I caught up with Bessie Award-winning dancer, choreographer, and teacher Holley Farmer just outside UW’s campus, where the UW MFA alumna will soon premiere her solo, run down, a collaboration with composer and UW Professor Emeritus Stuart Dempster, January 23-25 at Meany Hall. Farmer was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1997-2009, originated the role of Babe in Twyla Tharp’s hit Broadway musical Come Fly Away, and has taught undergraduate and graduate students at Mills College for the past three years. It was a pleasure to hear firsthand about Farmer’s accomplishments, inspirations, and experiences during her long and rewarding career.
SeattleDances: Your career is so inspiring! What was it like to dance for two huge names in American dance: Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp?
Holley Farmer: With Merce, we were all engaged on the same level, democratically, as interpreters of the work and keepers of the time and movement scores in our heads. In his later years, he worked with the computer program Life Forms, asking us to do things the human body can’t. That was how he raised the bar, and we flourished in the process of getting closer to maybe what his intentions were, and finding our own solutions to gorgeous problems presented by a process informed by technology. In Twyla’s Come Fly Away, the hierarchy was different. She was a master of historical structures, adapting Broadway’s “boy meets girl” format, but also wanting to tell a deeper story. It was so different for me, using center-center as the most powerful place onstage. And physically, I had to use all of the skills I had ever known. Even now I notice the voices in my head that are not my own; I’m still hardwired to Merce’s way of not talking about inspiration during the creative process or explaining meaning.
SeattleDances: How have your BFA (Cornish) and MFA (UW) shaped you as an artist?
Farmer: In my performing career, I’ve noticed that the individual culture you’re in tends to define you, but in my academic career I’ve been so grateful for the high caliber of mentoring. During my undergrad at Cornish, Kitty Daniels really encouraged me to go further into dance education, and during my graduate work at the UW, I surprised myself by performing so much. I had been in three companies, and I thought my performing career was over. But the Chamber Dance Company had us rehearsing all the time, teaching undergrads as TAs, and working on our final projects as well. Now, at Mills [Oakland, CA], I’ve had the opportunity to give back for the past three years, mentoring second-year grad students on their theses. I feel obliged to pass on my body of knowledge, both what I learned dancing with Merce for 12 years, and helping students in their own choreographic processes.
SeattleDances: You’re so busy, traveling between Oakland, LA, and Brooklyn. How do you find a balance?
Farmer: I’ve been so lucky to just be in the right place at the right time. Opportunities always spring up from network connections at universities and through mentoring. Just three days after I graduated from the master’s program at UW, I moved to New York to study on scholarship at the Cunningham School, and I was eventually asked to understudy. Now, I’ve resigned from Mills, but with an open door, so that I can focus on my own work in New York. I find that nothing keeps me in technical shape but technique class, and nothing keeps me in shape for performing except performance! My first goal in getting ready for this piece was to do eight grand pliés in the center, all day, every day. I knew I would need six weeks to prepare. And once I got that I just went from there. One of the things I ask my students is: Do you know how to kick your own ass? Longevity is about finding a way to dance every day.
SeattleDances: Your solo, run down, is premiering at the UW Faculty Concert this weekend, January 23-25. Can you tell us a little bit about what you are exploring?
Farmer: I created it at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. When I got this Fitbit as a gift, at first I was reluctant to even take it out of the package. We’re always counting, assessing, and measuring in dance, and I thought: this is another way of objectifying ourselves. But a month ago I put it on my body and it’s been on ever since. Your activity grows this flower, and over time you have to move even more to make it develop the same amount! I began with the idea of making a half-mile dance. I worked with grids and steps, but now it’s evolved into something very different. The set that I designed, from an item off Craigslist, the dance, and the music from Stuart—all are coming together at the last minute, à la Merce. It’s going to be a surprise! If Kafka’s watching, I hope he likes it.
For more information on the UW’s Dance Faculty Concert, and to purchase tickets to see Farmer in performance please visit here.