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.
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
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The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!
But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.
Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
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At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.
Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.
"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.
Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.
With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.
Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie
via Bloch Inc.
Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints.
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
What happens when you mix two really good things together? Sometimes, it can be magical. It's practically guaranteed when one of those elements is the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and the other is—wait for it—dance-team–style hip hop.
When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.