To run a dance company for fifteen years and a dance school for twenty four years, you have to have super-human energy, a will of iron, a determination which borders on insanity and you have to have help and be able to accept that help. Deb Meunier has surrounded herself with talent, and seems completely unafraid of it. She has accumulated a marvelous collection of dancers as well as (among others) a photographer, an assistant, a part-time business manager and graphic, costume and lighting designers. All work to make Fusionworks a fully professional company. Even with so much help, Deb is frenetically busy choreographing, rehearsing, teaching and doing the non-dance stuff of running a company including publicity work, selling tickets and the ever present fund-raising. It is a rare phone call with her that is not interrupted by more incoming calls or a pressing appointment.
Presenting as an All-American athletic girl choreographer- forthright, funny and uncomplicated, Deb Meunier is the anti-diva. But can someone, who runs a dance company and school and puts out dances this good, really be so sunny? The author, Margaret Atwood claims that sometimes, what you are is created from nothing, a spontaneous self-generation. What a romantic and totally un-substantiatable concept. If from nowhere else, some part of you must come from your genes in relation to your environment, and those genes were refined in the fiery hell of evolution which is, itself, environmently produced. Innocent they are not; ditto spontaneous. What you are, comes from somewhere. So where does Deb Meunier come from? This interview barely skims the surface of that question. When all is said and done, if her roots are dark, but she gives good dance, who should care? And of course, who are we to pry? But let's just look through this keyhole here.
DN: Considering that no one makes any money at running a dance company and that it takes all of your time what possesses anyone to starting a dance company?|
DM: To start it? That's different than continuing it. Just a desire, a forum to have some control over what work you do and how you do it. You know the process in particular and who you do it with; you know all those variables and you make the choices. So I guess its about control and choice. Obviously to do your own thing. Otherwise you would just be a dancer in someone else's dance company - which is a different interest. So I think its that simple, the reason to start. And I think also when you start its much more of a romantic notion when the reality, in fact, is quite difficult. Obviously some of the romance holds thru or you wouldn't continue-there's got to be something in there or you wouldn't continue but its certainly more romantic when you start. I envisioned a great and magical vehicle…
DN: Do you feel you had a good idea about what you were in for when you started?
DM: Oh, absolutely not - no idea I knew nothing. [Laughs] It was really quite simple. I had a basic desire. I love to dance, I love to be around dancers and I love to create dances. And really I knew nothing about the daily grind..the workings..and how consuming it would be-I knew zero about that. And I also knew a lot less about dealing with people. It's a great lesson you learn running a company. Whether it's the people you deal with in your own studio or even more the outside world. You have to be much more multi-tasking and be able to solve problems in every domain. You have to be a director, a teacher, a choreographer, you have to be a psychologist, you have to be a janitor, a marketing specialist , a graphics specialist, video technologist, I mean it just goes on and on and on. And obviously you can't be an expert in all those things, but you have to gather knowledge of so many different fields so many different vocations in order to run your company. Forget about when you go on the road, oh my god, you take your company on the road - what you have to deal with. The surprises involved in something like that are just unbelievable. It can be really earth shattering at times. Really horrible situations and of course as a director you turn to yourself and go "oh my god I'm so stupid how could I not have thought of that?" Well of course you couldn't have thought of it. It's not in the realm of normal existence or it's not in the realm of a job where you go into the office and these are your tasks. Now I can say in the last couple of years (it has really taken over a decade to get to this point) I have kind of gotten where I can be calm or calmer about the fact that things are going to happen, sometimes really bad things, that I just cannot be prepared for nor can I always have the solution. And I finally learned to be calmer about it and kind of even say "this is life", you know laugh at it. Its funny that you started the question with controls and what I've learned ultimately is to let go of control in many ways because of what this job is like. It's an interesting life lesson. It's interesting letting go.
DN: Did you always know you wanted to do choreography?
DM: I think so in a non-articulated sort of way. You think back. You start reflecting on things you did as a child when you are in a certain path in your adult life and then you start to think about "oh here are the seeds which are revealing themselves" unbeknownst to myself. For instance I have memories when I was ten years old that I would create these whole musicals. My parents always played musicals, and they were ballroom dancers. They were really into Oklahoma and My Fair Lady and the whole thing. So I would create these musicals of my own, and use my brothers and sisters. There were seven kids in my family and neighborhood friends and I would create whole musicals and plays and come up with characters and direct them and we'd go in our closets and make costume choices. We didn't have a garage but my friend Betty Reynaud did, so we'd put on these productions in her garage and admission was a penny. But if you didn't have a penny, that was ok. You could get in for free because, we were going to get audience in there one way or the other. I was so into this thing!...I remember one scene where the villain (it was my brother) was coming in Betty's garage window. I said "no you have to redo that you're not coming in exactly right" and we did coming in the window five times or something. So obviously when I think back now, I say "wow that was directing". There was something about loving that process from when I was little. As far as adult life, wanting to do my own choreography, I guess that started in my early twenties. I was doing ballet then so it started there in the classical realm. In my early twenties as a student at Rhode Island College, I also discovered modern dance and that was also the time when I developed the desire to create in the non-classical realm. And I was really really awful at it. I basically took ballet steps and turned them on their sides. I don't know why, I don't know how you can articulate - it was just the desire to interpret life thru movement.
DN:How did you get involved in dancing?
DM: Two things, my dad because he was a ballroom dancer himself, when I was five years old, he put me into a local dance school.
And also my parents were ballroom dancers. They had a school . When I was around eight years, they had a studio in the basement . At one point when I was maybe 10, I knew every ballroom dance there was - mambo, samba, cha-cha, swing, fox trot, waltz and at that time it was really big that young people took ballroom dancing including children. Now it's kinda of come back. Believe it or not more boys would take ballroom dancing than girls, so I would oftentimes be dragged in to be the extra girl and I would mumble and grumble because I would have to dance with all kinds of geeky guys. So there was that access - that exposure thru my parents. I remember when I was 9 or 10 my father volunteered us to do a father daughter cha cha as part of a dance recital at the school where I was doing my ballet classes. I guess he knew the woman who was the teacher. So we did a cha cha and I remember rehearsing it, practicing it, in my father's basement studio and we would go over the cha cha together and I'd have to do this step where I stayed still and he'd go around me. We did it at the recital and I remember it so vividly because I had a red velvet dress with a swiss white polka dot skirt and white patent leather shoes. It's the costume you see. And I just thought I was the cat's meow that was just the greatest thing in the whole world that dress and those white shoes. So those are early...well actually my very first stage memory I guess I was five-I was a bluebird in a blue satin little kids tutu with ostrich feathers everywhere and I had a blue ostrich feather head band which is why in my own school, when onstage, my children never have any kind of headbands on their heads-or anything unattached. I remember that (you know how you remember things from that age- you just kind of flash pictures) the headband fell off I bent down in the middle of the recital piece to pick it up, knocked into another five year old next to me and sent the entire line into chaos. I started to cry. Somebody else started to cry. Basically I and the headband ruined the dance. That's my very first stage memory. So lesson learned, my children at my school do not wear headbands on the stage. They do not wear anything that is not attached as a matter of fact - well attached.
The next memory was - I was in a bad (it must have been a couple years cuz I remember being bigger too even a sense of my own size of my body maybe a couple years later seven or eight something) gypsy dance. I had a tambourine and a really loud gaudy satin costume with giant gold sequins, ooff. I think it was pretty sophisticated for a little one. I had to put one foot in the tamboreen and do something we call a leg mount (stretched my leg over my head). It's so gauche to do things like that on stage but I put one foot in the tamboreen, did a leg mount and then kind of jumped around in a circle. I think of it now and go "oooggggh" and shudder. But when I did it, I thought "this is really cool, this is really cool".
DN: When did you study with Lidia Pettine?
DM: Lidia Pettine was the first really positive major influence. She taught in a studio next to Providence Performing Arts Center on kind of a slanted floor on the second floor with peeling tiles and Kay Moynihan on the piano. I was somewhere around nineteen. It was thirty years ago, my god, thirty one years ago. And I took ballet from Lidia. I was just awful and she was so inspirational. I was in this class, the only class I could make, that was really above the level I was in. I just loved to fly around thru the space so tremendously and she would come over and I would be fumbling and mumbling my way thru and flying around, god knows what I looked like, and she'd come over and say, "Don't worry petite chesi-you just dance - just dance just dance", and Kay would be playing on the piano. I loved her. She was an inspiration to me to just dance - to dance with passion and abandon. You learn different things from different people and that was an important thing from her. It was not about the precision of my tondeaus because it just wasn't going to happen where I was, and she recognized that. There were corrections and things and she had her set combinations and yet she instilled in me this love of movement and a license to not be self-conscious about my errors and what I didn't know. I have carried that. I try to do that in my own classes. There are people there at all different levels. Just dance and you are where you are. That was quite beautiful. The other thing that influenced me was that there were a number of really gorgeous dancers in her class - way more gorgeous than me, and so she would also say things to me, "Watch. Why do you love that person? Watch. What is it about the way that person moves? Try to articulate why you love dance." So I learned the art of absorbing, watching everything including my own work but listening to everyone else's notes, whether good or bad, and making them my own - trying to absorb the beautiful qualities of someone. That was Lidia.
Then several other influences all happened in my early twenties. I auditioned but did not get accepted into Festival Ballet. At that time it was run by Wink Corey and Christine Hennessy, husband and wife, and I would take classes from both of them. I just loved them both in different ways-very different ways. I was much more intimidated there and yet for whatever reason, I guess just pure desire, I keep going back. I really floundered and felt out of my element yet I kept going back. Wink was like Lidia in some ways and Christine... she was just this teeney little whiplash person. Because I am kind of a small compact person, I liked her [ballet] classes - kind of fast moving things. Right about then I auditioned and got into the State Ballet and from Herci Marsden I really got good experience especially on the stage and putting together ballets such as Giselle and Coppelia, the large ensemble. How does that work? That's its own creature. That was the most wonderful thing learned from Herci. I am very grateful for this understanding of how to stage the larger ballets.
At the same time, my first experience with modern was at Rhode Island College when I was a student. And my first modern class was with Fannie Melcer and it was in Graham technique. Och, God forbid! It's the furthest thing in the whole universe from how my body likes and need to move. But that was what was offered then. It was strict Graham. We did all the exercises on the floor. So again, for whatever reason even though that technique didn't really fit me. I remember we would do improvisational exercises. All I had known before then was ballet which was so codified and beautiful also, but all of a sudden this whole other world was opened up with the improv structures and I was "Ohhh I really like this!" So I would say all of these are formative. To be honest, my training before Lidia and college was pretty bad.
DN: But it must have given you something?
DM: Absolutely, it was the combination of what was at home and at school. Movement and music and the love of it were in my home from the time I was a small child. My parents dancing. My mom was always listening and singing to everything from classical to the musicals everywhere on the car radio at home singing. So there was that osmosis, and then the dance school further nurtured, it wasn't good training in technique, but the fact was I just loved to move. There were 7 kids in our family and what we did all the time -my folks lived on the water in Barrington (they're still there) - we were just playing all the time we didn't sit in front of the TV. We were either outdoors making up games in the basement or in the garage creating things. So there was this real active active sense of play throughout my whole childhood. I have to say that was a huge influence.
DN: By the time you hit RIC were you already thinking that you wanted to do a dance career or were you planning on something else?
DM: No by the time I arrived at RIC I didn't know what the heck I wanted to do. I wanted to be an English teacher and have an English degree; I was a hippie; I dropped out of school. Did I want to have a dance career? No I can't say... When the concept solidified was when I went to RIC and when I did the whole Lydia/State Ballet thing. It all happened within three or four years. Those first four years of my early 20's or 19 to 24 in there with Lidia, RIC, State Ballet, and Festival Ballet. I was really a nomad. I didn't really have allegiance to one particular place or style; I was just trying everything I could possible try and then around about 25 I started trekking two, three four five times a week to Boston to study modern dance with Marcus Shulkind*. I would take modern dance with him as much as I could. I would drive as much as I would dance usually, and then also there were a couple of Alvin Ailey teachers. Dwight Rodin was one of my favorite ones from the Ailey company who taught at the Jennette Neill Studio. They tend to feature jazz more so I would go up and take jazz class there.
*Although he shut down his dance company in 2001, Marcus Schulkind still teaches his famous classes at Green Street Studios. For more information see his website at http://www.marcusschulkind.org/contact.html.
DN: Did you take tap at all?
DM: I never took tap. And jazz...I still take it, but I'm not a jazz person. From mid-20's on I started to experiment with jazz and I decided I didn't really like it. I did a brief little stint with tap with Brenda Bufalino when I did my Masters work. She was fabulous. I'm the worst tapper in the whole universe. Unbelievable! Put me in the back of the class and hide me, but at that point I was doing my grad work, I really didn't care if I was the worst. I would kind of laugh at myself, I just wanted to try it. But that was all. It was just kind of a brief stint "ok, tried that - that's not me".
DN: What was your thesis about?
DM: I did a project with the Middle School at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf where I worked with a team of teachers- four or five teachers- home room teachers, visual art teachers. Two of my dancers, Stephanie Stanford and Kerry Gallagher, and I designed a residency where we created dances out of parts of RSD's curriculum. It was very very difficult and very very interesting. One of the more interesting things I've done in my life in the arts education realm because we didn't know sign language. My thesis was basically an anthropological study on two very disparate cultures coming together- the hearing and the deaf. We went in there not knowing a bit of sign language and yet we were going to create this piece of work together. And we did and I was really proud of it. It had sculpture and movement and signing and we used haiku poetry. Oh, it was just layer upon layer. I wrote about the project as a field study. We really just got into it. It was gruelingly difficult and yet very rewarding at the end cuz we came up with something great. I ended getting the Ruhlwater prize for it actually which is an award given at Weslyan for the best written theses of that graduating class. I was proud of that.
DN: How long had you been doing the company before you did your Masters?
DM: I got my Masters degree in '94 - eight years ago. I dropped out of college in my third year (20-21yr) and then 12 years went by in which I just worked, waitressed, did dance class, started my studio et cetera, and then I decided to go back and finish my undergraduate degree [English major and dance minor] nad then enroll in Weslyan for my graduate work [Dance and Movement studies] .
DN: All at once?
DM: Kind of a chunk. Well you know, I grew up. [Laughs] I took twelve years out of school. Did three years as an undergraduate and kind of dropped the ball. went out and did some real life - schlepped tables for twelve years at Newport Creamery, Papa Gino's among others. I always did the lunch thing cuz it allowed me to dance at night. Waitressing and bartending is the perfect dancer's job. After awhile, I had grown up and recognized what a treat it was to go back to school as an adult - truly as an adult. Everything about me was hard knocks for those twelve years, but I got full scholarship for my whole Wesleyan experience because I had already been doing a number of arts educational projects with my company. I started Fusionworks in 1987, and with it, had already been doing work in the community. So I was given a scholarship by the Rhode Island Foundation based on that. Wesleyan was one of the great great experiences of my life-just unexplicable how I loved going back to school and doing that graduate work. I just threw myself into it. And it's a great institution. I loved it because the program wasn't a tunnel view where you just dance. Their approach is much more interdisciplinary. I worked with painters and anthropologists and pianists and classical musicians. I played on Gamalon orchestras with people from all over the world of different disciplines. For me where I was at that point (I was already in my thirties), I was not really interested in a degree in "this is how you go on stage". It was such an incredible experience.
DN: How did you decide on Wesleyan?
DM: I had someone suggest it to me maybe Dante Del Giudice [at RIC]. I didn't have the luxury of going away to school because I had my school and my company. It had to be somewhere I could commute to so the choice was somewhat rarefied. Wesleyan* had an intensive summer graduate program. You went to class all day every day of the week for the summer - condensed. So that's how I was able to do it.
*Located in Middletown Connecticut. They also have an undergraduate dance program. The website is at http://www.wesleyan.edu
DN: I want to go back for a moment to your teachers. This is just a technical question. Were any of your teachers hands-on? In other words did any of your teachers move a student's body into position when she/he couldn't understand a spoken direction? How about Lidia Pettine?
DM: No, Lydia would do the whole class and she would give me specific corrections but not so much hand's on. It was more thru words. It also wasn't thru watching her because at that point she was older she taught in a skirt with a pair of wedgies and a shawl. So it was thru words and images. Herci would do both words and physical hands on correction. Christine and Wink were not so much hands on. Once in a while Chris would come and move a hand or a leg -maybe half and half. It's kind of interesting. I am such a hand's on teacher, how did I did I end up this way? I think I got it more from the modern dance world, Marcus Shulkind is very hand's on, and less from the ballet world. For me in teaching, you can say a thousand words but it takes one little touch for somebody to understand.
DN: One time, Marilyn Smayda (she has the Studio in Narragansett), was substituting for my teacher and she was telling me to do something that people had been saying to me when my leg was on the barre. "Rotate that leg, rotate that leg." And I thought I was. But she came over and poked my leg and my leg just went whump into position. And that's all it took, but you could have said it a million times to me and I thought I was there. I didn't even understand that I didn't understand what you were saying. It's amazing.
DM: Yes, I think so. I'll get right under a dancer, put a dancers arm around me and left up the leg like they're silly putty or something. I know for me it really works. It's about the body thinking; its not about words and yet we tend to learn in western traditions through our eyes, our ears, mimic this and that kind of thing, but hand's on really works, and it was a barrier that I had to break for myself. I was very shy. Believe it or not. I say this and people laugh, "Yeah right Meunier", but I really was in relation to my own body. So I was self-conscious for someone to give me hand's on correction, but the reality is if you are going to go onto to dance, it's about the body and touching people so if you can't get past your own body being touched and manipulated…well, you have to. You have to be in that comfort zone. So that's a hurdle I think for any dancer. Unless you never partner or touch anyone.
DN: I have had some very hand's on teachers and you get really used to it but then you go and working (especially in studios this is a problem I think) you start to do a little partnering but you don't do very much in studios and the result is that you are not used to being with your dance peers, so I am very uncomfortable still in that situation.
DM: Yes, partnering with other people like that, I think you really only get that kind of comfort zone in a company situation. You share sweat and breathe. We've been fortunate that, for the most part, we've been together for years. I'll fly thru space and hurdle myself at Stephanie or vice versa without a thought. But that's from years of doing this.
DN: Do you ever chill out? You've got a company; you're running a dance school. Do you ever have time to just hang?
*Fusionworks Dance Academy. See http://www.fusionworksdance.org/class.html.
DN: You also have Stephanie [dancer, business manager and assistant to Deb] who's been around forever.
DM: She's a godsend - it's been ten years, and she's so rock solid and intelligent. She is the great stabilizer. It is really rare to find someone who you really can depend on totally to run things when you are gone. That is not that easy to find. She is one of those people who if she says, "Don't worry, I will take care of it", she will take care of it. I am very fortunate to have such a human being in my life as Steph.
END OF PART ONE-PART 2 TO FOLLOW