Ballerina, Interrupted

June 30, 2009

In a bright, spacious studio, Janie Taylor, delicate in pink, works on some challenging lifts from Peter Martins’ jazzy Hallelujah Junction. Her partner (on and off the stage), Sébastien Marcovici, tosses her over his shoulder. As she wraps around him like a fine cashmere shawl, he lets her down easily. She whirls away from him, shooting out piqué arabesque turns like arrows. At times, Taylor marks steps to ration her energy, but the clarity and nuance are all there. Watching her is like listening to an aria sung in pianissimo. As rehearsal ends, Taylor, beaming, does a dainty curtsy to ballet master Russell Kaiser—obviously she is happy to be dancing again.

But over the last several years there have been only occasional, captivating glimpses of Taylor—and then, due to a medical mystery, she disappears, only to return more enchanting than ever. Kaiser, who oversees Martins’ ballets, says, “I’m thrilled every time I get to go in a studio with Janie. She was really, really missed when she was gone. The essence of Janie is her desire to dance. She is like that cliché—born to dance.”

Sitting on a bench between rehearsals, Taylor absent-mindedly kneads her left calf muscle with a tennis ball—a reminder of her four-year odyssey back from the abyss. “It’s been hard for me to slow myself down. You have to figure out how to do things right the first time,” says Taylor, “because onstage you only have one chance.”   

A few nights later, onstage in Hallelujah Junction, Taylor is all streamlined and free in her upper body as she instinctively keys into John Adams’ zesty rhythms. With her flair for the dramatic, virtuoso technique, and incandescent stage presence, Taylor enchants audiences and critics alike. She’ll try anything and go for everything—and that kind of adventurous spirit inspires choreographers.

Born in Houston 28 years ago, little Janie first took ballet at age 2. “Ridicu­lous,” she comments, looking back. “It really didn’t mean anything.” But by age 4 she was hooked. She studied with Gilbert Rome at his studio in Houston until she was 12. Her family moved to New Orleans, where she trained at the Giacobbe Academy of Dance. In the fall of 1995 Taylor became a full-time student at the School of American Ballet, the training center of NYCB. In 1997 and ’98, she danced lead roles in SAB workshop performances, and in the summer of 1998, after apprenticing for one month, she joined City Ballet’s corps. She was promoted to soloist in 2001, and four years later, Taylor reached the top rung.

Jared Angle, who partnered Taylor in  her SAB Workshop performance, continues to be Taylor’s frequent partner and close friend. “I knew the teachers loved her,” Angle says. “But I didn’t realize how special she was until I danced with her. She is super ‘bendy’ and has a kind of instant liftoff power jump.”

Nothing jump-starts a young dancer’s career like becoming a choreographer’s muse—even better if the choreographer happens to be Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of NYCB. Inspired by Taylor’s dancing-without-a-net kind of daring, he choreographed eight leading roles for his new muse in her first six years with NYCB. Some are space-age ballets such as Eros Piano and The Infernal Machine, in which she coils and twines and twists in the most unexpected ways. “Janie is wonderfully malleable, and dances with such complete abandon,” Martins says. “She is a unique creature.”

In Martins’ romantic tour-de-force, Morgen, Taylor’s fearless leap and backwards lunge across her partner’s shoulder invariably produce a collective gasp from the audience.  

Taylor’s career zoomed along. With a large and demanding repertory she often danced every night, and often in multiple ballets. “I loved it!” she says of those first six years. This heady pace came to an abrupt halt when, in 2003, Taylor sustained a sprained foot while performing the Sugar Plum Fairy, which sidelined her for months. She had to drop out of two lead roles being created on her shortly before the premieres—Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, due to the foot injury, and Martins’ Eros Piano, due to an ankle injury. (She later danced both roles with great success.)

Feeling tired and slow to recover from her injuries, Taylor saw a doctor right before NYCB’s spring season in 2004. After some tests, she was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), an autoimmune disease that destroys platelets in the spleen. With a dangerously low platelet count, the blood doesn’t clot—symptoms similar to hemophilia.

Her doctors put her on a steroid regime—four days on steroids every two months. She went back to her regular schedule—almost. “First thing, every three mornings,” Taylor recalls, “I would run to get my blood test, then run to class, then rehearse all day, and then I would anxiously wait for my phone call to see if my blood was OK.” As long as her count was normal she could carry on her full schedule. But gradually the steroids took their toll on her body, weakening her muscles and ligaments. “I was taking the kind of steroids that did not make you strong but that make you weak.” One day at the barre she did a grand battement and her leg popped out of its hip socket. “That was scary,” she says. “I made a mental note: No grand battements on steroids. ”  

The debilitating condition worsened and ultimately, in August 2005, Taylor opted to have her spleen removed. She takes a deep breath, then a long pause… and says, “Which seems to have worked.”  

But the massive doses of steroids necessary before the operation, and the long weaning off period after, ravaged her body. “The steroids were the worst part of the whole thing,” she says. “My muscles completely deteriorated and I started back from below zero.”

Nevertheless, a few months after surgery, Taylor went on tour to Denmark. “I was thrilled to be dancing, even though everything in my body had changed. My stomach was still swollen; I worried about fitting into my Thou Swell costume; my legs were this skinny” (she makes a small circle with her fingers). “And my cheeks swelled up. I looked like a chipmunk.”

The steroids had also damaged her self-healing powers. Two subsequent injuries—a torn calf muscle at the end of 2005, followed by a thigh pull, took nearly two years to heal.

Taylor wears a curious necklace with two black beads. She explains it replicates the two teardrops tattooed on Marco­vici’s cheek, who says it represents his first sadness in life. Taylor, her large hazel eyes tearing up, reveals how hopeless she felt when she feared she might never dance again. “I would let myself have a day to be upset,” she says. “I’d say, ‘This day I can just cry all day. But tomorrow I have to go back. I will not let this thing defeat me.’ ”

Between layoffs she took class, got herself back in shape and onstage. Taylor credits the support from family, friends, and most of all, Marcovici, who sustained her and gave her courage. And Martins, whom Taylor says has been extremely patient. “I was a little worried that his patience would run thin. It never did. I’m so grateful for that.”

As so often happens, life’s bruises burnish the artist. Taylor’s rare perfor­mances during 2006 and ’07 revealed new and wondrous facets of her artistry. As the tragic heroine in Balanchine’s macabre La Valse, Taylor spins magic with her glamour and spellbinding intensity. And as the narcissistic young dancer in Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, her allure is hypnotic.

Since the winter of 2008, Taylor has steadily rebuilt her repertory with ballets that don’t overtax her body. In March 2008 she traveled with the company to London and danced Serenade—one of her favorites.

Last year’s Robbins celebration was a breakthrough season for Taylor. Jean-Pierre Frohlich, ballet master of the Robbins’ repertory, cast her in the arcane Dybbuk, a risky role for which Taylor, as the bride whose dead lover’s soul convulses her body, received high critical praise. As The Novice in The Cage, Taylor kinks her body into extreme angles, embodying this vicious killing bug with a touch of pathos. “It’s my all-time favorite ballet,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would ever be in it.”

A harbinger of Taylor’s return was when choreographer Benjamin Mille­pied (and fellow NYCB principal) asked her to be in his new ballet, Quasi Una Fantasia, which premiered in May. Her first reaction was panic: “Oh my God, am I going to be able to do that?”

Taylor finally feels like her interrupted career is back on track. “My goal is to get back all the way, and do anything a choreographer would ask me to do. It’s been hard to be around and do so little,” she says. “Sometimes I still felt like I was on the outside. So now it’s great to be around all the time and be a part of the company.”

A former ballet dancer, Astrida Woods writes for many publications, including
Playbill and Pointe.


Photo: Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB