How I teach Cunningham
Robert Swinston and Melissa Toogood
Moments before Robert Swinston’s invitation-only advanced class, a mix of students and company members silently move through their pre-class warm-up routines. Dancers swiftly stand when Swinston takes his place at the front of the historic Merce Cunningham studio. He softly counts in the dancers for the first exercise, his direct demeanor further setting the tone for learning. He walks to the side of the room to better observe each student, and class progresses with a calm, reverent spirit. Between exercises he never raises his voice louder than speaking level.
“There’s an internal focus in class,” Swinston says later. “It was this way with Merce, too.” The contemplative atmosphere of Swinston’s class reflects the movement itself—neutral and unaffected being hallmarks of Cunningham’s choreographic style.
Swinston, who joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1980, has been teaching Cunningham technique for almost 25 years. He says his teaching style has shifted through the years. “When I started, I was a lot noisier and demonstrative. I wasn’t watching as much because I was still so focused on dancing. My goals were different.” As Cunningham’s assistant, Swinston notated the classes he observed, and he pulls directly from those notes when teaching. And since Cunningham’s passing, Swinston says his classes have changed even more. “I used to give students exercises in what came naturally to me. But now that I’m less in my own body, I’m more objective in terms of the material I offer.”
Every Cunningham class begins with set exercises targeting the spine. “Merce was primarily interested in developing a dancer’s torso strength and flexibility,” says Swinston. Focusing on alignment and stability, the sequences move the torso in all directions by tilting, curving, arching and twisting.
Here,Swinston and dancer Melissa Toogood demonstrate a portion of the series that helps students develop strength through use of opposition, a foundational concept valuable in ballet, jazz and hip hop.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Robert Swinston began dancing at Middlebury College in Vermont in order to fulfill a phys-ed requirement. He transferred to New York University Tisch School of the Arts and a year later became a member of the Martha Graham Apprentice Company. He finished his degree at The Juilliard School and began teaching as an instructor at Montclair State College in New Jersey. While a member of the José Limón Dance Company, Swinston continued to teach at Montclair, as well as SUNY Purchase College and Juilliard. He joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1980 and in 1987 became a faculty member at the Cunningham Studios. He was named assistant to the choreographer in 1992, and in 2003 he received a Bessie Award for his performance in Cunningham’s How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run. Currently serving as director of choreography, Swinston oversees the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and The Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group. He is a trustee for the Merce Cunningham Trust.
Australian Melissa Toogood graduated from New World School of the Arts in Miami, FL. She became a member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2008.
Photo by Ramon Estevanell at the Cunningham Studios in New York City’s Westbeth Artists Housing