“Paul says we’re all different colors on his palette,” said Laura Halzack, a company member. “The color is each person’s spirit that they bring to the work.”
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance — the organization that houses the Taylor company, but also makes room for outside artists — is in residence at the David H. Koch Theater, where, along with the premiere of Taylor’s “Concertiana,” there will be new works by the contemporary choreographers Doug Varone and Bryan Arias.
This year’s guest artists are especially stellar: Sara Mearns, of New York City Ballet, will perform the work of Isadora Duncan, and the Trisha Brown Dance Company is presenting her 1983 masterwork “Set and Reset.” But the most remarkable part of the season is the Taylor repertory — rooted by grounded feet and movement that spirals from the back — and the extraordinary dancers.
Taylor turns 88 this year. What is it like to be in this company with a modern master in the twilight of his life? “Everybody’s here at the end of the day because we love Paul’s work,” Halzack said. “He asked us to be here. He gave us our careers. We feel a responsibility for that gift. We are part of the legacy as well.”
These five Taylor dancers light up the stage in different ways.
Hometown: Yaphank, New York
Trusnovec, or Hank as Taylor calls him — the name of his birthplace cracks the choreographer up — is the company’s superlative veteran. He has the range to go from a lyrical beauty like “Roses” to a darker work like the politically charged “Banquet of Vultures.” But even he is shocked that he’s remained for 20 years.
“It speaks to the depth of the work,” Trusnovec said. “You’re allowed to change. It hasn’t been like, this is your box and you’re going to stay in it.”
Trusnovec got his start in jazz and tap and was exposed to Taylor’s work while at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. As the company’s associate rehearsal director, he’s protective of Taylor’s choreography. He wants it to be honest: “You’re not faking, you’re not putting on a show — you’re letting the movement speak for itself.”
That caretaking is important now that Taylor is no longer as present as he used to be. “Even just the size of him has changed,” Trusnovec said. “He also isn’t able to show what he wants: He’ll give a note, and you’ll make an adjustment and you hear him say, ‘Well that will do.'”
But Taylor visits the studio regularly and watches a dance a day. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for him to sit there and watch these dances,” Trusnovec said. “Do you remember making ‘Musical Offering’? Do you remember making ‘Aureole’? Do you remember what they felt like to do? I hope part of him still holds that.”
Hometown: Suffield, Connecticut
Halzack remembers the combination that stumped her at her Taylor audition as if it were yesterday: “It was a triple turn into a little hitch kick.”
Having shown up for the audition early to prepare, she was rushed into the first group and wasn’t warmed up. “I did a half a pirouette and almost fell on my butt,” she said. “Paul was laughing at me and when it was all over said, ‘Laura I know you can do better than that.'”
Over the years she has become more than better: She is a main attraction of any Taylor season. This year’s highlights for her? “Mercuric Tidings,” “Promethean Fire” — “There’s something about the rush of that dance that feels so ceremonial and stoic,” she said — and “Runes,” in which her part “has a darker, more ferocious edge to it.”
As she sees it, Taylor’s dancers remain with the company for so long because his works are like seeds: He plants them and they make the dancers grow. “It’s like, ‘Welcome to my nest,'” she said. “The most successful dancers in this company are the ones that understand it’s OK to listen to yourself. That’s what he wants.”
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Clayton, new to the company, discovered modern dance late, as a senior in high school. What hit him? A performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “Just to see people of color that looked like me and barefoot and having this crazy range of technique — I was like, what is this?” he said. “Right there, I decided that I wanted to dance.”
He was brave. “You’re in Kentucky, and there are ideas of what men do,” he said, “but my father was like, ‘Well, OK, be Fred Astaire.'”
At Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, Clayton was introduced to the Taylor repertory by Francisco Graciano, a former Taylor dancer, and he was smitten by the work. “I didn’t have to hide the fact that I was strong,” he said. “I could be muscular. I could dance fluidly. And there was Cisco: He showed me there was a path for me.”
Clayton, who danced with Graham 2 for a year, auditioned for Taylor three times; during his final audition, it was down to three dancers. He locked eyes with Taylor. “My heart was on fire,” he said. “It felt like it was going to explode and I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t break eye contact. I was staring him down. I was like, is this the right thing to do? Should I blink? But this is a man who I idolize.”
He didn’t blink; he got the job. “It’s like finding home,” he said.
Hometown” Rolling Meadows, Illinois
When Novak first started studying at the Taylor school, he recalled that he didn’t exactly know what was going on, but he liked the style: “It’s technical, but it’s athletic,” he said. “I like the sense of movement and running; it felt dramatic and emotional.”
And the dancers in the class, like Halzack, were just as inspiring. “In every combination, she would dance with this presence and focus that I had never seen before. I was confused: We both just learned the combination. How is she imbuing it with all this feeling and intent?”
One day after class, Taylor approached him. “I was stretching on the floor in a straddle, and he said, ‘You’re a good jumper,’ and I said, ‘Oh my God, thank you!’ And he was like, ‘That’s it,’ and just walked away.”
Taylor has always been a man of few words. Nowadays, there are moments, Novak said, when he’s “really sharp and you know he’s in the room.” Other days, he said, he gets the idea that Taylor “is just sitting back and enjoying us. It’s a feeling of looking at your family. I think he wants to see the repertory.”
The dancers are trying to take advantage of the time they have with him. “When I first got into the company in 2010,” Novak said, “I was so concerned with being correct and pleasing him that I wasn’t relaxed enough.”
But he’s starting to find himself inside the work: “I’m at this precipice,” he said. “Now I am an artist, and what do I want to say?”
Hometown: Plano, Texas
Khobdeh first saw the company perform in 1997. She was in the last row of the theater and could hardly see the stage. The second time, in 2002, was “when I knew I had to dance for him,” she said. “It was ‘Cloven Kingdom,’ ‘The Word’ and the world premiere of ‘Promethean Fire.’ It was an electric night.”
A fiery, fearless dancer, Khobdeh doesn’t dwell on the future. After a full rupture of her Achilles tendon in 2013, she nearly quit dancing. When her cast was removed, her leg was placed in a boot that turned out to be bound so tightly she suffered nerve compression.
“One day, when I looked at the color of my leg,” she said, she knew it wasn’t right. “I was military crawling to my phone to call 911.” She told her doctor, “I don’t care if I dance again, I just want to walk.”
Khobdeh returned to dancing; still, last summer, she found herself at another low point, this time because of her personal life. She chose not to quit — mercifully, for us — and came to a realization about Taylor’s work. “At the heart of it,” she said, “is that we’re drawing on our own experiences and how our experiences are not that different.”
And there’s something bigger at stake: Taylor’s legacy. “What 87-year-old is still making work?” she said. “He’s less physically able, but he’s been doing the heavy lifting for all these years. We’re his body. We speak his language. It’s our turn.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
GIA KOURLAS © 2018 The New York Times