Published  19/06/2019

Julie Cunningham – interview: ‘I had the experience for many years of feeling like an object that was spun around and I don’t want to feel like that any more’

Julie Cunningham – interview: ‘I had the experience for many years of feeling like an object that was spun around and I don’t want to feel like that any more’

Seeking to erase embedded patriarchal structures and fixed gender identities through dance, Julie Cunningham’s choreography is often inspired by feminist texts. Their new work for Art Night 2019 promises to be full of energy – all night long!


Julie Cunningham (born Liverpool) trained at Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London, before working with the renowned Merce Cunningham (no relation) Dance Company in New York for a decade, and later with the Michael Clark Company back in the UK. In 2016, Cunningham received a Leverhulme choreography fellowship and the following year established Julie Cunningham & Company. Openly gay themselves, the dancer-choreographer seeks to erase embedded patriarchal structures and fixed gender identities through dance, ensuring roles are flexible, so that nobody becomes an object to be manipulated. They are currently working on a new performance for Art Night 2019.

Studio International spoke to Cunningham about their training, influences and processes of creation – as well as asking for some insider insight into what will be taking place at Waltham Forest Community Hub in north-east London on the night of 22 June.

Anna McNay: You have had a career as a dancer, training at Rambert School, working with Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark. In 2016, you became the first recipient of the Leverhulme choreography fellowship, intended to help professional dancers become full-time working choreographers. You had, however, been choreographing before this point, I think?

Julie Cunningham: Yes, I’d done little bits. At Rambert School, we were really encouraged to make things, and so it was always a possibility, but I spent a lot of my career dancing for other people and that takes a lot out of you and requires you to commit your body, in a way, to somebody else. It was only when I had a break from working with Michael [Clark] that I had the time to try to do something for myself, and I really enjoyed it and felt like it was something I wanted to do more of and take seriously at this point in my career and life.

Julie Cunningham, m/e. Photo: Chris Nash.

AMc: It has not meant that you have stopped dancing, though, because you dance in your own works now. 

JC: Yes, I dance in my own work, and I dance a little bit for other people. I’m still dancing a lot.

AMc: When did you found your company, Julie Cunningham & Company, and how do you select which dancers are going to be part of it?

JC: I only officially started my company two years ago, in 2017, so it’s not been very long. In the beginning, the reason to have a company was quite practical, in terms of having a structure, and a means through which to hire people and pay them. It wasn’t really that I wanted to have a company at first. But now I see it as a useful thing. It’s been a way to get to know different performers. I guess it’s a way to be present in the independent dance scene in London.

AMc: How many dancers are in your company at the moment?

JC: I don’t have a set number of people, but there are a few I work with quite consistently on every project. But for each commission or work that I make, I need a certain number of people.

AMc: Let’s talk about your work. You’ve said elsewhere that “you seek to erase embedded patriarchal structures and fixed gender identities through dance”. Would you say that is the key goal of your choreography?

JC: It sounds somehow very grandiose to say that, but it’s something that I think about, yes. Last year, I wrote a piece while I was reading The Lesbian Body by Monique Wittig. It’s a fictional work, but she is really concerned with trying to create a language outside the patriarchal language and structure, which feels like an impossible task, but is very exciting. She plays with the idea of the centre and margins, and that if there’s no fixed centre, then where and what are the margins? I don’t know if that makes sense? With patriarchy, for example, it’s as if patriarchy exists as a central thing and then the rest of society is a structure around it – there are people who are marginal to that centre. So, if this idea of centre, whatever that might be, is always moving, is not a fixed thing, then it affects what might be marginal. Can there even be a margin if there’s no fixed centre? I guess I’ve been trying to think about that in terms of movement and being in space and how to keep something moving, how not to fix it, how not to rely on the same rules or structures that already exist.

Julie Cunningham, m/e. Photo: Chris Nash.

AMc: Have you developed specific methods or tropes that you employ to this end, or specific things that you avoid, or consider too traditional?

JC: I don’t think I have specific things, no. I think it’s about trying things out. In terms of dancing, I don’t like it to feel as if each person is only playing one role – I like it to be shifting all the time. It can go back and forth so that nobody is in charge any more. That way there is more equality.

AMc: That makes sense. I read that – presumably as a result of shifting roles – you don’t do lifts.

JC: I do little lifts! But it has to be something that’s shared and something that we can all do, that anybody could do. I think it’s just about not being an object and being objectified as is the case in some more traditional work. I had the experience for many years of feeling like an object that was spun around and I don’t want to feel like that any more. I don’t want anyone else to feel like that. It’s about trying to find ways of working together. That doesn’t mean that we can’t lift or use our bodyweight or whatever, it just means trying to find different ways of doing it, so that it’s not just one person who is the object and another who is the manipulator.

AMc: You say you were made to feel like an object when you were working for these other companies. You’re open about your sexuality and gender identity. Has that ever been a problem for you in terms of your career, or have you faced any prejudice in the dance world?

JC: No, nobody really cared, when I was dancing, what my sexuality was. It didn’t really matter.

AMc: Is it more of an issue for you yourself now then? Something that you want to work with for your own reasons?

JC: No, I just think that it’s more picked up on now, in terms of people asking me about it, since I make work about gender.

AMc: Does that annoy you?

JC: No, it doesn’t annoy me. 

AMc: Do you feel that it’s relevant, though, or could anybody be trying to make this kind of work?

JC: I don’t think it’s irrelevant, because it’s my life experience. It’s something that I feel there’s a lack of visibility around, as well, in terms of other female sexualities and different gender identities on stage, particularly in mainstream dance. We just don’t really see alternatives to the heterosexual feminine.

Julie Cunningham, To Be Me, 2018. Photo: Stephen Wright.

AMc: Like girls in pretty tutus …

JC: Yes, but not just that. Even in modern work, it’s skirts and tiny shorts. Can that person not put a pair of trousers on? Just because she’s female doesn’t mean you need to see everything. Similarly, the male dancer doesn’t need to always have a bare chest. I just can’t stand it any more.

AMc: Or very tight tights?

JC: I don’t like that bit!

AMc: No, me neither!

JC: But that’s still what it is like on stage a lot in more mainstream dance.

AMc: Aside from lifts and costumes, how do you go about choreographing a work? What is your starting point? Do you start with an idea, a piece of music, or a text? Or is it that there’s a specific dancer you have in mind for whom you want to create something?

JC: It’s usually an idea or some text that I’ve been reading. Or sometimes it’s music. It’s been a different starting point for each work. Then it’s a case of trying to develop an idea through that reading or music, and trying to explore what movement I want to try and find. Usually, to begin with, there’s myself, and then I add in other people and create the movement. Sometimes I’ve already created it by myself and then I teach it to the other people; sometimes it happens during the time spent with the other dancers, and I work with that.

AMc: You might be talking about what you want and letting them improvise a little and it happens organically?
JC: Yes, sometimes it’s that, and then sometimes it’s more a specific movement that I’m asking them to do.

AMc: What is it that you’re looking for in a piece of music or text to inspire movement?  I know you have worked with Kate Tempest’s poetry, as well as with Sarah Kane’s play Crave. Is it something to do with the feelings that are evoked or the rhythm of the way it’s read?

JC: I think it’s a bit of both of those things. With Kate Tempest’s work, I was working with a recording of her reading her poems, so I went with the rhythm of her voice and played a little with the words. With the Sarah Kane play, obviously I didn’t have a recording before we did it, so it came together more as we went along with the four actors reading the parts. It was really nice to have live voices because every show was different as the actors had a different way of delivering the lines. The dancers had to adapt and respond. Then I made a piece called m/y at Sadler’s Wells last autumn, which was also based on text, but I didn’t use any text in it. It wasn’t heard in the performance, which was with music.

Julie Cunningham, m/y, 2018. Dancers Hannah Burfield, Sara. Image courtesy of Julie Cunningham Company

AMc: You just talked about how, with the actors, no two performances were ever the same. You have also said before that the body is inherently unstable and constantly changing, so how can two performances ever be the same?

JC: They’re not. But, with the actors, it was like playing with a live orchestra. You’re dealing with your own body, which is always different, but also with another unpredictable thing, if that makes sense?

AMc: Yes, absolutely. Presumably during the process of rehearsing and training, however, you’re learning to control that changing body and make it stable in a certain way?

JC: I don’t think so. In dance, there’s so much repetition in terms of rehearsal and training that you have a sense of some kind of stability. It’s just that you feel different every day, and, by Friday, it might feel the same as Monday, but then, over the weekend, you change. You are always changing, but there is also some knowing in terms of what you are asking your body to do, because you repeat it, even though it’s not exactly the same. There’s enough there that you know you can rely on. 

AMc: So, it’s a bit like having a template for a pattern that you approximate in whatever way you can on that given day?

JC: Yes.

AMc: When you are conceiving of the idea in the first place, do you visualise it in your mind’s eye? Do you have some concept of what it is going to look like?

JC: Usually, yes, I know what I’m going to try and do. Sometimes, it’s really clear and it has to do with the space it might be in. But then I also know that it won’t be like that at all in time – it’s not going to look like that, but I do need to be able to visualise it to some degree or other at the beginning. 

AMc: How, then, do you translate what you can see in your mind’s eye into something you can make other people understand and perform for you?

JC: A lot of it is through my own body – I show something and then the dancers respond to it. But I also use words. I think I’m very specific in what I ask for, but I’m not asking for an exact replica of what I do. It’s a certain amount of information that the dancers then translate into their own bodies. That’s why it’s important to work with people I know or who I feel have a certain understanding of things.

AMc: Absolutely. It must be difficult if you do have someone new coming in who doesn’t know the language you use, either verbal or bodily.

JC: Yes, you just have to work differently with them.

AMc: Do your works have a narrative, or else what is the structure that you build them around (when not using pre-existing textual works)?

JC: I wouldn’t say there’s a narrative, as such. There are clear ideas that create their own narrative, but I don’t feel I’m trying to tell a story from beginning to end. It’s more fragmented than that, and it’s somewhere between being ourselves in the experience and layered with the ideas that we’re working on. 

Julie Cunningham, m/e. Image courtesy of Julie Cunningham Company

AMc: If you are working with music rather than text, are you always working with a piece that pre-exists, or do you ever have pieces created to go alongside your work?

JC: Both. m/y had music created especially for the piece.

AMc: That must be quite a different experience, in a way, because then you are not responding to the music, rather it is a kind of co-creation.

JC: Yes, it was a nice experience. 

AMc: Were you working with a musician you knew already? 

JC: Yes, I worked with a composer I had met earlier that year and she also made the sounds for Crave, which was something very different, because the sound was quite minimal in that work.

AMc: Going back to the idea of control over the body, is there still a level of pressure on young dancers to maintain their body and present it in a certain way? 

JC:  Yes, I think there is in certain areas of dance, but not in all dance. But, yes, certain bodies are preferred or sought or praised.

AMc: In an unhealthy way?

JC: Yes, I’m sure that happens, but I feel I’m independent and set apart from all of that now, really. When I was working in other people’s companies, I was more aware of it. But I’m quite happy not being around it any more.

AMc: You’re creating a work that will be shown as part of Art Night, and what I always wonder is what makes a piece of dance qualify as art as opposed to pure dance? Where’s the line drawn between something that’s shown on a stage, advertised as dance, for a sit-down audience, and then this more informal installation-like dance-form that gets classified as art and takes place in galleries or at art events?

JC: When you know you are going to make a work, you need to know the context of the work. If you know you’re going to make it for the stage, then you have to think in a certain way, whereas if you know it’s going to be performed in a gallery or an alternative space, then you make different decisions. Each has its own restrictions, I suppose, and its own benefits. But when you start to make a work, you need to know the context and the audience in order to make something that feels right.

AMc: Would you say that your work straddles both worlds?

JC: Yes. I don’t really think about it so much. I mean, that’s not true, of course I do, I think about it a lot. But, as a dancer, I’ve always performed in theatres, galleries and museums the whole time, so I never thought it was unusual. I observed how Merce [Cunningham] approached those different things and how we thought about them in the company. I learned a lot from him. 

AMc: How did you end up working with him in the first place? He’s such a monumental name in contemporary dance. Did you specifically want to go and work in New York for his company?

JC: When I finished school, I went to New York for the summer and I took class at his studio. I got to know Merce’s assistant Robert, and we kept in touch. I was really interested in the work, and it just happened that they had a place as an understudy, so I went back to New York to take on this role, like an apprentice with the company, and then I got into the company that way. I had always really strongly wanted to dance in that company though, yes. 

AMc: What do you think was the most important lesson that you learned from that decade of working with Merce?

JC: There were so many! But mostly just a level of openness. So, instead of saying: “Oh, we can’t do that,” he always said: “What can we do?” He was always looking for possibilities in things that might otherwise feel like they were shutting down. It made me think a bit more about what I can do, not what I can’t do. OK, so I can’t use that space, but maybe we could do something in this space, and that’s going to change the outcome, but that might be a good thing. I learned to look at things positively and not shut them down because it was not exactly how I wanted it to be. 

AMc: I think I need to learn that lesson! Ultimately, you left the company because of an injury to your spine, but you did later go on to work with Michael Clark, so presumably everything is fully healed now?

JC: Yes. I just needed to take a year off dancing.

AMc: That kind of thing must be quite frequent among dancers? 

JC: Yes, dancers get injured a lot. It’s just part of the deal, really.

AMc: Now you are choreographing, you are dancing, and you have your own company. How would you describe the kind of dancing that you do? Who or what are your key influences?
JC: Well, obviously Merce, and Michael as well, in different ways. I’m quite influenced by visual arts as well, and by theatre. I get a lot of my – I don’t want to say “inspiration” because I really hate that word! – but a lot of my fuel or things that feed me from visual art and theatre, rather than dance. I think it’s quite rare for me to find something there that really gets to me in the same way. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’m a dancer and it’s almost too close or something …

AMc: Do you go to see other dance performances, though?

JC: Oh, yes.

AMc: But you also go to the theatre and to galleries.

JC: Yes.

AMc: Let’s move on to Art Night. Can you tell me something about what you are choreographing for the event? Is it a specific piece that you are going to perform throughout the night, or is it more of a workshop?

JC: I’m trying to bring together a lot of things. I’ve been reading a lot of Gertrude Stein and I feel that is a big influence on what I’m trying to do for Art Night. It’s something about the energy. I don’t know if you’ve read The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, but it’s very energetic. Stein and Toklas are always moving around, going to visit people or being visited, it’s very over the top – they never stop. There’s a very strong drive and energy. I wanted to do something that had a lot of energy. It’s maybe a bit excessive in terms of energy, what I’m trying to do, but I want to try and make as many things as I can, so I might just keep going and going until the end of Art Night. Some of it might be things that we’ve done earlier, and some of it maybe things that we do afresh on the night as well.

AMc: Will the audience be participating in any way, or will it be entirely a performance?

JC: There’s one bit where I have an idea and the audience can participate if they want to, but otherwise I think we’ll be doing stuff. I want it to feel quite informal in a way, like you have come over to our house, and we’re doing our work, and you’re just there with us.

AMc: Where will it be taking place? 

JC: It’s in Walthamstow village, in north-east London, in a hall called the Community Hub.

AMc: Have you been to the venue as part of your research to aid in conceptualising what you want to do?

JC: Yes.

AMc: So you’re building it, in part, around the venue?

JC: Yes.

AMc: You’re also collaborating with a musician again.

JC: Yes, I’m working with a musician called JD Samson, but I’m also going to use recordings of music by different people, so it’s going to be quite eclectic.

AMc: Is the event – the night – going to be documented?

JC: I know that we’re planning something, but I don’t know exactly what. There might be some filming, but it’s quite a long night!

AMc: Have you attended Art Night previously?

JC: Yes, and so I’m very excited about being part of this one.

AMc: I can imagine. It’s quite different from anything else in the art calendar, because you never know who is going to come in when. It might be an art audience, it might not. There are going to be so many events happening that night, and so many people out and about. Why should someone bother coming into the Community Hub to see your performance rather than going on to some other event?

JC: Oh, I don’t know!

AMc: I’m asking for your sales pitch here!

JC: OK. Because we’ll all be dancing and having a good time!  

Art Night is taking place at venues around Waltham Forest, the London Borough of Culture 2019, and King’s Cross, London, on the night of 22 June 2019.
• Julie Cunningham’s m/y will be being performed as part of the Napoli Teatro Festival, in Naples, Italy, on 3 July 2019.

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