BWW Dance Interview: Tomé Cousin
Tomé Cousin is an interdisciplinary artist who has molded an award winning international career that includes collaboration and performance on Broadway, television, film, dance, theater, music, photography, and literature. He holds a Bachelors of Arts in Dance History and Choreography and a Masters of Fine Art in New Media Art and Performance. He is an Associate Professor of Dance at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama.
BWW Dance recently sat down to interview Mr. Cousin.
When did you first become interested in dance?
I was first introduced to "movement" growing up in Baltimore in the 60s and 70s, a time of huge social change. My sisters and their teen friends were dancers on the popular Buddy Deane program, which later became the basis for the Corny Collins show from the film and musical "Hairspray," so I picked up my love of movement from them. When I was seven years old, I took a master class in Dunham technique with Geoffrey Holder, who asked me to visit him in New York City and take class at the Alvin Ailey studio. I was one of the first students in the original school, studying with Miquel Godreau, John Parks, and Mr. Ailey. Back in Baltimore, my mother enrolled me in dance improvisation classes at the Baltimore Museum of Art. From these experiences, dance and communication through movement became part of my soul.
Any major influences?
From the early years, naturally Mr. Holder, but I also loved Dudley Williams and André De Shields, the Broadway star. Those three men have remained mentors and friends my entire life until the passing of Mr. Holder and Dudley. Later, I was obsessed with Debbie Allen and the Graham dancers Tim Wengerd, Mary Hinkson, Matt Turney, and Yuriko Kimura. At Ailey I later had Hector Jaime Mercado, Bertram Ross and, again, Miquel Godreau as teachers. They were gods to me. I think my brief time working with Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane changed everything for me, opening my eyes to all the different possibilities of what dance could be.
They were also my first exposure to a collaborative team that thought, moved, and disagreed strongly with each other on projects. They would heatedly debate openly in the studio and then experiment with the results. It was never personal, even though they themselves were a couple.
Up until this point in my career, my view of dance basically (I'm speaking of 1981), was partnering between a man and woman. The traditional man lifts a woman. Bill and Arnie were the first choreographers I worked with that asked for the reverse. At first we thought we'd heard them incorrectly, but they said it again. Today this sounds like an obvious occurrence, but back then it was revolutionary. Arnie also keyed in on my speed of movement and musicality, but instead of over cleaning everything, they both encouraged rough natural edges in and off the melody lines. I also performed with them to an odd array of "musical" sounds, not always the traditional music associated with modern or post modern dance.
Those lessons stayed with me. I've been blessed to have worked and learned from such an eclectic group of artists. I'm still influenced by them all.
Ballet or modern, which interested you the most?
Modern dance, specifically Graham. I'm certain it was the drama built into the training and technique that attracted me, calling for an immediate internal, almost religious focus and connection to the floor work that was completely different than classical ballet. I felt I could achieve a certain power and master something. My classical ballet vocabulary was present, but with Graham it was called upon in a much heavier, percussive fashion. The fact that the technique and movements came from dances for which they were created made logical sense to me. There was that element of mystery, storytelling, and drama going through your body in contractions, back falls, and spirals. It was as close to religious dancing that I have ever felt.
Acting and storytelling have always been the key me. It's never been about showing off or tricks but communicating a theme or story. Later, as I began applying other styles and techniques, I always saw them through a dramatic content lens.
You have your BA in Dance History and Choreography and an MFA in New Media Art and Performance. Tell me about your college years.
I went to Point Park College (now University) in the 1970s. The dance department was then under the leadership of Nicolas Petrov, a protégée of Leonide Massine and the founder of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, so I was trained in a very European dance company aesthetic. I was exposed to excellent teachers and directors with whom I would later perform. I was fascinated and encouraged to research choreographers and future roles I could play. That planted the seed for my love of dance history. From that period on, I have always been my own dramaturge.
At Point Park there was a professional company affiliated with the school, The American Dance Ensemble (ADE.) The advanced students served as the corps, so we danced quite a lot. The rep was a wild mix of classical and neo-classic, modern and jazz ballets, and a ton of huge European craziness. I went from corps to soloist to principal, which forced me to jump from one style to another. The ADE toured and performed constantly during my entire four years of college, so I grew tremendously. Point Park was also where I studied Graham technique, choreography, and composition with Judith Leifer and Labanotation. My MFA came almost 30 years later. By that time I was a seasoned choreographer and stage director, having performed all over the world, as well as serving as the artistic director of a dance theater company, a filmmaker, and a producer. My primary interests had shifted into directing and dance/movement on film, which fit nicely with my love of performance history. The works that I had begun to favor all had spoken texts and less visible movement. The "dance less is more school of thought" had become my creative mantra. Simultaneously, plays and musicals on Broadway had begun to incorporate more and more media, so the timing was perfect.
With your background, did you ever think of becoming a dance critic?
I've been asked that many times, but my interests have never gone in that direction. I am a self-professed dance and theater history geek, but I prefer to use my knowledge teaching and writing. I do often get frustrated with the lack of historical insight into the remounting of works in companies such as the New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey, and Graham. Small details of their original intent are lost or changed, and these affect the entire work and the perception of the audience. It's a tricky thing, but sometimes we have to remember that choreographers and directors created steps/works on certain personal imperfections or little odd flaws of performers that inspired them. I've witnessed these "flaws" corrected or perfected, and the work itself changes. The same often happens with musicals, especially second and third editions of national tours. The recent Broadway productions of "A Chorus Line" and "West Side Story," in my opinion, suffered from over cleaning, or simplification of movement, causing sterilization. I feel it's always best, if possible, to have a few original cast members present when remounting anything, or at least an artist that actually worked with the choreographer or the first generation. Let them debate, like Bill T and Arnie, over original steps and motivations. But being a full time critic, that's not my focus or field at present. Maybe one day.
You've directed, choreographed, devised 70 original theater, dance, musical, new opera, film, and installation works for performance. Tell me about the highlights.
I loved creating so many varied projects that it's almost impossible to pick favorites or highlights. A few would be:
*Founding and serving as the Artistic Director of The Physical Theater Project (1990-1997), a company I founded with dancer Doug Millos after returning from my work with The Folkwang School. We both had many existing works from the Choreographers Continuum and access to a slew of top flight actor/dancers. It was to be a five year experiment, but lasted for seven, folding in 1997 with the passing of Douglas to AIDS. During its tenure, we created works that combined our joint love of dance, acting, and storytelling. The type or artist that inspired us still holds to this day: skilled in literally all of the classic modern dance techniques (Graham, Cunningham, Limon, Horton, Dunham and Joos), jazz (Luigi, Mattox, Cole, and Fosse) and neo-classical ballet styles. These same performers also had to switch gears and completely be able to hold their own in classical dramatic theater text. The company toured regionally, appeared on national television, performed in Germany, and in festivals across the country.
*The 1991 International Children's Festival commission for the dance/theater play, "Shabaka's Legend."
*The 2010 publication of my theater studies book, "The Total Theater Artist and New Media Performance" (Lambert Academic Press.)
*Teaching and choreographing for the National Dance Institute (2001 -2009.) While I was the artistic director of the Physical Theater Project and appearing on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", one of my peers, the famed Balanchine dancer Patricia Wilde, suggested that I contact Jacques d'Amboise, the founder of the National Dance institute in NYC. She thought that he would be inspired by my energy and love of working with children. I did, and Jacques invited me to come learn from him. Fast forward to 2000 and "Contact" is at Lincoln Center and the National Dance Institute is holding a summer teacher training session at LaGuardia High School. Jacques came to see a performance of the show and again invited me to come train with him. This began a friendship that, to this day, I cherish. I learned so much about teaching in a different format than anything I had done before, particularly keying in on students and always challenging them with speed.
Jacques would constantly say, "watch Tomé.'" This made my heart sing. As a teacher / choreographer I was teamed with Arthur Fredrick for the next nine years, devising works that educated and inspired hundreds of NYC children.
*Being chosen by playwright June Havoc (Baby June) to rewrite, direct, and choreograph the revival of her play, "Marathon '33," off-Broadway in 2009. Little do people know the story of Baby June once her character leaves the stage in the musical "Gypsy." In reality, June Havoc and Bobby Reed (the real life Tulsa whom she married at the age of 13) both entered the gruesome and dangerous world of the 1930's dance marathons. From their experiences, June wrote the Broadway play, "Marathon '33." I was asked by the Abingdon Theater to co-direct a production at Webster Hall as a gala fund raiser. June had previously pulled all performance rights to the work, but from seeing a dance theater piece I had done with my company, The Physical Theater Project, she granted me the rights to develop the work for the 21st century, receiving from her never before used material for the eventual world premiere in 2011 in Pittsburgh.
*My appointment by Susan Stroman as the artistic supervisor for "Contact." During my involvement with the show, from auditioning in 1999 to the closing Broadway performance in 2002, I was just an ensemble member. I had been present, however, at every workshop and rarely missed a performance during the entire run. When the opportunity came up to pick someone to direct the show, it basically fell into my lap. My years of prior direction and chorographic skills were in place; it was then just a matter of my casting eye and staying true to the original intent. I am deeply touched that Stro and librettist Weidman trusted me with this most personal of their works, and it's my duty to hold the show up to the standards that the original cast put forward. I never tire of setting this, as it's a perfect blend of dance and theater. Each new company has presented its own unique set of challenges, which keeps me on my toes. For the North Shore Music Theater, the production had to be reinvented for a showing totally in the round. This production starred Tony Award winner Jarrod Emick and also marked the first professional performance of Jeremy McQueen, the brilliant young choreographer. All of the international companies have been an interesting blend of theater and professional dance companies, the Korean version being my favorite, the featured role of the Girl in the Yellow Dress performed by Joo Won Kim, the famous ballerina.
*Choreographing for PBS's "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" (1990-1997.) Fred Rogers had come to a performance of George C. Wolfe's play, "The Colored Museum," in which I was staring, and came back stage to meet the cast. About a month later I received a call informing me that Fred was inspired to create a character based on me, one that would ultimately become Ragdoll Tomé. On my favorite episode, I gave Fred his very first dance lesson.
*Directing/choreographing the Chinese premiere of the musical "Grand Hotel" in Shanghai, China (2015), my very first experience in directing and coaching based here in the USA and using SKYPE to communicate with artists in another country. This is where my MFA in New Media Art really came into play, figuring out how to instruct, coach, direct, and give notes through technology.
* Serving as the resident director/choreographer at Hartwood Acres (1989-1995.)
*Judging and teaching at the 2010 Hungarian National Ballet (Budapest) International Ballet Forum/Competition. I was the invited American judge for this annual prestigious competition, also choreographing a new work for the event.
*Creating and directing the movement film for the Francesca Harper Project, Mood Fusion Lounge (2006.) Having met Francesca years before in Germany while she was a member of the Frankfurt Ballet and I was guesting with Tanztheater Wuppertal, it was easy for me to create a film for her company. I had just graduated with my degree in New Media Art and Performance and was eager to work with film and expert dancers. I filmed several of Francesca's dancers and herself, and then merged them together through Isadora, the performance based software.
*Receiving choreographic fellowships, commissions, and awards from Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (2010.) Being awarded the SDC Mike Ockrent Fellowship to work with director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Hope Clarke was another game changer for me. I applied while I was choreographing for the Hungarian National Ballet and was one of the four finalists to have a personal interview with George C. Wolfe. Once chosen, my task was to sit, watch, and learn. From day one, this never happened. George saw that I had multiple skills as a director/choreographer, so I was on my feet working out steps with Hope, teaching actors her movement, standing in for the lead actor, Jeffrey Wright, and counting music with Jeanine Tesori, the Tony Award winning composer. All my skills were utilized during that process, including labanotation, which I charted out for the stage manager as the unofficial dance captain of sorts.
*Distinguished Alumni Award Point Park University (2001.) While still performing on Broadway in "Contact", my alma mater contacted me to receive this award. It was an honor that is still close to my heart. A few years later, my college roommate, the Tony Award winning choreographer Rob Ashford, would also receive this award. No way in our youth did we imagine that our careers would take us where they eventually did.
*My four Choreographers Continuum Commissioning grants (1987 -1991.) From these four commissions I created works that became the backbone of the rep for The Physical Theater Project. They were my chance to experiment with the styles of other choreographers that had influenced me. "Sentimental Walk" was a more post-modern Gus Solomons/Bill T. Jones type solo with text; "Let's Misbehave" used a Thomas "Fats" Waller score that was based on early Twyla Tharp dance vocabulary; "Lipschtick" was my homage to Pina Bausch, and maybe the work that put me on the map nationally; and "Mystery Date," based on the 1965 Milton Bradley board game.
*The Rockefeller Foundation Commission for the Digital Soundscapes/Fort Greene Project (2007.) While I was a student at Long Island University, a commission was issued for the creation of a program that would merge Brooklyn based high school dancers with choreographers. My task was to first teach and refine the art of choreography with them and then impart self-analysis in the structure making of dance and theater. The students came with different levels of experience in dance, which was not new to me. The challenge was to find a unifying vocabulary that we all could work under quickly and give a speedy course of dance history.
*The publication of my interview, "What Made You Fall In Love with Theatre?" in the SDC Winter Journal of 2014. After my experience with the Mike Ockrent Fellowship, I had written a summary of my experience there. The Broadway musical actor/dancer Andre De Shields and the director George C. Wolfe had suggested that I accept the request and write an essay on the story of how I entered theater. It was a joy to go backwards and relive my journey, one that I personally thought was ordinary, but I've come to learn from others and the letters I received afterwards that it was unique and motivating.
*My production of "Spring Awakening" at Carnegie Mellon University (2013.) I was able to fuse together all of my tanztheater skills and mix them into this already expressive musical. I was directing at CMU for the first time and had the most talented cast, among them Rodney Earl Jackson, currently on tour with "Motown the Musical"; Emily Koch, Elphaba, in the "Wicked" national tour; and Nick Rehberger, Fyedka in the current revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" on Broadway. With these actors, and some extraordinarily gifted designers to work with, I opened up the entire work to give it a more communal structure.
*The 2006 collaboration with photographer Ron Amato for the creation of "Article 16," a gay marriage performance work. Ron and I were put together by Blondell Cummings, the post-modern choreographer, to create a work based on one of the United Nations Articles of Human Rights. We chose Article 16, the Right to Marriage. This was years before the law was passed for gay marriage. I felt a deep passion for this and created a duet for myself and David Cho, the Limon trained dancer, as a struggling gay couple.
*Directing/choreographing and teaching for the American Dance Machine at the Joyce Theater in 2014. This was quite important, as it hits home on my peeve about the remounting of works. The ADM21 is brilliant, having the first generation of directors or cast members to stage the works. I was able to work with these new millennials and also bring in original cast members to work with them. So in this case, the highlight was seeing the work itself live again in New York City.
As an interdisciplinary artist, you review the divisions of the performing arts to be artificial. Would you expand on that?
During the earlier portion of my career, I thought of myself primarily as a dancer. Later, as I returned to dramatic acting, I would suppress the active mover in myself. Then I lived in the world of Tanztheater, where all of my skills of dramatic dance, spoken text, were woven together. Tanztheater movement can be very minimal and then, all at once, explode in a fury and just as suddenly, you can stand stock still and recite a monologue. The gears shift quicker and in a much more experimental mode than a musical. Once I dove into direction and choreography, I began to notice how seamlessly I could shift back and forth. When I found myself working with masters of that art form from Bill T. and Pina, to Ruth Maleczech and Mabou Mines, Martha Clarke, Meredith Monk to Stroman, it just seemed natural. But soon I discovered I was unique in my approach and that each artist I worked with was drawn to this ability. It's now virtually impossible for me to view a division between the disciplines. I think all artists have this ability and quality, just in varying degrees and stages. From my experience, all actors move, all dancers speak, all singers act, and all writers direct. It's just that the ability of the person to trust and gain full access to a freedom of expression is limited or blocked. Yes, there is a huge difference between ballet, a musical, an opera, and a play, but there are artists who can, and do, function quite successfully in all of them. Examples of this type of total theater artist are dancers Desmond Richardson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Francesca Harper, and directors Martha Clarke, Meredith Monk, Ann Bogart, and George C. Wolfe. I'm more interested in that type of dancer/artist, one who can see beyond the high kick, multiple turns, jumps, splits, or belting out a high C. At a certain point in one's career you want more. Finding and using your true speaking voice and new motivations for movement will have become paramount. An active dance career can go on forever in this way.
You worked with Pina Bausch. Knowing her work very well, I was wondering what it was like to work with her?
I was a guest artist with the company through my affiliation of the Folkwang School in Essen. The work process was different for each of the works that I learned from the rep. As these were already created, it was a matter of first learning the style of the company, which was based in the German Ausdruckstanz movement vocabulary of Kurt Joos and Siggurd Leeder, very alien to my Graham trained body and musically odd for me, as I'd never had any classes before in these techniques. With Graham it was more hieroglyphic style, lyric at times, but many to this day view it as archaic. With Pina's work, the rhythmic pulses, coupled with her unique use of port de bras, were completely alien to me. Pina told me it was my explosive energy and dramatic eyes that pulled her to me. Tanztheater Wuppertal was then a classically trained company, something that I think would surprise most. The famous Pina questions did happen, and my background was used to help me find my way inside the work process. Pina was very quiet and soft spoken, but direct in communication of what was correct and what could be or could not be changed or altered. What was most difficult for me was the level of commitment over an extended period of performance and the constant hidden meaning and repetition of phrasing. What I thought would be similar to company and musical works that I had experienced before was not present in any form. Years later, Pina came to see "Contact" and was delighted with the musical. It was one of the very few times I saw her laugh out loud.
You're a professor of dance at Carnegie Mellon. How did that come about?
In 2011, I was invited to Ankara, Turkey, as the first American consultant for the International Children's Theater Festival. While I was there, I was contacted by Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama and asked if I would be interested in applying for an open position. I later learned my name had been tossed around as a top teacher of dramatic and technical dance for actors. I flew directly from Turkey to Pittsburgh and taught a week of classes. At the end of the week I was offered the position. It was a complete shock, as I had no immediate plans of teaching full time again. But my love and passion for teaching won out.
Describe your teaching method, what you try to impart to students in your classes.
I've been blessed with having worked and learned from an eclectic and wide range of teachers and artists. I know that I'm unique in having all of this knowledge but also realize that it's not for me to keep to myself. The most important element of my teaching is for dancers and actors to understand their personal space and power, to be able to harness this in a dynamic way that an audience can read/see. It matters that they understand there are moments when everyone must unite and look, sound, and move on the same motivation and other times when it's open and free. I give them confidence to always try and be willing to fail and fall, but to use those "mistakes" as movement. As Luigi would say, "dance from the inside" and "never stop moving."
My classes are a wild mix of classic Dunham, Luigi, Matt Mattox, Jack Cole, Graham, Horton, with a strong dose of Ausdrucktanz. My students must have a complete sense and understanding of respect for what they are being taught. They have been given gifts and must channel them through proper training, discipline, and commitment to ultimately give away in performance. It's a tricky concept, but to accept that ultimately proves that there is no "correct way or incorrect way" of doing a step or movement, as each choreographer will approach the dance vocabulary differently. But they must be alive when dancing and performing, for every second in a gift. It's important to me that they leave with a continued hunger for more, that there is an understanding of being part of a never ending tradition of lessons and skills that must be passed on. Sure, I've come across challenging students, some who are not the most natural movers, but that has never stopped my process for teaching them. In my opinion, it is imperative that the teacher, director, or choreographer do the extra work and find the key to that particular artist's need and unique talent. I learned this lesson from my time with Jacques d'Amboise and his National Dance Institute. To never give up on a student. Never.
What can we expect from you in the future?
This upcoming year is packed. I have two books I'm in the process of completing. One, "The Franklin Project," tackles diversity casting in the performing arts, and the other, "Making Contact," chronicles the creation of the musical "Contact" from the beginning all the way through my current adventures directing it. I'll be directing/choreographing the NYC workshops for a new opera based on the life and works of James VanDerZee, the Harlem Renaissance photographer, as well as directing the regional premiere "Wig Out!" by Tarell A. McCraney and "Ragtime" at CMU. I'll also be part of the NYC reading of a new musical by Ellen Schwartz, Bonnie Lee Sanders, and Arthur Writ, "Come Up 'n See Me." Oh, yes, and I'll be directing for Stroman and Weidman a revival company of "Contact" in Seoul, Korea. Whew!
Photograph: Dave Cross