arrived?

YM I went to the Merce Cunningham School and I had to take a beginners’ class and it was horrible. The teacher had no clue how to teach a beginners’ class; it was disastrous. Then I got into a more advanced class, which was kind of nice, but I had problems with my knees and somebody sent me to a Release technique class. I was blown away. I thought it was the most incredible, eye-opening experience I had forever and ever. I went all the way for Releasing, and with that came lots of improvisation. I really found a way to look into my body and relate my inside to the outside. Ellen Webb was the teacher, and we were improvising a lot in that class.

SS Did you continue with the Cunningham classes?

YM I moved into the Releasing world. I would take some ballet classes, and at some point, I totally stopped that. I went to improvisation classes and Contact Improvisation classes. I went to Open Movement at PS 122 every week. I was taking contact classes with Danny Lepkoff and Nina Martin. I was sometimes taking three classes a day, or I would take two classes and then rent some space and work by myself.

SS Did you think of the time alone in the studio as improvisation or were you choreographing?

YM I wasn’t choreographing yet. I think I did my first improvised performance at PS 122, an early version of Avant-Garde-A-Rama. I had a chair and a cabbage, and I had my clothes, and I would like make them into a person because I was so interested in the inside body. I would just depict a person, making a person out of clothes. I don’t remember what the dance was about. I think it was just improvised to some music, which I don’t remember.

I was an improviser. I was always in conflict that I was thinking too much and being too critical of myself while I was improvising, and I always would try to define what I was doing even though there was no time to define anything; there was only time to be in the moment. That’s why I developed Scores, so I knew what I was supposed to think about, and it would occupy my mind, to concentrate on a certain score.

The Shining, 2011. Photo by Ian Douglas.

SS For someone who doesn’t know how you define scores—

YM —Scores are rules. They are qualities. Sometimes they are sentences. And they restrict what you’re doing. I think by restricting, more will come out of the dance.

SS Can you give an example?

YM A score could be crumbling, it could be exploding. It could be exploding into mad turns, ending up in a ridiculous dance on the floor, or hilarious jumps move you into various obscene statues. I have all kinds of crazy scores.

SS Do they have to make sense linguistically or are they also like Authentic Movement—sort of associative?

YM It’s a lot about language. I think it comes from Releasing, because Releasing is very specific with the language, like you really have to choose the right word to define what you’re supposed to do. I choose very specific words.

SS Did you end up staying in New York after your scholarship ended?

YM Yes. First I was only going to go for a year, but then I stayed. I lived on Fifth Street between First and Second Avenue in a two-bedroom apartment for 140 dollars.

SS Are there any parts of your dance life that specifically stand out to you?

YM There was a phase when I stopped dancing after I hurt my knee. I stopped dancing for like seven years.

SS That’s a long time.

YM And then I never really began again. But I had other people dance for me. Every once in a while, I do something myself just to see what happens.

SS And?

YM Some things work well. Ishmael and I did something, together, a duet called Tell Me. We did a little excerpt of that and we are going to do it again in Philadelphia, on Saturday, the 14th of January.

SS You’re back in the East Village now, and we’re sitting in an apartment on Eleventh Street. What do you think of the East Village now as a place for artists or creating?

YM It’s hard. Everything is really crowded, everything is really expensive but also the scene. The focus has sort of moved to the Lower East Side. So now when I go to the Lower East Side, I’m totally disgusted and I’m glad to go back to the East Village.

SS How was it to be a working artist and raise a family, at the same time, here?

YM It was really good for me because I would hang out with the children. I would totally chill out. I could just let go of all my art and all the thinking about the pieces, go to the playground, sit on the bench and watch my children play. It was also really difficult because I would take them on tour and take them teaching. I would have to hire like two babysitters for the two of them. One wasn’t enough! So it was also expensive in that way.

SS Did either of your children show any interest in movement early on?

YM No, I sent them to dance class. Flavio had to stop because he was just running in circles, and Alina was telling me it was the same over and over again. So she had to stop too. Flavio thinks my work is rated double X.

SS He thinks it’s racy?

YM Yeah, he came to Mad Heidi when he was 11, and it was so shocking to him that he’s never come back to any of my shows.

Yvonne Meier in Mad Heidi. Photo by Lina Palotta.

SS In the first version you were dancing nude—

YM —He didn’t see me. He saw his babysitter, Jennifer Monson, naked in the dirt box.

SS Do you think it would have been better or worse if he had seen his mother?

YM Worse.

SS I remember Alina hanging out during Authentic Movement class and I remember thinking, What does she think of this?

YM She and two friends were hanging out in the class once. After they left, we heard them burst into laughter behind the door, all three of them, really loudly.

SS I think that’s a completely appropriate response to a bunch of adults making guttural noises with their eyes closed. I fell asleep once in your class during Authentic Movement. I woke up and I was so embarrassed, but you said that was very good.

YM Yes it is. Falling asleep is first prize—you’re really authentic.

Read the first part of this interview here.

Suzanne Snider’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Guardian, The Believer, The Washington Post, Guernica and Triple Canopy. She teaches at the New School University and is currently completing a book about two rival communes.

Yvonne Meier by Suzanne Snider
​Yvonne Meier
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