Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli Talks About Merce Cunningham

Editor's Note - This is part of Picture this Post's series - CHOREOGRAPHERS' EYES - DANCERS EXPLAIN DANCE. Find more here.

Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli
Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli Photo courtesy of Ashley Fargnoli

Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli

Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli balances her career as a choreographer and performer with her work as a healer, using dance as the main weapon in her therapeutic arsenal. For several years Ashley worked in distressed corners of the globe-- using dance as a way to transcend war wounds, or to empower the most disenfranchised populations in India. Today she is a practicing dance therapist in Chicago.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned to Picture this Post’s pages for an in-depth profile of Ashley Fargnoli’s dance—as a performer and healer—coming soon.

Ashley took time off from her busy schedule to join the Choreographers’ Tour of the MCA’s exhibit- “Merce Cunningham: Common Time” --- and shares her comments with Picture this Post (PTP) here--


PTP: How much did you know about Merce before touring the MCA’s exhibit?

Ashley Fargnoli:  "I was fairly familiar with Merce before coming to the exhibit and was fortunate to have been able to catch Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) perform on the legacy tour in Chicago back in 2011.

 "I actually have two friends from Barnard College (Emma Dejardins and Jamie Scott) who were selected to join the company a few years before Merce passed away. That’s when I began following the company more closely.

 "To this day I still feel honored to have witnessed the growth of these two dancers and live vicariously through them, in a sense. Before coming to the exhibit, I wasn’t as familiar about the role of video in his process and how much documentation is available. It was delightful to see the Charles Atlas’ installation that especially helped me view the work from a new perspective."

Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli
Ashley Fargnoli leading dance classes in India, 2008 Photo courtesy of Ashley Fargnoli

PTP: At any point in your artistic development, did Cunningham’s precedent work affect you?

Ashley Fargnoli: "The first live work I saw by Merce was “Beach Birds” about 10 years ago, which I feel profoundly influenced the way I viewed dance. At this time, I was coming primarily from a ballet background and I felt that this performance was both accessible to my “bunhead” view of dance but also expanded how I viewed spatial relationships, expression and facial affect.

"I used to enjoy watching the live stream of Merce’s company class, called “Mondays at Merce” to which I would often dance along when I was living in a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina where I didn’t have access to regular dance classes."

Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli
Sleeptalk Photo: S. Flynn

PTP: The subtitle of the exhibit “Common Time” refers to Cunningham’s unique collaborations with artists in other realms in which he unleashed them as equals, rather than direct their contribution to his works. What is your reaction to that?

Ashley Fargnoli: "Most of my longer works have been informed by a collaborative approach in which everyone has an equal voice, including dancers, musicians and filmmakers. This approach stemmed out of my experiences developing choreography in post-conflict countries (such as Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina) and with marginalized populations in India where I was an outsider and it was imperative not only to have contributions from everyone involved, but for the collaborators to have an equal voice beginning at the development of the project until its completion.

"My most recent project in Chicago, “Sleeptalk” followed this approach. Although I may have had an idea of how to shape the work in terms of structure, the dancers in particular played a major role in shaping the choreography and contributing to the thematic flow of the work. This worked similarly with the musician who composed the music in response to video clips of the choreography that I sent him (he was based in Portland, Oregon). I pretty much gave him free range and although we had some conversations back and forth in terms of style, I let the process unroll organically.

"As another featured choreographer mentioned, trust is key and I couldn’t have created this work without already having an established sense of trust with my collaborators. In this case, I was working with mostly family (the filmmaker was my husband and musician my brother-in-law). The dancers-collaborators were good friends with whom I have danced a lot over the past 5 years and who were used to working from authentic movement improvisations and developing this into more structured choreography."

Editor’s Note: Read the Picture this Post review of Sleeptalk here-- Links Hall SLEEPTALK Review – Bodies Talking About Sleep


PTP: What is your favorite part of the exhibit?

Ashley Fargnoli: “I definitely enjoyed seeing the costumes and scenery up close!

 “It was also wonderful to meet new choreographers that I haven’t met before. I had the chance to further our conservations by going out with three other choreographers after the tour. It was a great opportunity to talk about our previous exposure to Merce Cunningham’s work and to make plans to collaborate in the future through possible co-productions and workshops.”


Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli
Sleeptalk Photo: S. Flynn

Photos of Sleeptalk-- dancers in blue costumes- by Flynnworks, S. Flynn.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned to Picture this Post for an upcoming profile of Ashley Fargnoli’s amazing work using dance to help heal war wounds in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and with marginalized populations in India.

Editor's Note - This is part of Picture this Post's series - CHOREOGRAPHERS' EYES - DANCERS EXPLAIN DANCE. Find more here.

Learn more about dance by seeing dance through dancers eyes in the Picture This Post series, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”.  Watch this video preview of the story here— 

Find more Picture This Post dance reviews in the latest roundup — CHOREOGRAPHERS WE LOVE. Also, watch a short preview video here —

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2 thoughts on “Choreographer Ashley Fargnoli Talks About Merce Cunningham

  1. This is great : seeing and reading about how Merce and company and collaborators touched new dancers/ choreographers. My only 2 beefs with the exhibit : the dancers weren’t named except in a few instances. They were such terrific collaborators at the beginning and deserve to be acknowledged, and 2: I about broke my neck looking at the videos hung from the ceiling….
    But,what a wonderful retrospective and way to bring Merce’s genius to the public!

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