On the Rise

February 23, 2009

As the Virgin of Guadalupe in Paul Taylor’s De Sueños, Laura Halzack glows against the darkened stage like a golden idol come to life. In a gleaming beaded bodysuit and a headdress that frames her delicate face, she must walk barefoot on relevé across the length of the floor, then stand on one leg for several minutes, while serenely moving through a series of leg extensions. In a dance of impressive spectacles, this passage is among the most indelible.

Halzack, 27, has been cast in many of Taylor’s new works since she joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 2006. Three years is a good stretch, but with PTDC, it means you’re still one of the new kids. There are no ranks, but seniority matters. And yet Taylor has put Halzack in a number of prominent roles, drawn by her willowy grace and solid, grounded movement. She is a key figure in Taylor’s critically acclaimed Beloved Renegade, based on Walt Whitman poems, which premiered last fall in St. Louis. It will have its New York debut during Taylor’s annual City Center season this month. Halzack will also perform the role of the mysterious “woman in pants” in the timeless Esplanade, and the Statue of Liberty in the restaging of 1988’s Danbury Mix.

While all of Taylor’s dancers are technically accomplished, Halzack’s ballet training sets her apart. The Suffield, Connecticut, native entered as a full-time student at the School of the Hartford Ballet’s Pre-Professional Program when she was a high school sophomore, after studying ballet, tap, and jazz at a local studio. At classes after school, she spent six days a week studying pointe, technique, partnering, and variations. As graduation neared, Halzack considered a ballet career and was accepted into the conservatory program at SUNY/Purchase. Within a year, she changed her focus and transferred to the University of New Hampshire, where she earned a BA in history. Unsure of her direction, she moved to New York. There she began taking classes at the Taylor school, as well as ballet at various studios. Soon she felt she had found a path. “Once I started studying at Taylor,” she says, “it felt very comfortable, almost unquestionable.”

With Halzack’s lyricism and classical technique, why was Taylor’s muscular style of modern dance such a powerful lure? “It’s the freedom to be imperfect, to be human,” Halzack says. “Ballet is so beautiful, but it has this super-humanness sometimes. When I started studying at Taylor, I felt like I could be myself. To do something like Esplanade, where I just have to stand there and draw people in with my eyes, feels endlessly freeing.”

In Taylor’s newest piece, Halzack doubles as both muse and dark angel, a paradoxically nurturing figure of death. Critics noted Beloved Renegade’s elegiac quality—no surprise when you learn that Taylor drew on Whitman’s life and work, including his heartbreaking farewell to Lincoln after his assassination, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In it is the line “For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.” Halzack recalls Taylor flagging that passage. “Paul said, ‘I want it to be like a breeze; I want you to be cool and sweet, a delicate force of nature,’” she says.

The work also features Michael Trusnovec, one of the company’s stars, who first partnered Halzack in De Sueños Que Se Repiten. “Laura has the rare ability to project both vulnerability and strength when she’s moving,” says Trusnovec. “She can tear into a role like Byzantium with a sensual, animal-like attack, and then soften completely and imbue her dancing with regal poise in De Sueños.” Paired with her in Beloved Renegade, Trusnovec felt they connected quickly in their roles. “I love her willingness to try anything,” he says, “and our perfectionist natures meld very well.”

At City Center, the company will also remount Scudorama, a 1963 work by Taylor (see “New York Notebook,” p. 22). “My part in it is darker, more conflicted,” says Halzack. “There’s angst, and a desperation, and that’s fun. And I get to be a dead body thrown around on the stage, which is pretty cool.” Portraying death in several dances and being tossed like a sack of potatoes probably don’t top most dancers’ preferred job descriptions, but Halzack feels a passionate connection to the work. “This is the ultimate dream!” she says.

Taylor has seen many outstanding dancers come and go, and his casting of Halzack in so much new work as well as his classic pieces speaks volumes about his regard for her. He sums it up quite simply: “I love watching Laura dance. Her range and versatility present many options and inspire new possibilities.” We can only wait with anticipation to see the results of those collaborations.



Susan Yung is a New York dance writer and critic.


Photo: Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy PTDC