An Interview with Tamar Rogoff: Her unique approach to choreography and inspiration for “Grand Rounds”

An Interview with Tamar Rogoff: Her unique approach to choreography and inspiration for “Grand Rounds”

Asya Danilova

  • New York Columnist

At the rehearsal of Grand Rounds at La Mama, Tamar Rogoff, the creator of this experimental dance piece, is wearing a black blouse resembling scrubs. It seems appropriate in the context of the show, which takes place in the 50s and tells a story of a 10-year-old, who is fascinated with novels about the nurse Cherry Ames. Played by the young actress, Cadence Rotarius, the heroine spies on her family at night, witnessing violence, tenderness and frustration.

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Tamar Rogoff casted an ensemble of performers with different professional and physical backgrounds: the grandmother (Cynthia Gilbertson) is a fragile 70-yer-old with Parkinson’s, the grandfather (Glen Heroy) is a 250-pound clown, the brother (Morgan Sullivan) is a transgender actor, the mother (Emily Pope) and the father (Jake Szczypek) are professional dancers.

La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre is divided into two spaces: “home” and “hospital”. For the first act of the show, the audience sits around three beds and gets to watch the family members up close. The child’s kind and curious gaze dictates the mood of the melancholic yet humorous Grand Rounds. As death joins the family portrait and the hospital staff fills it out, we are happy that the 10-year-old is our guide. Through the prism of her imagination and affection for her family, even the most difficult topics look bearable.

A grandmother of four, Rogoff has spunk and an insatiable curiosity like young protagonist of Grand Rounds. Three decades of choreographing for both professional ensembles and people who never performed, helped in developing a unique approach to the dance, backed up with Rogoff’s interest in medicine. I sat down with Tamar to talk about her newest production, Grand Rounds.

Where did the inspiration for the Grand Rounds come from?

There was an image of a ten-year-old girl with a doctor’s bag, and that is definitely autobiographical. Myfather was a doctor and he used to take me with him when he went on rounds and I would carry his doctor’s bag. I would feel very special in the hospital. I was entering kind of a fantasy world.

At that time I was reading these girl stories about Cherry Ames, who was a nurse. My father used to introduce me to the nurses in the hospital and say: “Oh, I’d like you to meet Cherry Ames”, he would make a big joke about this.

So this was one part. And then, I worked on a documentary Enter The Faun, about a man with cerebral paulsy. I was invited to Washington to show the film and met a group of palliative care doctors, those are doctors who take care of people who are dying. And I couldn’t quite understand how these scientific geniuses were interested in dying people. 

In Grand Rounds there is a hospital in the back and the family home in the front. There is a death in this piece. And one understands what a death would feel like in the hospital setting and what the death would feel like if someone were at home. It kind of asks the question of what’s a good way to die. Which, in our culture, is very unexamined; it’s kind of just a taboo subject. It’s almost like people don’t expect to die when it’s the one thing we know for sure, that we all gonna do.

There is just a lack of understanding, preparedness. People often die in the hospitals and they are very drugged and they are alone. And it doesn’t need to be that way. Sometimes it does but sometimes people could be at home. So taking death out the realm of medicine and bringing it in, when you can, and let it be an event of the family.

You seem to be fascinated with doctors since you include them in a lot of your work.

There is a layer of reality in my work. Peter Selwyn, playing the doctor, is a real doctor. I like the idea that a doctor would step out of his role of authority and be at a place where he is doing something he doesn’t know. I cast a doctor and then I cast a woman who recently was a patient in a very serious kind of way. And a caregiver who is her actual daughter is playing a nurse.

I chose to do a piece about nurses though, not doctors; the girl wants to be a nurse. In a way I feel that nursing is a kind of unappreciated profession. Nurses know so much more than they are credited for. A nurse knows the person who is sick and a doctor knows the illness. So I wanted to work with a person who knows another person.         

I was always drawn to medicine from my early days. Even the way I choreograph is scientific. The initiation of movements always comes out of an anatomical source. Sometimes it’s a place in the body and sometimes it’s a space in the body, and sometimes it’s even an unknown place, like the back of the neck, the clavicles.

What was your approach to casting? 

I audition and I almost always end up picking the person who requires the most work. But somehow it attracts me because I want to do the work that would bring somebody to the stage. And this body scripting that I do with the anatomy. If I give it at the audition, I can see who seriously will consider that kind of almost scientific approach.

What is less interesting to me now, 15 dancers who are in their 30s and in perfect shape. When you say: “Raise your leg”, everybody raises it exactly the same. How is that interesting? If I say: “Raise your leg” in my group, I get 12 different ways of lifting your leg, that’s more interesting to me.

I was choreographing in Russia and asked: “Why they don’t write dancers’ bios in the program?” And they were like: “Well, there is three lines: I joined the academy when I was 8 and here I am.” With that said, it is totally beautiful, Russian Ballet but it’s just not what I am interested in. I am interested in the context of choreography, not choreography for itself. I am interested in juxtaposition.

I love working with dancers. I love the skill. I like them to be in the piece. But I don’t like it to be just them. There is a lot of vulnerability in my piece. You can feel it. I like the vulnerability, and polished dancers, they hide that. You don’t see the vulnerability - you see expertise.

I am rehearsing everybody very hard, it’s not like there is anything sloppy at all. It’s very specific, very clear. I am trying for something; it’s not that it’s an amateurish thing. I like to see people who are brought to a very high level of awareness from where we start to where we see them. And we see them using that awareness.

When I choreograph for somebody I do want to fall in love with them because it is such an intimate thing for me. And there is an enormous respect for bodies that I have. I just think that the body can heal and I am always learning from it. That kind of fuels me. I do choreograph out of love. That is it.

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“Grand Rounds” lighting design is by Joe Levasseur, sound design by Steven Brush, dramaturgy by Janice Paran, and the set and costume design by Joanne Howard. The cast includes Cynthia Gilbertson, Glen Heroy, Nitzan Mager, Emily Pope, Cadence Rotarius, Peter Selwyn, Aurelia Suchilt, Berenice Suchilt, Morgan Sullivan, and Jake Szczypek.

“Grand Rounds” runs through May 14th at Ellen Stewart Theatre | 66 E 4th Street; 2nd Floor. Performances are Wednesday to Saturday at 7PM; Sunday at 4PM.

$25 Adult Tickets; $20 Students/Seniors; Limited $10 Tickets.

70 Minutes

For tickets and more information visit: lamama.org/grand_rounds

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