I recently had a chance to sit down with Whitney Rippelmeyer-Tucker, fresh off her final performance with David Dorfman Dance. After eight years with the company, she’s ready to strike out on her own–but she’s not slowing down. In fact, she seems as busy as ever, dancing, teaching pilates at the eco-friendly studio she co-founded, Studio 26, and volunteering as a doula.
She found time in her schedule to sit down and talk about her career with DDD and her life offstage. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Claire: How did you start working with David Dorfman?
Whitney: There was a grant that was unique: high school students and dance education college students at ASU [Arizona State University] were partnered together to make a piece with David. The grant specified that he work with dance education students, otherwise I would never have met him, because I wasn’t performance track. [Tucker majored in dance education and minored in Spanish.] When I met David, I’d never seen people address social themes in that way, that wasn’t like a PSA, that wasn’t prescriptive. It was inquiry, it wasn’t advice, and that was really cool. Since my time working with him, that’s what we’ve been working on, inquiry about either large social themes or complicated historical characters.
C: In your time with the company, you did a series of dances about these historical characters, including the Weather Underground, John Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Benjamin Smoke. What is that process like when you’re starting with the life of a real person? How did the company choose these specific people?
W: I don’t know what drives David to choose a topic–it seems random. Literally, he’ll have epiphanies, and he somehow hits it right before the zeitgeist pays attention to it. I think his process involves a really almost childlike interest in something that he’s curious about, and that feels complicated for him. This last project was a return to David’s more personal themes, and we really pushed him to be in the dance. At first he was not in the piece at all, but we really wanted David involved and dancing, which brought up a lot about his aging and what’s happening with his body. There are very few men his age that are still performing with their company, and he was willing to do that. He’s always been willing to martyr himself as a performer. I think in a way that is what performance is.
C: This last show, Come and Back Again, was about the musician Benjamin Smoke. How much did you learn about his life?
W: Very little. David came [to us] with his music. We got sent music files, not really knowing that we were going to make a piece about this man’s music, his story, his life, but it felt like the more we started to listen to that music–it’s not even that Benjamin Smoke became real, but his whole persona became real. We then watched a documentary about him, but again–it’s an edited version of this man’s life. He’s a major performer, so even lay conversations were performed. That felt strange: are we talking about real life, or performance? It brings up a lot of questions.
C: You’re interested in creating. Do you have anything in particular that you want to do or are excited about?
W: I have so many goals! I actually love what I’m doing as far as a blend of working with athletes and dancers working with the body, but I’m actually in a conversation with a mentor of mine, Nita Little. And she’s writing her whole PhD thesis on presence: how we perform presence, and how we train presence. And that’s interesting to me because it assumes that presence is trainable, as opposed to the idea that there’s people who have it or don’t–that there’s people you pay attention to, or don’t, on stage. I’m really interested in presence–in this conversation, in teaching, in being a student, in performing. Because so much of my work is one-on-one [pilates], so much of it is dependent on my ability to be present. I want to keep looking at that as far as movement training, but I don’t really know what that’s going to look like. I’ve talked about doing a [pilates] certification program. I want to be able to do what I do and affect as many people as possible, but not lose the quality.
C: I was thinking, when you were talking whether presence is trainable, that part of what you’re doing, in your work with pilates, is teaching people to be physically present with themselves.
W: Yes. That is what I think I’m trying to do. What I’m really going after is joy.
C: You work as a dancer, performer, pilates instructor, and you also volunteer as a doula. How do all of these things come together for you?
W: They all have to do with life-affirming physicality. And being on the edge of past and present, right when things change. Performance feels that way–there’s a difference before and after. Hopefully in my [one-on-one pilates] sessions there’s a measurable change. There’s a lot of trust involved in all of the activities. It takes so much trust to go to someone with your body, and ask them to make a shift with you. It’s holding space. Which is how I’m trying to view teaching. Teaching groups of people how to dance terrifies me.
C: What is scary about it?
W: Modern dance is the only thing I feel uncomfortable teaching in a group. It’s so qualitative, and there’s no real defined technique–it’s idiosyncrasies. And I don’t always know how to talk about my inner world in a way that feels helpful for other people in what they’re working on, because I don’t really know. I’m so goal oriented, so it’s really overwhelming. I’m like, what does everyone in here need?
It’s such a skill, group teaching, unless it’s super archetypal, which I’m getting into. The training at Katonah [where Tucker is doing an advanced teacher training] is very much about that. It’s like, here’s what we’re going to have everybody do: everyone has a personal way to get there, but everyone is going to get to the same outward thing.