How This Paul Taylor Dancer Knew It Was Time To Retire
For 17 years, James Samson has been the model Paul Taylor dancer. There is something fundamentally decent about his stage persona. He's a tall dancer—six feet—but never imposes himself. He's muscular, but gentle. And when he moves, it is his humanity that shines through, even more than his technique.
But all dancing careers come to an end, and James Samson's is no exception; now 43, he'll be retiring in August, after a final performance at the Teatro Romano in Verona, where he'll be dancing in Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera and Promethean Fire.
We caught up with him to talk about the arc of his career, working with Paul Taylor and why he feels ready to retire.
So, why now?
Actually, not many people know this, but I almost gave notice a year and a half ago. But I realized it wasn't for the right reasons. I wasn't in the best place mentally, so I gave myself more time to get over my own issues. This season included so many wonderful dances that I love doing: Esplanade, Musical Offering, Runes. I feel so artistically satisfied. I've done almost everything I can do in Paul's company. And I have to say, to be honest, even though we have all these new choreographers coming in, I don't have an interest in doing other people's work. I love Paul's work so much. Nothing really compares.
Might you try choreography?
I'm not a choreographer; it's not anything I strive to do. I'm so stuck in the Paul Taylor way of moving that I don't have my own artistic style.
How do you feel physically? Paul Taylor's dances can be quite punishing.
I feel so good. I think it's another reason I decided to retire. I want to end on a good note—happy and healthy—not because I'm in pain with an injury.
I always notice the way the Taylor dancers look at and touch each other onstage. It seems special.
Yeah, he's really adamant about that. He says, if you're going to touch someone onstage, I want you to really touch them. People are afraid, and will do this kind of fake touch. And he says no, I want you to touch them, like a person would.
Esplanade (with Samson second from right). Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC
What will you do now?
I'll enjoy creating my own schedule. I've been taking classes in interior design online at Penn Foster College, working toward my associate degree, and I only have one semester left. My business partner is Jamie-Rae Walker [also of Paul Taylor Dance Company]. We've already done a lot of projects together. We have a groove going. Our company is called J-Shui, because we dabble in Feng Shui.
How did you discover this interest?
I always loved design. Even as a kid, I would change my room around maybe once a month. I'd move my bed, my night stands. And my mom had a knack for design. She had good taste.
You're from a small town in Missouri, and I understand your family loved to participate in social dancing.
Yes, it was a lot of country dancing, two-step, waltz, some line dancing, jitterbug. I did a little bit of square dancing. My mom's family loves to dance. She's one of five and they all grew up with their parents social dancing.
When did you start taking dance lessons?
I started studying tap when I was 8. Mom took classes with me at this little studio that's no longer there, The Academy of Dance in Jefferson City. I was the only boy.
Samson in Orbs. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC
Was it hard being a boy taking dance classes?
Not at all. I got a lot of attention. I don't remember ever getting made fun of. I did jazz, too, at the same school. But I was really young. I didn't really dance much after fifth grade. In high school, I was always in the musicals.
When did you pick up dance again?
College. I'm not sure I remember why. I wanted to study pre-med at first. I was planning to be an OB-GYN. But I also knew I wanted to study dance. I went to South West Missouri State University, now Missouri State. They had a small theater and dance program. I spoke to the counselor and told him I wanted to do pre-med and dance, and he said I kind of had to do one or the other. So I majored in dance.
How did you encounter the Paul Taylor rep?
The teachers would tell me I looked like a Paul Taylor dancer. We watched a lot of videos of Paul Taylor in class and I loved the way they moved. When I left college, I got a scholarship in the Alvin Ailey summer intensive and took some open classes at Paul Taylor. I was pretty hooked.
But you didn't audition for the company until a while later.
I went to Charleston Ballet because I met a girl there who said they were looking for men. I was an apprentice one year, and a member of the corps the second year.
Were you tempted to continue in ballet?
No, I knew it wasn't for me. I was sort of going through the motions. But it's funny—in hindsight, I would love to be a ballet dancer. I think it's so fascinating. All the tricks. I love turning. But the double tour is my nemesis. [laughs]
Samson (center) in Musical Offering. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC
How did you end up at Paul Taylor?
After I left Charleston, I knew I wanted to dance for Paul Taylor. I was dancing for smaller companies, and taking 10 a.m. class at the studio for about a year and a half. Lo and behold my now husband, Andy, who I didn't know, was out for the City Center season with a major back injury. So Paul had this informal audition for men. And he hired me. I was 27.
What is it like working with him in the studio on a new piece?
He'll tell you what he wants from you as far as content, or shape, but you just have to keep asking questions. Like, what does that mean? Can you explain? It's intimidating to do that, but it helps to get a clear idea in your head.
Is there a certain freedom in that approach?
If he creates a solo on you, you can let it grow and mature into something that looks good on you. He lets you be creative. Especially now, he's very collaborative with us.
Musical Offering. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC
Do you have a sense of how he sees you?
If it were a color, I would definitely say blue. Blue is versatile. Dependable, I guess. I feel like he can always depend on me. I want to make him proud and I'll do what I can to get it right. I think he sees me—maybe it's not so flattering—as a bit aloof, maybe? I don't always pay attention. I get distracted.
I understand you suffer from diabetes, type 1. How has it affected your dancing?
I found out when I was 27, very soon after I got into the company. I didn't know anything about it, but I didn't let it freak me out. I'm happy to say it hasn't affected my dancing at all. I keep on top of it. I always check my glucose before going onstage.
Are there any roles that got away?
One role that I'm so glad I got was the male duet in Piazzolla Caldera. Francisco Graciano left last year and they put me in that duet. I wish I could have done it longer. I got to perform Paul's role in Orbs and Paul was so gracious to me. He told me one day, "You were so good in it and I want to bring it back." But between then and the next year, I had irritated him somehow, I'm not quite sure why. I think it was around when I raised my concern about wanting to dance new roles in Piazzolla and Eventide. Maybe I put my foot in my mouth. So when Orbs came around again, he took me out, and I was devastated.
What roles have defined your time at the company?
Definitely Three Dubious Memories. Just having that one-on-one process with Paul. That was the closest I ever worked with him. It was a great collaboration. And we made each other happy. Of course I have to mention Esplanade. I've done it so much, and I love it every time I do it. By now I can do this dance in my sleep. I can't believe I can say that. I can just enjoy every minute of it.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.