In Practice: Choreographer Justin Tornow

Lightsey Darst chats with Justin Tornow, Durham, NC-based choreographer and artistic director of COMPANY, about Merce Cunningham, the pleasure of surprise and angst of passing judgment.


Justin Tornow is a native of North Carolina, currently living in Durham. She earned an MFA in Choreography (2010,) as well as a BA in Choreography and a BA in Political Science (2001) from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Justin is the artistic director and choreographer for COMPANY, a dance company based in Durham, NC. COMPANY produces work regionally, as well as for national and international touring. COMPANY’s 2015 artistic partnerships include work with Durham visual artist Heather Gordon and MW Duo (Matthew McClure, sax, and Lee Weisert, electronics and composition.) Additionally, Justin produces the PROMPTS series at the Carrack Modern Art, and is a co-founder and co-organizer of DIDA (Durham Independent Dance Artists.) Justin is part-time studio dance faculty at University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an adjunct at Elon University.

Lightsey Darst

What is work?

Justin Tornow

Work is a word that immediately makes me defensive. I’ve had to set my own definitions about what “work” is—especially since it doesn’t always coincide with financial compensation and can actually be enjoyable. Then I think, “Why so defensive, “:JT?” I can answer that question back at myself, but the answer feels predictable and a bit tired. So, I’m trying to find another way to consider “work.” I re-read your question/prompt and think, “Wait, does Lightsey just mean ‘what do I consider as work?’ ” And if that’s the case, then my answer is teaching, choreographing, directing, collaborating, organizing, and administering. COMPANY, universities, DIDA, NCDA…

Then I re-read my answer here, and wonder, “do I talk to myself too much?”

Lightsey Darst

Artificial or natural?

Justin Tornow

Natural! Artificial makes me think of chemicals and banana-flavored Laffy Taffy and implants of many kinds—and then, I think that I sound like a yuppie.

Lightsey Darst

Wow—I think you definitely have to make a dance called “Implants of Many Kinds.” Or “Laffy Taffy and Implants of Many Kinds.”

More to the point, I stuck this question in here because of your love of Merce Cunningham: his ideas, his technique. I was thinking you would go for artificial—artificial as in artifice, as in formalism, as in dance technique. But now I’m realizing that Cunningham=artificial is my own equation; I guess it’s equally possible to take his work as a higher naturalism, in which dance is like life, i.e., it ebbs and flows and any meaning is in the eye of the beholder. And his technique, too—like a more systematic version of ballet, with the flourishes ground down—maybe that could also be natural. Natural as in animal, holistic, arising from the natural body. Or gender-neutral, timeless, like the movement of planets.

So, back at you: artificial or natural? Or supernatural?

Justin Tornow

Ooh, I definitely don’t equate artificial with formalism or dance technique. I see how you get there, but… I am having a hard time categorizing work or technique with any of those words. The case could be made that, because I’ve been such a technician for such a long time, formalism and technique do in fact feel natural to me…they’re the language I work with when I build dances.

The word supernatural always sends me over to ballet. I don’t deal in supernatural ideas usually (ever). Not that I deal only in the concrete, it’s just that “supernatural” always seems so mysterious, and I know that mystery and otherworldliness are just not in my wheelhouse. Unless I’m seeking answers from my horoscope.

In regards to Cunningham, he seemed to always follow his interests and his instincts, which is at least part of why he has remained an inspiring figure in my life for so long. That feels like quite a natural way to work, to go where you lead yourself. But it’s also one of the hardest things to do, because you have to believe that it’s worthwhile.

Lightsey Darst

Choose one: prairie, coast, mountain, hillside, sea.

Justin Tornow

Sea! Always the sea. I’m an earth sign and need the water around me so much. I don’t like still water much, though—lakes and ponds kind of freak me out.

Lightsey Darst

In your art, what are you sick of?

Justin Tornow

Hmm, two things bob to the surface.

First, I am sick of hearing my own criticisms about dance. They’re basically all the same comments, and really not that interesting (or all that productive). My interest in judging works is waning, and even though it gets sparked once in a while, I’m mostly just accepting. Sometimes that reads as jaded, other times it reads as generally more supportive—and it also means I’m probably a lot less touchy about my own work.

Second, I have tired of seeing work that feels more like something that is well-curated than created and developed. Honed, ripped out, a little raw. I think lots of folks working in the field have awesome taste—they’re able to fashion movement and choreographic elements … that feel familiar. Like I’ve seen it a few times before, and yes it definitely works here, and it is definitely cool, but ultimately feels kind of like an empty expression. A cliché. When a new phrase hits that point where it’s familiar and worn, still effective but pretty tired. This is not to say that I am deluded, that I think that in some way everything isn’t born from something before it… It’s more that many dances feel like very well-done cut and paste work, all fashioned from things gleaned from other dances, other media. It makes it “work,” and makes it accessible, but I guess I’m just looking for something else when I see new dance.

Lightsey Darst

Choose one: modesty, discretion, chastity, thrift, charity, fidelity.

Justin Tornow

I choose discretion. Particularly because it’s a journey for me—not that I’m always discreet, but the act of considering whether a situation calls for discretion is something I have been working on. On a more judgy note, I think it’s also something more folks could stand to consider regularly.

Lightsey Darst

I am terrible at this, terrible. I will tell myself, “I’m not going to mention X,” and then what do I hear myself say but that? Apparently, I once told someone, apropos the food he was eating, “That stinks to high heaven.”

But what I want to follow up on here, in this answer and the one above it, is the sense that personal taste is perhaps not so important. We don’t have to say what we think. Maybe we don’t even have to think what we think, in relation to criticism; if we hear ourselves begin a critical thought about someone else’s work, maybe we can step back from it, as in meditation. And in re the second part of your answer above, it sounds as if taste—“good taste,” pride in one’s taste—can get in the way of artistic creation, or perhaps even substitute for it.

I hear you on this. After a decade as a critic, I find that rendering judgment is about the least interesting thing I can do. In my poetry, too, I can’t trust taste to last; the line I liked last month is the first to go this month. But this leaves me baffled, because if I don’t have taste, what do I have? What else is there?

Justin Tornow

 YES. Agreed. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter if anyone knows my opinion/idea on anything… I’ve been trying to frame my responses to others’ work as “in what way can this be useful to the situation at hand?” If it can be useful, and someone asked me specifics, I’ll go forth. But like you mentioned, the opinion itself is likely ephemeral, so where’s the longer term usefulness? I’m often aware that whatever I say has potential to be remembered; do I want this or that particular thing I say to stick around, to bounce around in someone’s mind, especially when it comes to their work?

Re: taste changing, I had the exact same experience in rehearsal yesterday for The Lowest Form of Poetry (speaking of Cunningham). This was rehearsal # 2 into building the work, so we are at the very beginning of the creation process, as well as the ideational aspects of the dance. Because the work references John Cage and Merce Cunningham, I’ve been playing with the idea of building in moments of direct movement connection to Cunningham and my recently passed mentor, Jan Van Dyke—just little blips that, for me, create direct links to them, like the mimicking of floor patterns or groupings, or the use of a signature movement that pays homage to them.

Apparently, last week in our first rehearsal, I built a turning, locomoting phrase with triplets (very Merce) as connecting movements. I had forgotten the original purpose of the phrase, and as we reworked it in rehearsal yesterday, the dancers asked, “You still want the triplets in there, right?” I made this “OH NO” face and was like, “Gosh, no I don’t want to be that derivative.” They laughed and reminded me that it was exactly what I meant to do, one week ago. So. Tastes change, and you can never really trust yourself. Ha!

Editor’s Note: Lightsey Darst is conducting a series of interviews with artists, writers, and other interesting people. Look for repeating questions across the series. If there’s someone you’d like to see her interview, please let her know: lightsey(at)lightseydarst(dot)com.

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.

Lightsey  Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer and critic based in Durham. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for both literature and dance criticism, as well as a Minnesota Book Award. Her books of poetry are Find the Girl and DANCE (2010 and 2013, both from Coffee House Press). Her criticism is online at,, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut. …   read more