Getting Personal: M. Cynthia Oliver

Getting Personal is an email Q&A with a local personality. Here, Melissa Merli chats with M. Cynthia Oliver of Urbana. She is a choreographer, performer, scholar and professor in the University of Illinois Department of DanceGetting Personal appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. In the Feb. 19 newspaper, we'll have a chat with Champaign schools Superintendent Judy Wiegand. 

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

6 a.m. I read, look out the window with my son, in quiet. Or just sit and have my coffee. It's my favorite time of day.

What did you have for lunch today? Where? With whom?

Massaman curry at home with my husband and son. Jason (Finkelman, her husband) is a great cook.

Best high school memory.

Sitting under the senior tree — a tree that stood at the end of the parking lot with seating built in — with my best buddies, Brian and Hugh, shooting the breeze — Caribbean speak for talking nonsense.

Tell me about your favorite pair of shoes.

A pair of thigh-high black faux-suede platform boots. I use them as a costume because they are so ridiculous. I bought them over a decade ago in the West Village in NYC at a shop for drag queens. I love them.

What does a perfect Sunday afternoon include?

Hanging out at home with my husband and son. A walk in the park. A good meal. A nap.

Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?

Naw, I was into comics early on, all kinds — Archie and the Gang as well as Vampira (or was she Vampirella?), etc. Then as I moved into teenage years, I got heavily into James Baldwin. I still have those books. And the requisite Erica Jong — every girl needs a little something naughty.

Where on earth are you dying to go? Why?

Nowhere really. I did so much going when I was a young dance artist on tour that I'm sorta done. I do love going home to the Virgin Islands. That is a must to stay connected and to keep my young son connected to the culture. But if I had to choose a place, it might be Turkey. I am fascinated by its location, straddling East and West. I love the music, the food and might want to check it out before I die.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

His name was Ebby. He was a stray dog in the neighborhood who had gotten hurt. I nursed him back to health and fed him in secret under our house. When we were discovered, my parents let me adopt him, and the family has been dog lovers ever since.

Have you discovered that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?

I think I have qualities from both pretty equally. My mother's energy, enthusiasm and sense of daring; my father's chill vibe, easy-to-get-along-with-ness (I could be dreaming here — maybe you should ask my partner about this?) and his ability to dance (he is the true master); and mom's charisma, appetite for learning and her determination to get things done.

What would you order for your last meal?

Mashed potatoes and spinach. Both sauteed in lots of garlic and butter. And a glass of good red wine.

What can you not live without?

My hair products. A black girl's absolute necessity.

Who do you have on your iPod?

Lots of reggae. It reminds me of home, keeps me warm in the godforsaken winter. Stuff like Midnite and Groundation and classics like Bob, Bunny, Peter, Gregory, et al.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

Giving birth to my son (Eli) and that whole first year of wonder.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite?

Lynn Nottage, playwright; M. Nourbese Philip, Caribbean writer; and bell hooks, feminist/cultural theorist.

What's the best advice you've ever been given?

'Access your anger, then channel it' — from an older actor on a project I was doing in Minneapolis years ago. I didn't think I had anger then. But he told me I would discover it one day, and then I'd know what to do with it. He was right.

What's your best piece of advice?

'Engage brain before opening mouth.'

What was your first job, and how much did you make an hour?

Jobs you mean — I'm a Caribbean girl, after all; we are known for having many. I baby-sat a lot. Got paid something for that. I can't remember what, but I think it was good for the time. I saved it for long stretches and spent it on coveted teenage girl things. I also taught ballet to toddlers when I was 13. I don't think I was paid at all for that. It was an honor to apprentice under my mentor, a renowned Dutch performer. Then I worked for the Virgin Islands Council for the Arts. I was a Girl Friday. I don't remember how much I was paid there either, but I'm sure it wasn't much. I did learn a lot about the field I wanted to enter though.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

There were two critical moments for me in my career. The first was the decision to make dances/performance pieces. Prior to that, I only wanted to be the instrument of other artists, to dance in their works. But I noticed dancers were considered so expendable at the time and that to really be engaged in the discourse of the field, to have serious longevity, one had to be making. So, with the encouragement of a presenter from one of the experimental venues in NYC, I started making work and have enjoyed (and been tormented by) it ever since. The second was to get my Ph.D. I had an interest in further study. I followed my interest and earned a doctorate in performance studies from NYU. I really loved that engagement and another world of ideas it opened up to me. I believe my creative work is stronger because of it. The opportunities both decisions have created for me have been amazing. I am lucky to do what I love and make a living.

Do you have a bad habit? What is it?

Jack-rabbit-itis. It is hard for me to be still. I will make lists of all that needs to be done and feel a compulsion to whittle it down. My persistent goal is to embrace stillness and quietude. That is so hard for me. That's why my mornings are so precious. It seems to be the only time I can make that happen.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

I try to be levelheaded, to breathe, to think things through and respond sensibly and with reason and compassion.

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