Emilie Gerrity on Learning Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace
This impressionistic, highly evocative ballet returns to the NYCB stage after a 20-year absence, in celebration of Cunningham's centennial. Soloist Emilie Gerrity is one of the six dancers in the cast who will make her debut in this unique work from one of the masters of modern movement. We sat down with her to discuss the process of learning a ballet that's wildly different from anything else in the NYCB repertory.
How familiar were you with the Cunningham technique before you were cast in this role?
Not at all!
How did you feel when you saw your name on the rehearsal sheet?
I was definitely surprised. I was hoping that I would be called to it, just because it's different. And I like to broaden my range and versatility. I was super excited to rehearse this work. The first day, when we walked in, the woman we're working with, Jean Freebury [répétiteur for the Cunningham Trust], gave us a Cunningham workshop, which was really cool and different. And I want to incorporate that into how I warm up for shows here for our rep that we do.
How are those warm-ups different than what you would do normally?
It was a lot of C-curve and work with your spine, and a lot of twisting and opening up different parts of your back – versus just doing your tendus in your place. But there's still tendus in place in that warm-up, while you’re moving your upper body. I just enjoyed it. And I feel like lot of the other dancers are getting more into that style – Sara [Mearns] has worked with the Cunningham Trust, and I see Taylor [Stanley] doing the warm-ups now, too.
What was it like to work with Jean Freebury to learn this ballet?
Well, Jean is wonderful — her personality! She has been fun to work with and she has a good sense of humor. But we rehearse – and I don't know if you know this – we rehearse in complete silence. And then for our tech rehearsal and dress rehearsal before the show we will have music. That's just a tradition for this ballet, and always has been.
And how is that different than the process for learning other ballets in the NYCB repertory?
So, she has given us certain counts and rhythms that we had to memorize. And then that's kind of how we coordinate with each other during the rehearsals. And it's a timed thing. So, we're trying to keep the same pace each time we rehearse it. And then we'll see what happens when we perform it! Otherwise, well, the conductor is conducting the orchestra the entire time – and if they get to the end of the piece, and we're not done, they have to go back to the beginning.
Wow, that’s really different.
I know, that’s what Jean told us: “You better hurry up!”
That makes me wonder – you’ve danced in Jerome Robbins’ Moves. How would you compare the two? I feel like somebody told me once that a lot of Moves is also counting.
Yeah, it's very similar. Luckily, I'm fortunate enough to have that experience as well. But, I think it's a little daunting to know that there will be music at the last minute.
Right, and that you've never heard it…
Jean was like, “It's not been relevant. It's not like you're going to notice it…” and I’m like, I can’t believe that I’m not going to notice it. I’m definitely going to notice it!
Have you heard the score?
No. There's some people who have been watching tapes and stuff who have heard it, and they say it's chimes …
It’s very different. It's not melodic in any way.
Yeah, that's what Jean was saying. She was like, you're not going to be able to do this stuff to the music, and you're going to be focused on what we've been rehearsing, so you’ve got nothing to worry about. And I’m just like, Oh gosh! So, I've just been watching old performance videos in silence.
That’s a good idea. If you try to remember things to the place in the music, it might mess up your way of just thinking about just the counts.
Counts and rhythms and down and up. Oh gosh, it's a lot of different things to have to memorize. It's so funny, but I really enjoy it.
Do you have any tricks to remember the choreography? Or do you just do the counts with the steps?
That's it – and everyone's different. So, you just have to know whatever you're doing. It’s so cool. And there are some rehearsals [where] we'll do our crossing, and I look around and everyone's like: “What's next?” You know, with music, you're like, “Oh, that's what's next!” But with this, we're all standing there, staring at each other.
Any last words on the experience?
I'm just really excited for people to see this ballet. And I am interested to know how our audience will respond because it’s so different.
See Emilie in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace on the Masters at Work: Balanchine and Cunningham program, Oct 5, 10, and 12 mat and eve.
Emilie Gerrity and Adrian Danchig-Waring in rehearsal. Photo by Erin Baiano