Dancers & Companies

Janie Taylor's Second Chapter—In Sneakers

Nathan Sayers

Janie Taylor didn't know if she'd ever return to the stage. But that's exactly where the former New York City Ballet principal has found herself: Nearly three years after retiring, she is performing again, as a member of L.A. Dance Project.

Taylor officially debuted with the company at its December 2016 gala in Los Angeles, then performed in Boston, via live stream from Marfa, Texas, and at New York's Joyce Theater before heading off on tour dates in France, Singapore, Dubai and beyond.

"She is wildly interesting to watch—and not conventional," says LADP artistic director Benjamin Millepied. "There are films of Suzanne Farrell dancing, where you feel like the music is coming out of her body," he says. "I think Janie has that same kind of quality."


But dancing is no longer enough for Taylor. At LADP, she has carved out a unique, multifaceted artistic life that ranges from costume design to répétiteur work. "I really love doing and learning all these different things," she says, "and I also still love to dance."

Millepied created some of his first works on Taylor when he was a dancer at NYCB, and he always hoped she would dance for him again. "Even at my retirement party, Benjamin was like, 'Can you come and dance with us?' I was like, 'What are you talking about?' "

Nathan Sayers

Her new artistic life is another step on a journey that has always been unpredictable. In 2004, as she was reaching the peak of her NYCB career, she was sidelined by what turned out to be a rare autoimmune disorder that prevents blood from clotting. She was prescribed steroids and, in 2005, had surgery to remove her spleen.

She struggled with muscle strains as her body was healing slowly and injuring easily. But by 2008 she was dancing full-time again, reclaiming her leading presence in favorite ballets like La Valse, Stravinsky Violin Concerto and La Sonnambula.

And then, at 33, she retired. She and her husband, fellow NYCB principal Sébastien Marcovici, danced their farewell performance together in March 2014. "I loved everything I did, but it was starting to feel predictable," she says, reflecting on the roles she was cast in. "Before you're a principal, everything's new all the time, and it's exciting, and you feel pushed," she says. "That was something I wasn't feeling so much anymore."

At the time, Millepied could see that something was missing. "She didn't dance as much as she should have," he recalls. "Essentially, she grew a little bit uninspired."

Taylor was curious about what opportunities the wider world might offer. She was also adamant about not choosing a new profession right away. "I wanted to find out what I was inspired by," she says. "One thing was clear though: I have to spend most of my time in a theater. It's where I feel happiest."

Millepied invited Marcovici to become ballet master for him at LADP and then Paris Opéra Ballet, so in 2014 the couple began a 21-month adventure in Europe, during which Taylor was teaching and setting ballets but stopped taking regular classes. "I'm pretty particular about what class I want to take, I'm such a Balanchine person," she says of her limited options in Paris. "Plus they have those crazy rakes!"

Time off had unexpected benefits. "You let go of a lot of stresses," she says. "When you're dancing a lot, you're so afraid of getting an injury, or making it through this hard day."

Prior to her retirement Taylor had begun dabbling in costume design, and soon after stepping away from the stage she began receiving commissions from Millepied, Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon and Joshua Beamish. "Helping to create a world that exists only onstage in that one piece, through what the dancers wear, is a really fun way to collaborate," she says.

And while she was anchored in Paris, Taylor found herself all over the map when Millepied and Peck called on her to set their works on companies like Staatsballett Berlin, Dutch National Ballet and Miami City Ballet. "It was really cool to see how other companies worked, to see what the dancers were like," she says.

Teaching the ballets she loved, like Peck's Year of the Rabbit, also got her back into dancing in surprising new ways. "I was teaching a boy's solo in one of Justin's pieces, and I would do the whole thing, men's steps, for two hours," she recalls. "I was like, 'Whoa.' I was doing double tours, because there wasn't something I had to get to at the end of the day, or the next day. My mind just wasn't working in that way anymore, and it allowed me to not limit myself." She realized how much she missed the physicality and athleticism of dance.

Carla Körbes, a close friend since they were in the NYCB corps together, describes Taylor's transformation as mental and emotional, as well as physical. "When you are in a big company, you are stuck on this schedule, and also in pain," she says. "Now she gets to decide, 'I'm gonna feel who I am again. I'm gonna be creative.' And guess what? Her body feels better."

When Millepied was winding down at POB and preparing to return to the helm of LADP, Taylor and Marcovici began the process of relocating to Los Angeles—"I love the heat," says Taylor, a Houston native. While setting Millepied's ballets kept her busy, she also decided she was ready to join the company.

"I've always loved doing his movement," she says. So far, she has performed pieces by Millepied and Peck, and she may go back on pointe, as well. "I may also try one of the more contemporary pieces in our rep—I like that there are possibilities."

Taylor thrives on the varied challenges and constantly changing atmosphere of a small, ambitious company, and on Millepied's ever-expanding reach. "He can be really spontaneous," she says, "and that appeals to me, to suddenly have another thing to figure out and do."

Korbes and Taylor. Photo by Patrick Fraser, courtesy The Chinati Foundation

From one day to the next she might be setting dances, performing, or helping with rehearsals or costume fittings. Millepied says he may even have her work on the set of Carmen, a feature film he's directing next year, organizing extras in group movement. "I could totally trust her to help me do that," he says. "She has a really good eye."

He feels that Taylor is coming back into her own. "There is this electricity," he says, "a real passion. I feel like I'm seeing that again."

Körbes sees it too. "Janie is honoring that she's not totally done with it, that she has more to give," she says admiringly. "It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there again. That's the thing about Janie—it's not about what people are gonna say, it's about what she needs to do."

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

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