Why Paul Taylor Treasures Dancer Laura Halzack
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
It's easy to see why Taylor treasures Halzack and why he has created 16 works on her since she joined Paul Taylor Dance Company in 2006. Her commanding lyricism in Taylor's Airs or Martha Graham's Diversion of Angels contrasts with her daredevil attack in works like Scudorama or Mercuric Tidings. That chameleonesque versatility allows her to easily convey wise sophistication or the giddy energy of a child on the playground. You ask her to do it, she can do it. With grace.
Laura Halzack in costume for Cloven Kingdom. Photo by Jayme Thornton
"Laura is an extraordinary dancer," says Taylor. "She is a leader within the company and she is a dynamic performer."
With her elegant torso and back, her majestic neck always stays elongated and the shoulders released, whether standing still or charging through a phrase of consecutive jumps. And her intuitive musicality permeates everything she dances. New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay calls her "the company's most utterly beautiful woman" and says "her statuesque, suave, quiet inscrutability becomes captivating."
Nevertheless, Halzack's path to PTDC wasn't a straight shot. She began dance lessons at age 4, studying jazz, lyrical, tap and ballet at a competition studio in Southwick, Massachusetts. "I was such a little type-A kid and would always be in my basement rehearsing my solos," she says with a giggle. "I took it very seriously."
Recognizing her talent, her teachers advised her to intensify her ballet training at the School of the Hartford Ballet. As a pre-professional student, she studied Cecchetti ballet technique with Raymond Lukens and Franco de Vita (who later directed American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School), and the Vaganova syllabus with Alla Osipenko, a former ballerina with the Mariinsky Ballet. She continued her studies as a dance major at SUNY Purchase, where she first encountered Taylor's work.
And then she quit dancing.
"I had studied dance so intensively that, without even knowing, I was slowly burning myself out," she says. Halzack transferred from SUNY Purchase to the University of New Hampshire, eventually graduating with a degree in history in 2003. She didn't dance for two and a half years. "Every dancer's path is different, but for me, I don't think I'd be where I am today if I hadn't given myself a chance to dream and be a kid a little bit. It gave me the faith to miss dance and to learn other things."
After graduation, she did miss dance—a lot. She began studying at former Graham dancer Peggy Lyman's program at the University of Hartford's Hartt School. Her stronger grasp on modern dance training led her to perform with choreographer Amy Marshall, who had danced with Taylor 2 and David Parsons.
Then Halzack saw PTDC perform at Fall for Dance at New York City Center in 2004. She spent the next two years training at The Taylor School during the day, while working at restaurants and a night shift at the UBS bank headquarters.
"I fell in love with the range and depth of Taylor's work, the athleticism, the subtle nuances, the humanness," says Halzack. "It was my dream company." Taylor welcomed her to the troupe after her second audition in 2006.
An admitted adrenaline junkie, Halzack craves the oscillating range of the repertory: the effervescent pieces she calls "joy in motion that require technique, strength and stamina," such as Brandenburgs, Airs and Aureole; the dramatic works like Speaking in Tongues, which she describes as "theatrical, haunting, disturbing to be inside of and disturbing to watch"; and fluffy, humorous dances like Offenbach Overtures.
Halzack loves Taylor's range of repertory. Photo by Jayme Thornton
A true Gemini at heart, Halzack, now 36, juxtaposes her pensive, introverted side against her wild, free spirit. Intuitively, Halzack has always drawn from her bold imagination. The little girl who built a village out of popsicle sticks for her troll dolls isn't so different from the adult, hardwired to be a dancer and an artist.
Surprisingly, Halzack, who craves the rush of pushing herself, claims she had to learn how to move more slowly. Frequent partner Michael Trusnovec says he thinks the fullness of her dancing tricks people into tagging her as an adagio dancer, but he points out that her commanding speed and attack reveal the multifaceted dynamism of her artistry.
"Laura brings a rare combination of elegance and fire to Mr. Taylor's works," says Trusnovec. "She dances from a deep level of passion, and her personal expectation of excellence inspires the dancers around her, including myself, to be worthy of sharing a stage with her."
Halzack's loves relaxing by hiking or watching Game of Thrones. Photo by Jayme Thornton
Taylor has recognized similarities in Halzack's physicality and style to the legendary dancer, now company rehearsal director, Bettie de Jong. He chose her early on for one of de Jong's signature roles, the woman in pants in Esplanade, a casting decision that Halzack still mentions as a highlight of her career. "It made me really feel like I was part of the Taylor family," she says.
It was also the first time de Jong coached her in a role. "She's a woman with a tremendous imagination who loves to get back inside the part, stand up and demonstrate," says Halzack. "Just the way she talks about holding a room with your eyes, the way you stand and the subtlety of gesture is incredibly powerful."
Halzack says her rapport with Taylor has been natural: "He always has a way of making me feel at ease in the studio working with him." And, she adds, "he's really funny."
She recalls one rehearsal where Taylor stretched out on the floor to demonstrate a partnering move for Trusnovec. "He lowered me all the way down and had this hilarious, devilish little look in his eye, and says, 'Well, now what are we going to do?' We both started cracking up and then he pushed me right back up. It was this very easy, fun way of being. That's how he's always been with me."
PTDC possesses the rare blessing of working constantly, often on the road, so Halzack and her husband, Eric Naison-Phillips, an insurance executive, coordinate their schedules, and occasionally he joins her on tour. They both enjoy hiking and the outdoors, but Halzack also binges on "Game of Thrones" and photographs anything that sparks her imagination. "I love capturing the places that I go to and the people I'm with," she says. "The process of photo editing gives my head a break."
During the company's spring season at Lincoln Center, Halzack will appear in at least 12 dances, including new pieces by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. "I do hope to continue dancing for a while," she says. In the future, she would love to be involved with The Taylor School and wouldn't miss an opportunity to direct or curate dance.
"I don't think I could ever be away from dance," she says. "There's not exactly a map, but there are things I know I want to do. But I have a few more good years in there."
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.