Why I Dance: Rashaun Mitchell

March 17, 2010

A resilient dancer with a calming focus, Rashaun Mitchell was called “the most riveting dancer” in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company by New
York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay. Mitchell grew up in Atlanta and started dancing at the Concord Academy in Massachusetts, where he studied with former Joffrey and Tharp dancer Richard Colton. At Sarah Lawrence College, from which he graduated in 2000, he encountered the legendary former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber and received the Viola Farber-Slayton Memorial Grant in 2000. Since then he has danced with Pam Tanowitz, Donna Uchizono, Risa Jaroslow, and Sara Rudner. He joined MCDC in 2004 and teaches at the Cunningham Studio when not on tour. He worked closely with Cunningham when learning the late choreographer’s solos in Crises and Antic Meet. A recipient of the Princess Grace Dance Fellowship, he has presented his own choreography at NYU’s Skirball Center and is working on a piece to premiere at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in July.


As I was growing up in a black community in the South, dance was an integral part of my life. We used to make up dance routines to Bell Biv DeVoe and Arrested Development. Back then, dancing came from music and was all about synchronicity.


Then I studied martial arts with my father and began to understand movement as a spiritual practice. I started to feel the impulses of my body in opposition to another body. The joy of moving was the same but the intention was different.


I’ve studied dance formally since I was 15, mostly modern or contemporary techniques and improvisation taught by inspiring teachers who showed me that dance was a way of life. Viola Farber used to say, “Dancing is not a warm bath,” and indeed there is suffering involved. Sometimes the aches and pains require an ice bath, but I would rather stretch my body to its physical limits than move through life numbly or not move at all. There are times when I am unmotivated or weakened, but I have to push through because it’s my job. These moments are sobering, but there is a wonder in observing how my body moves when it is stubborn or how the blood starts flowing and the sweat starts dripping. Eventually I find that place where everything is connected, where I can give and receive with ease. I dance to move beyond the past. I dance to fill my heart.


The best dancing has purpose. The performers who imprint themselves are the ones who seem possessed. They dance with purity and make a transference. Then dance evolves from the personally gratifying to a social event, a way to link people. So much of my dancing is borrowed, with admiration, from performers I know personally. Anne Lentz taught me to dance because I would stand behind her in class and mimic her grace. I tried to imitate Hristoula Harakas’ sense of weight. Silas Riener reminds me of the importance of extremes, and Jodi Melnick of subtlety. Everyone around me, even the students in my classes, teach me how to dance.


I used to be a club kid. I would go out dancing until the morning hours, which gave me a sense of abandon. Then I would go back to school and grapple with the control needed for formal dance technique. This friction between the two parts of myself was almost defeating, but it prepared me for Merce’s work. Dancing Cunningham is closer to martial arts, only you spar with yourself. It’s all about the daily practice, the search for mastery. In performance there is a constant struggle that requires primal focus. I like dancing toward an unreachable goal because it means that even when the curtain comes down, my journey isn’t over.


In my own choreography, I dance to get to somewhere past the formal training I’ve received. I haven’t found it yet and I expect that if I do, there won’t be words to describe it. There is a beauty in that, something of being lost. Learning steps, to me, is a mental exercise. I want to know the steps already and then begin the process of interpretation, the elastic journey of applying the abstract to the animal.


I dance to empty my mind and discover something new, whether it is in my environment, my partner, or my impulses. Dancing is an affirmation. It is a revealing act. I dance to be seen. I dance to find truth.



Photo by Stacey Mark