The students in Micaela Taylor's class at Hollywood Dance Center are making strange faces at each other. "Exaggerate it as much as you can," Taylor eggs them on, as her face contorts in her own series of riffs. Divided into pairs to work on a prompt to "tell each other a story influenced by your partner's face and behavior," the dancers layer in gestures and full-body moves.
The class soon flows through a guided improv of physical textures: smooth with hard stops; limbs reaching bigger and wider; grounded, bouncing pliés; and traveling slides that ramp up into a jog. The dancers are working for an articulate face, a reactive spine, limbs that can mix balletic shapes and hip-hop rhythms and hands that are never "dead"—the same signatures that have made Taylor into a sought-after choreographer.
Taylor has coined this new technique her "expand practice." "It comes from this idea that we are moving out from our core and using all the shapes we can make; this idea that it's not one idea that we are after, and it is not one style of dance," she says. "We are always expanding."
Since founding her own company, The TL Collective, in 2016, Taylor, 26, has quickly developed a choreographic voice that resonates across dance genres. In the last two years alone, she was named one of "25 to Watch" by this magazine, landed new commissions for Gibney Company, BODYTRAFFIC and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, made an evening-length work for The TL called Drift, was tapped by supermodel Tyra Banks to create for an immersive experience in the new attraction Modelland, and choreographed and danced a solo for a Local Natives music video.
Still, Taylor says, "I never think I am going to get things."
It's hard to believe that when Taylor graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in 2014 she didn't want to be a choreographer—all she wanted to do was perform. "I thought of choreography as something I might do later on down the road," she says.
Her diverse training—which included hip hop and African dance as well as classical ballet—made her an ideal mover for companies like Ate9 and BODYTRAFFIC. She laughs remembering notes she received to tone down the intensity of her facial expressions. With such distinctive artistry, she soon realized her physicality was better suited to being a conduit for her own work.
After dancing with Danielle Agami, who at Ate9 gave Taylor the space to create her own language, and observing the impact choreographers like Barak Marshall had on the diverse parts of the world where BODYTRAFFIC toured, Taylor was inspired to start her own thing in her hometown of Los Angeles.
While it is difficult to categorize Taylor's evolving and funky mix of styles—she once defined it as "contemporary/pop" but no longer finds that apt—it is hard to deny its groovy appeal. Her movement vocabulary feels fresh and alive, full of contrasts and idiosyncrasies. While her professional start was steeped in Ohad Naharin's Gaga movement, she cites Crystal Pite and Hofesh Shechter as reference points for her intense use of the face as much as the body.
"We have separated what is called 'concert' dance and 'commercial' dance for too long," says Nigel Lythgoe, who programmed The TL for this year's Los Angeles International Dance Festival. "Micaela realizes that and produces some great jazz hip-hop choreography with classical lines."
Although she doesn't consider herself a natural self-promoter, so far, she's been able to capitalize on each opportunity to grow a network of supporters in the right places. For instance, when Olga Garay-English, then the executive director of the Ford Theatres, first saw The TL perform at LA Dance Platform, she was blown away by Taylor's voice and mastery of her dance language, despite how little rehearsal time she was able to afford.
"In the beginning, our rehearsals only lasted for two hours at a time," says The TL company member Gianna Todisco. "It is amazing how she is able to make movement quickly and with such clarity. She is very direct with what she wants right away."
Garay-English decided to take a chance and give Taylor the time and space to create Drift, which premiered at the Ford Theatres before touring to Jacob's Pillow. Video of the work eventually landed in front of Carlos Acosta—and rehearsals for Taylor's first international commission, for Acosta Danza in Cuba, start in August.
TL stands for "To Love." As the daughter of pastors, Taylor's Christian faith has a clear influence on her approach. While she isn't particularly evangelical about religion within the dance community, a deep belief informs her actions. She appears to have taken the radical love from the teachings of Jesus—along with his golden rule of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"—to heart as the ethos for her company. Taylor wants the studio to be a place where her dancers, and she herself, feel nurtured and cared for.
"She genuinely cares about each one of us. I really appreciate how honest and candid we are able to be with each other," says Todisco.
Forging this safe creative bubble has been vital for Taylor. There has been inevitable maturing, largely in public, through Taylor's early 20s. "I was an open book when I arrived back in L.A. and shared everything and trusted everyone," says Taylor. "But it takes time to build those relationships and that trust."
Feeling overworked and unable to keep up have been necessary trade-offs up to this point. "People have been interested, and then I get that excitement and adrenaline without considering the cost—financial, physical, spiritual and emotional cost—of saying yes to each contract," she says. In December, Taylor's schedule became so chaotic that she missed a rehearsal, thinking it was a day off. "That feeling of being a disappointment, not living up to that moment or that job, it actually was a self-check."
Since signing on with Selby/Artists Management at the outset of 2020, Taylor is looking forward to having more help balancing the demands of directing a company and managing a hectic calendar. Yet through it all, growing The TL remains at the top of her to-do list.
Back in the studio at Hollywood Dance Center, Taylor is in her element. She is experimenting with material that may find its way into her latest work for The TL called '90Sugar. (It draws inspiration from both the decade in which she and her dancers were born and the obsession with life as a young adult.)
Demonstrating a quick floorwork section, she groans and picks herself up, asking, "That was so bad. I'm horrible at floorwork. Can someone else show that?" There is laughter and a hint of growing camaraderie as another dancer steps in and slays it. This intimacy feels unplanned but necessary as they continue on with a partnered section.
Taylor is as committed to allowing vulnerability as she is to doing the work. "I have wanted this so badly," she says later. "Some people may have thought there might not be another opportunity for another company in L.A., but in my mind, as long as I put my work out there, I believe there can be an audience for it."
All studio shots by Tania Palomeque, Courtesy Taylor.