Dancers Trending

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."

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The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Cover Story
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"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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