Chance Encounter

A positive experience with a teacher can be a life-changing event—it can illuminate a future pathway one might take or, at the very least, expose one to a different philosophy or point of view. Such a moment occurred this week in Sydney and came in the form of Melissa Toogood,

Melissa Toogood is an Australian born dancer who has made her life in dance in the USA. Melissa completed her early training in Miami and then joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in NYC. She danced with the company until Merce’s death in 2009. Today, she continues to work with renowned NYC downtown choreographers like Stephen Petronio, Pam Tanowitz, and David Parker. Recently, Melissa was named by Dance Magazine as one of the 25 dancers to watch in 2014.

Melissa in Petronio

Melissa dancing in Petronio’s work

Lucky for Sydney-siders, Melissa was home this week visiting with family and available to teach class and meet with local dancers.


Sydney Dance Company Pre-pro Course

The graduating class of the pre-professional course at Sydney Dance Company has two weeks left before they embark on their journey as independent dance artists. Linda Ridgway Gamblin, who is the director and coordinator of the entire course, invited Melissa to teach technique class to the young dancers and talk to them about Cunningham and her experiences.

Throughout this inaugural year, Linda has been inviting choreographers and dance professionals to work with the students … choosing an eclectic and fascinating selection of experiences for the young dancers. Dean Walsh, a Sydney-based choreographer, has been working with the students, exploring his unique choreographic scoring system which he developed from research he has done with marine environments and scuba diving. Next week the students will be working on improvisation with international dance star Michael Schumacher.

This week, it was Melissa’s turn to inspire and impart treasures of knowledge to the soon-to-be graduates. She gave them a taste of Cunningham.

The legacy of Merce Cunningham’s work in the 20th century cannot be underestimated. He changed the face of contemporary dance and his influence spread throughout the art world. To have a first hand experience with one of his amazing dancers, in this case Melissa Toogood, is a rare privilege for us here in Australia.

The main technique used for training dance students here in Australia is classical ballet. With its long lines, quick and articulate footwork and externally rotated legs, it has become the recognizable “look” of most concert dance.

Merce Cunningham’s dance movement has all of this and more. Cunningham added complicated spinal movements and a daring use of weight to the mix, creating a stunning and highly demanding dance vocabulary. His technique requires the dancer to be a superb technical athlete, as well as highly intelligent spatially, and a rhythmic demon.

Melissa jump

Melissa dancing with Sydney student

Most of classical ballet training and performance is designed to address a frontal view of dance. The audience point of view dictates the way the dances are executed. Cunningham changed the way that concert dance was created and seen. Dances were made to be understood as a form in 3 dimensions, possibly seen from all directions at once. His dancers understood this concept and put it into visible action, energizing their bodies and the surrounding space with their “awareness”…and it is one of the most exciting aspects of his work.

He is also famous for using chance operations in selecting movement sequences and the order in which movements would be performed. This was radical. He freed sound and movement from each other, allowing each to have agency separate to the other. His chance method also freed dancers from the yoke of narrative and text which encumbered much of ballet (and dance theatre to this day). These are just some highlights of what Cunningham achieved in his 50 years of dance making. His ideas influenced every post-modern pioneer that came after him… from Trisha Brown to Doug Elkins.

Melissa in Merce piece

Melissa dancing in Cunningham’s work

And so, we find ourselves in the Sydney Dance Company studio with Melissa casually showing us how to use floor patterns of lines, diagonals and scallops to move random groups of dancers through space, jumping and traveling … creating a mini-fractal effect with bodies merging, separating and re-grouping. The simplicity was wonderful and the kinesthetic effect glorious. Pure Cunningham and joyful to watch.

I feel I was lucky to have met and studied with Merce Cunningham and this special class with Melissa brought back that wonderful feeling of discovery and excitement. However, dancing with Melissa also triggered my own memory of my first encounter with a Cunningham dancer. I was studying at the London Contemporary Dance School when Cathy Kerr arrived to teach for a few terms. Working with her was a revelation. She had an egalitarian approach to and interest in movement –  and treated everyone in an equal way. She was not dogmatic. So different from those who came from the ballet and Martha Graham traditions. There was no emotional punishment for making a mistake. And she made corrections in a matter of fact manner—without getting personal. The attitude was: let’s get on it with it and dance. 

Melissa is blessed with the passion and tenacity that any global artist has to have to survive, but she is also generous and matter-of-fact in the same way that Kerr was. She lives her life as a dancer and that in itself is an inspiration for the students.

I will be sorry to see Melissa head back to NYC on Thursday. We really need to have more time to absorb and understand the wealth of dancing that she has to offer. Meanwhile, we can only guess at the effect her teaching will have on these young dancers.

Melissa run

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