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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.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Christopher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.
"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."
What's on the minds of college students today?
I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.
Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:
It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.
Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.
Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).
barre + bag's Summer Collection
Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.
"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.
Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?
But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.