No Average Day: Melissa Toogood

A former Cunningham dancer, Toogood now juggles so many projects she has “often ended up at the wrong rehearsal space."

As a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Melissa Toogood knows about extremes. In the past few years, since the troupe's closure, she's taken the Cunningham ethos of attempting the impossible into her daily life as a freelancer. With her sparkling clarity and composure, she's one of the most captivating modern dancers in New York City—and one of the busiest.

This spring, Toogood performed in full-fledged shows by Pam Tanowitz, David Parker, Sally Silvers, Rashaun Mitchell, Stephen Petronio, Kimberly Bartosik and Dylan Crossman, while teaching at Barnard College and squeezing in a trip to Paris for a film project with fellow Cunningham alumni. Dance Magazine caught up with her one Friday, which could hardly be called average. As Toogood says, “Every day is different."

7:45 am

Ready to go

Staying healthy is Toogood's top priority, so she starts her day with a homemade blend of fruits and veggies. “I began doing that last fall because so many people in New York were getting sick," she says. “I don't have time to take a day off, so I started using hand sanitizer religiously and making a green shake every morning with lots of dark greens, ginger, lemon, chia seeds, beets, nuts, whatever I can put in there to boost my immune system and energy. So far it's working!"

Morning is also a time for calm multitasking: “Often my feet are swollen and tight when I wake up, so I'll stand on my calf stretcher while having coffee and thinking about the day ahead—making sure that I'm going to the right places and have all the right things. I've often ended up at the wrong rehearsal space."

8:45 am

Morning commute

When their schedules allow, Toogood and her husband, Kenneth E. Parris III, try to leave their apartment in Brooklyn at the same time and travel together into Manhattan. Parris works as a visual artist and creative director, and their off-hours don't always align. “This way we can actually spend 30 minutes together on the subway," Toogood says.

10–11:30 am

Body conditioning with Clarice Marshall

If there's any constant in Toogood's schedule, it's her weekly visit to Clarice Marshall, a Pilates and body-conditioning guru who treats some of New York City's most illustrious freelance dancers. “She's amazing. I've been working with her for about eight years," Toogood says. “When she's out of town, we all freak out." Their sessions, at Marshall's midtown studio, change based on Toogood's needs, which include reining in hypermobility and improving proprioception. “Often it's just rehab and getting myself back to a neutral place, but when I'm not as tired, we push more."

12:15–1:45 pm

Class at City Center

During her five years with the Cunningham company, Toogood took daily classes in Cunningham technique, which remains the most centering practice for her body and mind, she says. She tries to take class at New York City Center, home of the Merce Cunningham Trust, two or three times per week. While rehearsal is a place to explore and try new things, class offers a stabilizing—though still challenging—kind of familiarity.

“It's like meditation," Toogood says. “I'm in my own head and focused on me, rather than problem-solving with other people. When you're making new steps, you're not always so internally focused. Class is where I take care of myself."

2–5 pm

Rest and review

After class, Toogood cools down with stretching and a quick restorative nap. In a brief respite before evening rehearsal with Pam Tanowitz, also at City Center, she answers e-mails on her iPad and studies sections of Tanowitz's choreography on video. Her colleague Dylan Crossman, also a former Cunningham dancer, joins her to review their parts in Actual Size, an intricate work by Sally Silvers that they'll be reviving the following week at the 92nd Street Y. Toogood will be out of town until then, at an upstate residency with Stephen Petronio, so every free minute counts.

Extended downtime—anything longer than a midday break—is hard to come by for Toogood. But when she has it, she gravitates to the outdoors. “I'm definitely an Aussie girl," she says. (She grew up in Sydney, Australia, and attended New World School of the Arts in Miami.) “I love the water, the beach." For nature close to home, she and Parris take their folding bikes to Prospect Park, a short ride from their apartment.

5–8 pm

Rehearsal with Pam Tanowitz

Toogood thrives on the challenges of developing and performing new material. Her rehearsals with Tanowitz, generally in the evenings, are sometimes her second or third of the day. “I get tired, but once I'm in the work, it rejuvenates me, and I get really excited about it," she says. “I wouldn't want to do anything else."

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Ballet BC dancers Tara Williamson, left, and Darren Devaney in RITE by Emily Molnar. Photo by Chris Randle, Courtesy Ballet BC

Why Do Mixed-Rep Companies Still Rely on Ballet for Company Class?

In a single performance by a mixed-rep company, you might see its shape-shifting dancers performing barefoot, in sneakers and in heels. While such a group may have "ballet" in its name and even a rack of tutus in storage, its current relationship to the art form can be tenuous at best. That disconnect grows wider every year as contemporary choreographers look beyond ballet—if not beyond white Western forms entirely—in search of new inspiration and foundational techniques.

Yet dancers at almost all of the world's leading mixed-rep ensembles take ballet classes before rehearsals and shows. Most companies rarely depart from ballet more than twice a week and some never offer alternative classes.

"The question, 'Why do you take ballet class to prepare you for repertory which is not strictly classical?' has been in the air since Diaghilev's time," says Peter Lewton-Brain, Monaco-based president of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. "What you're doing onstage is often not what you're doing in class."

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