Paul Taylor cultivated many brilliant dancers during his 60-plus-year career, but seldom have any commanded such a place of authority and artistry as Michael Trusnovec. He models what it takes to become a great Taylor dancer: weight of movement, thorough grasp of style, deep concentration, steadfast partnering, complete dedication to the choreography and a nuanced response to the music.
Trusnovec can simultaneously make choreography sexy and enlightened, and he can do it within one phrase of movement. Refusing to be pigeonholed, he has excelled in roles as diverse as the tormented and tormenting preacher in Speaking in Tongues; the lyrical central figure—one of Taylor's own sacred roles—in Aureole; the dogged detective in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal); and the corporate devil in Banquet of Vultures.
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.
The news of Paul Taylor's death two weeks ago at the age of 88 has sparked innumerable tributes to the choreographer. We were inspired to delve into Dance Magazine's extensive photo archives to see what images of the late modern dance titan were hiding there. We present a baker's dozen of our favorites from over the years.
A person's walk is like a fingerprint, according to four Paul Taylor dancers who are stepping on without their beloved choreographer. Taylor died August 29, passing the legacy of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance to Michael Novak, the second artistic director in the company's history.
"Human movement never lies," says Novak, who sometimes slipped into present tense when describing his mentor. "For auditions, Paul makes dancers walk across the floor in rhythm. The first time I auditioned, I didn't get the job. I was terrified, but now that I'm on the other side of the audition process, 'the walk' is telling."
"When you're doing the walk, it's nerve-racking and hard to know the value," explains Eran Bugge, who recently celebrated her 13th anniversary with the company. "Now I know that it's totally revealing. You can see a person's control to be human and dancerly at the same time. Sometimes you can see weird coordinations, but Paul liked that."
A quiet power has marked Michael Novak's dancing since he joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 2010. Long a critics' favorite, he has gracefully shared the spotlight with higher-profile performers, contributing steady excellence to works from Gossamer Gallants to the iconic Esplanade. But no one was more surprised than Novak when Taylor tapped him to be artistic director designate. Novak, 35, will oversee every component of the Paul Taylor enterprise, from the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance initiative to the school. But most critically, he will direct the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which may be his toughest role yet—one he has already begun training for.
We spoke to Novak earlier this summer, before the announcement of Novak's new role turned out to be portentous: Taylor passed away this week.
Yesterday, modern dance giant Paul Taylor passed away. He had turned 88 at the end of July.
Considered the last of the 20th-century modern dance titans, Taylor celebrated the 60th anniversary of his company in 2014. A prolific dancemaker, he continued to make new works into his final year, the last of which premiered during the company's annual Lincoln Center season in March—his 147th. Aureole, Cloven Kingdom and Promethean Fire are among his iconic works, though perhaps none is so beloved as his 1975 masterpiece Esplanade. During his performing career, Taylor danced roles created for him by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine, as well as in his own work.
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.
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It's been a long time coming. Paul Taylor, who at 87 is still actively making dances, has named the person who will succeed him at the head of the various organizations that bear his name: Paul Taylor Dance Company member Michael Novak.
The announcement has come with no small amount of surprise, as longtime PTDC dancer Michael Trusnovec has long been considered the heir apparent. But, as was announced today, Taylor has appointed 35-year-old Novak as artistic director designate, effective July 1. As Taylor told The New York Times, "I thought he was just next in line. I've watched him for some time. He pays attention, and I know that he's listening."
Willkommen to the night of your dreams: First you're transfixed by a performance at Lincoln Center's opulent Koch Theater. Then you're sipping wine with the ridiculously famous Alan Cumming. Later, he whisks you away to his exclusive East Village club, where you party late into the night.
While these scenarios sound like the makings of a wild dream, they're very real. This Thursday, March 15, you and up to 19 others could join Cumming for the ultimate night out, framed around Paul Taylor American Modern Dance's spring season. (Yes, your host is actually the Tony, Olivier and Emmy award-winning performer, Alan Cumming, who starred in a little show called Cabaret. Perhaps you've heard of it?)
One of New York City Ballet's most adventurous ballerinas will be a special guest of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance for its annual season at the Koch Theater. Sara Mearns is performing solos created by early modern dance icon Isadora Duncan as staged by Lori Belilove. Also on the menu: Paul Taylor Dance Company members in 13 classic Taylor works and world premieres from Doug Varone, Bryan Arias and Mr. Taylor himself (his 147th!), plus the resurgent Trisha Brown Dance Company in her iconic Set and Reset. March 7–25. ptamd.org.
I was 22, fresh out of school. Wet behind the ears, I was using a light boom backstage as a warm-up barre before my debut performance with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. I noticed Paul Taylor walking toward me, wagging his index finger like a disciplining father, and I shrank with fear.
"Don't touch the booms. Someone has worked very hard to focus those lights," he admonished. And just before he turned to go, he paused and added, "And listen to your seniors." But he wasn't done. As he strode away, he turned back and said, "Oh, and always say thank you to the crew."
What struck me about Paul's notes—and what has stayed with me ever since—is what was at the heart of those three directives: respect, gratitude and the importance of family. They are values that are embedded in his dances and in his company.
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."
If you're like us, your Instagram feed is probably oversaturated with gorgeous dance shots of your favorite performers. (Not complaining!) But search for "#CamerasandDancers," and you'll find dance photography that stands out from the crowd.
#CamerasandDancers in Washington Square Park, PC Dave Krugman (@davekrugman)
It's well known that Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most famous American artists of the 20th century, made costumes and sets for Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown. What you may not know is that he also choreographed and danced in many performances of his own devising. You can see evidence of them among the vast amount of paintings, sculptures and collages at the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.
In her many years of shooting top dancers and choreographers, photographer Rose Eichenbaum has not only captured their movement, but collected their stories and the guidance they have to offer other artists.
Now, Eichenbaum is releasing a coffee table book, Inside the Dancer's Art, filled with these artists' words of wisdom alongside their portraits. Here are a few of our favorites.
Dancer Amy Young in rehearsal with Paul Taylor. Courtesy Resident Artist Films.
Growing up near Louisville, Kentucky, there wasn't too much professional dance in my region. So whenever a company visited, it was a treat. I still remember Paul Taylor Dance Company's stop at the Brown Theatre during its 50th-anniversary tour. I was in high school, and it was the first modern dance concert I'd attended. Needless to say, I was absolutely captivated. The musicality, the theatricality, and the humanity of it all struck me. More than anything, watching Taylor's meticulously crafted choreography left me wondering just how he did it.
That's the question director Kate Geis and executive producer Robert Aberlin sought to answer with their new documentary Paul Taylor: Creative Domain. The film gives viewers an inside look into Taylor's creative process as he makes his 133rd dance, Three Dubious Memories. But even though it reveals intimate rehearsal footage, I found that it raised more questions, making me more curious. Who exactly is Paul Taylor? Where do his ideas come from? What's the motivation behind a certain movement? Creative Domain makes it clear that oftentimes, his dancers may never know, and that sometimes, Taylor himself delights in that very same ambiguity.
My favorite moments of the documentary were instances when Taylor revealed small secrets of his work. For instance, when flipping through the notebook he kept while creating Three Dubious Memories—he keeps one for each dance he makes—he points out a formation he took from Antony Tudor, saying, "Amateurs borrow. Professionals steal."
Now in his 80s, Taylor remains active in rehearsals, demonstrating movement, even partnering dancers to show just how he'd like something done. And he seems to prefer it that way, explaining that less talking in rehearsal is better. To finish the piece on time, he's lays out a strict schedule of no more than 90 minutes of rehearsal at a time for a maximum of four days a week for four weeks.
Interestingly enough, during an age in which "collaboration," in reference to the choreographic process, is a buzzword all its own, Taylor says that he doesn't think of himself as a collaborator. Instead, he does his part making the dance, and the dancers take it from there. Each person is a puzzle piece and all of them are necessary. At one point, rehearsal director Bettie de Jong likens the dancers to colors of paint, each having his or her own hue, but that sometimes they show a bit of another one's shade.
Paul Taylor in rehearsal with his PTDC. Photo by Whitney Browne.
The last time a modern dance visionary announced plans for the future of his company, it was Merce Cunningham. The strategy: to let his troupe go out with a bang—and then disband—when he died.
Paul Taylor is taking a different approach. In March, he and his board announced a major restructuring of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which has solely danced his work for 60 years. Beginning in 2015, the newly named Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance will have a three-pronged mission: to dance new and old Taylor repertoire; to restage classics by pioneers like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey; and to present new work by current choreographers.
“I think Paul Taylor is looking to become more engaged in the entire art form of American modern dance,” says executive director John Tomlinson. “Rather than just putting his head down and creating the best work he can, he wants to take on some of the responsibility of curating and preserving the art form across all of its many differences.”
Tomlinson could not confirm which new choreographers would be working with the company, though he did mention that it has found a potential creative ally in New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins. At a press conference at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, home to PTDC’s New York seasons since 2012, the 83-year-old Taylor stated, “I like movement and dance steps. I’m not wild about a lot of talking and high-tech effects. I like dancing. That’s my taste. And I want to push that.” A through-line of the initiative, Tomlinson added, will be the use of live music when possible, a “mark of excellence” that Taylor has insisted on.
While broader in scope and perhaps better funded (with a projected $10 million funding it as of March), Taylor’s new structure resembles what has emerged at Martha Graham Dance Company, which has reimagined itself since Graham’s death. MGDC repertoire includes Graham masterpieces, seminal mid-century works by choreographers like Jane Dudley and Mary Wigman, and commissions. “We have these masterpieces, which we see as our core collection,” said executive director LaRue Allen, “just as the Picasso Museum in Paris has its core of Picasso works.” In February, the company announced that it received $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to digitize archival materials, from videos to programs to stage maps. When complete, online “toolkits” will be available for educational and research purposes.
Tomlinson said that while he values preservation, Taylor’s priority is to ensure the continued life—onstage—of great modern dance: “Whether it be a new or old work or his work, he wants them seen.”
Choreographer Paul Taylor may never have imagined any life other than dance. But he didn’t foresee his company celebrating its 60th anniversary. “I didn’t think about it,” he tells writer Joseph Carman in “Taylor Made.” “I live from day to day. I didn’t care about the future. You hope for the best.” Yet it’s clear that Taylor can’t help but see dance everywhere around him: in the insects he played with as a kid, in the gestures of someone’s conversation, in the windows of a New York apartment building. On the cusp of his company’s diamond anniversary, both Taylor and his star performer Michael Trusnovec sat down with Dance Magazine to candidly discuss the company and its future. Taylor may be 84 this year, but, as Carman notes, “he hasn’t lost his prickliness, drive or sardonic sense of humor.”
His success shows just how far a passion for movement can take you. Check out our annual auditions guide to search for the jobs and training opportunities that inspire you. And you’ll find tips on audition outfits, etiquette advice and a few surprising strategies that can make the difference between booking a Broadway gig and getting a polite “Thank you for coming.” Our education editor Jenny Dalzell also goes behind the scenes at a tryout for up-and-coming contemporary ballet troupe Whim W’Him, with an insider’s perspective straight from artistic director Olivier Wevers.
Whether or not you nail the next callback, it helps to remember what you’re doing it all for. As American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane writes in this month’s Why I Dance, “What dancers experience goes beyond what words can express. To put it feebly, it is the ability to set your soul free in a moment that can’t be captured or replicated. It’s being real and vulnerable enough to share who you are as a human being. It’s believing that imperfection can still create something beautiful.”
Editor in Chief
Michael Trusnovec, in costume for Banquet of Vultures, in the company’s Lower East Side studios. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Paul Taylor, the last of the 20th-century titans of modern dance, turns 84 this year and is celebrating the 60th anniversary of his company. Though physically fragile, he hasn’t lost his prickliness, drive or sardonic sense of humor. For the diamond anniversary season at Lincoln Center, Taylor will present two new works, American Dreamer and Marathon Cadenzas. The Paul Taylor Dance Company has also revived three older works, Fibers (1961), Private Domain (1969) and Dust (1977). Michael Trusnovec, now the most senior member of the company, has proved to be a singular force for PTDC, the central figure in works like Banquet of Vultures and Beloved Renegade. Trusnovec has taken on additional duties now: teaching the company and at Taylor intensives, doing interviews, scheduling rehearsals (“I love puzzles,” he says) and acting as “scribe” and rehearsal assistant to Taylor’s longtime associate, Bettie de Jong. At the company studios in New York’s Lower East Side, writer Joseph Carman spoke with Trusnovec about his responsibilities and his mentor’s creative process. Paul Taylor joined the conversation midway and spoke about his works, his inspiration, insects and legacies.
Dance Magazine: Michael, do you feel you are both a muse and an interpreter for Paul’s work?
Michael Trusnovec: I hope I have been and will continue to be someone who inspires Paul to be creative in the studio—that he sees you and wants to make a dance for you, that the way you move makes him think of something he wouldn’t have thought of before. Or that he came in with an idea and then when he saw you dancing, he changed it.
DM: What are the challenges of taking on some of the heavyweight roles like Aureole and Beloved Renegade?
MT: I think roles like those are a really interesting exploration in the art of stillness, where less is more. A lot of times I want to be the dancer that comes in and plows through it physically. I have to step back and find how quiet those dances are, especially in Beloved Renegade. Half the time I’m just sitting and being the observer, rather than the dancer. How do you physicalize an observer? How do you create a character out of someone who’s waiting and not doing?
In Aureole there’s a huge amount of weight to that role, knowing that Paul Taylor will forever be associated with that dance. For me it was wrapping my head around “I am not Paul Taylor,” and when I walk in the space, I’m not going to be him and I’m not going to look like him and dance like him. I’m going to dance like me.
Trusnovec, here with Annmaria Mazzini, in Promethean Fire. By Paul B. Goode, Courtesy PTDC.
DM: How detailed is Paul when he coaches you?
MT: Take a dance like Banquet of Vultures which he made in 2005 and is the ultimate gift he gave me. He was so specific. Day one, walking into the studio, he shaped every little nuance. He knew exactly what he wanted from that character. Not that he didn’t allow me to interpret and shape and embellish it.
DM: Do you choreograph or have aspirations to choreograph?
MT: I did as a student in school. But it’s not something I’ve really felt drawn to.
DM: Do you ever see yourself directing a company?
MT: I’d love to do that. It could be amazing. I think that shaping the everyday operations of a company, almost curating a company, creating a program—all of those things interest me. And being in the studio with dancers.
DM: Do you think you might at one point direct this company?
MT: That’s not for me to say. I know that I’d like to be involved in this company for as long as they’ll let me be.
DM: What do you think Paul has taught you that nobody else could?
MT: The way he structures a dance is unlike other people. I think he walks into a room with a structure and an idea, but he allows for accidents and magic to happen. The way he approaches natural everyday gestures in his choreography is so special. When he made To Make Crops Grow a couple of years ago, I sat in on the process because I wasn’t in the dance and I’d take notes every day. It kept coming back to me—this mastery of gesture and how he can say so much with so little and all the little tools he uses, like leaving space around the gestures so people can see them.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
[Paul Taylor joins the conversation at this point.]
DM: This is your company’s 60th anniversary. Did you ever envision a 60-year run?
Paul Taylor: No. I didn’t think about it. I live from day to day. I didn’t care about the future. You hope for the best.
DM: How will this season represent a retrospective of your career?
PT: Fibers is the oldest. Rouben Ter-Arutunian designed the costumes.
DM: They’re very evocative. Almost erotic.
PT: Yes, they are. When CBS wanted to do a duet from the piece, they demanded that we get their designers to design new costumes. I agreed, but only because it was a paying job.
DM: Private Domain is a dance not often seen.
PT: Well, nobody will ever see the whole thing. There is a draw curtain right in the front with three holes, openings that the audience sees. But in between the dancers are moving backward and forward. The idea was this very New York thing where you live in a building and look out the window and see what people are doing in other buildings opposite. But you don’t see exactly everything because they pass from room to room. It’s all kind of a puzzle. It places the audience in a voyeuristic position.
DM: I’d like to ask about the New York and world premieres this season.
PT: American Dreamer has been performed on tour. I grew up as a Virginian, and so I was familiar with some of the Stephen Foster songs. Santo Loquasto recommended that I use them. Strangely, most of them are very sad, which is a little hard to deal with. Or at least melancholy. Very few happy ones. One of the happiest and funniest is “My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman,” one that someone else wrote the words to for a Broadway skit. She’s married to this guy who likes to have a good time and she keeps catching him. In the dance she’s beating him up. But most of the songs are sentimental.
The other dance is called Marathon Cadenzas. The music is by Raymond Scott. It’s very fast and upbeat, for 12 dancers.
DM: A lot has been said about the polarity of light and dark in your works. What themes in your life have contributed to that?
PT: I don’t do themes from my life. I don’t do autobiographical dances. I try very hard not to. They’re all information I’ve learned or seen or read about, not about my own experiences.
DM: Beloved Renegade does carry a wonderful weight and poetry to it that is quite striking. Have losses in your life contributed to it?
PT: No—I wasn’t thinking of myself. I read as much as I could on Walt Whitman. The title comes from a friend of mine who used to edit and talk about Walt Whitman. “Beloved Renegade” was his phrase.
DM: Why have nature and insects continued to be such an inspiration for your dances?
PT: As a little boy, bugs were my playmates. There weren’t any children around where I lived. So I amused myself with the bugs. The honeybees go into hollyhock blossoms. I’d wait and close the petals and listen to them buzz angrily inside and then run. That was one of my games. Where I am in the country now, I watch squirrels, deer, groundhogs, all kinds of birds to see what they’re doing, their relationships to each other, to see how they move, find their quirks.
DM: Has your way of crafting work changed over 60 years?
PT: I think only in that I work quicker now. I was developing the tools, of course. Some of the spatial patterns of Promethean Fire you could maybe spot in something I’ve done before. There are only so many patterns you can do with a dozen people. There was one pattern I was very proud of. It’s two circles that interlock and as the interlocking happens, the dancers are changing and criss-crossing in front of each other.
MT: I remember the day in the studio when you asked us to do that and wrap our heads around it. A lot of the times we were crashing into one another. We were running with our heads back. You didn’t let us look. [Laughs]
DM: How do you think the company has evolved over 60 years?
PT: Well, there are more dancers and more bills.
DM: Do you look for the same type of dancers?
PT: No, I need team players. They all have to do double duty in everything, as a soloist and also as a group member. Today’s dancers are a lot more technically capable. They do things my generation couldn’t do—they spin forever; they’re amazing.
At right: Paul Taylor in Fibers, which will be revived this season. Photo by Jack Mitchell, Courtesy PTDC.
DM: Do you think over the 60-year period, you could have had this company without the help of Bettie de Jong?
PT: Oh, sure. I could. But she’s been wonderful for us, a very strong presence, wonderful with the dancers. She and I still fight occasionally—that’s part of it. It wouldn’t be Bettie if we didn’t. In fact, if I’d say something, she’d say the opposite. She’s stopped doing that and I thought she must be sick.
DM: Let me ask you about delicious moments through this 60-year career.
PT: Yes. My favorite award—where is it? There it is—see that cup in the glass box? [Points to a china cup with “The Big B” painted on it.] The stagehands at City Center gave me that when we were opening Company B. It’s what they gave our men who passed over the Rhine on their way to Berlin to end the war.
DM: Are there other moments?
PT: I kind of liked Esplanade when I first saw it. But I pretty soon wished I didn’t have to look at it so much.
MT: I’ll remember that when I’m making the schedules. I’ll try to keep it to the end of the day, so you don’t have to watch.
DM: Paul, how do you want this company to look in 25 years?
PT: Oh, well, I like it like it is. I don’t know how it could be better. There’ll be different people, of course, but I’ll find them.
DM: Have you verbalized any of that?
PT: No...well, actually there is a plan drawn up for when I can’t make dances—what will be done then. But the company is to go on.
DM: Is there a trust that disseminates your works?
PT: I don’t know if it’s called a trust, but, yeah, I rent them out. And I donate a certain percentage of the income to come back to the company.
DM: Do you have any opinions about how other choreographers have handled their legacies, like Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham?
PT: Well, Martha, of course, didn’t want the company to exist. She may have said something else, but I knew she didn’t. She didn’t care. She thought of herself as a performer rather than as a choreographer, and when she couldn’t do that, the hell with it. Merce didn’t want to bother with it. They’ll run out of people who are able to teach his works before too long. I’m afraid there won’t be much left.
DM: What does Michael represent to you in the company?
PT: As a tool to work with, he can do anything. As a teacher, helping the other dancers learn their parts. What else do you do? Oh, he works with the archives. He’s very good at editing these films that we have made to preserve the past.
DM: Have all your works been archived on video?
PT: Most of them.
DM: Paul, is there anything you’d like to add?
PT: I do feel extremely lucky. I always have. Not any moment, but mostly I’ve been extremely lucky in the way things have happened and the people I’ve worked with. When I started, all the artists—writers, poets, composers, painters—all knew each other. I was younger than most of them, but they would invite me to their gatherings in their lofts or at bars. Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg lived together and they hired me part-time to do Tiffany’s windows, and I would listen to them talk to each other about their work and other painters’ works. There were tighter, closer communications than is possible now. It was a very lucky time when I came to New York. But I thought I had just missed the boat.
DM: No one told you that the golden age of the dance boom was going to happen?
PT: No. They didn’t.
Joseph Carman is a longtime contributor to Dance Magazine.
Back when “modern dance” meant Martha Graham, we knew what modern was. It reacted against the airborne nature of ballet and went for a more earthy, on-American-soil approach. Then Merce Cunningham came along. He was drastically different; he put his faith in movement for its own sake rather than as a vehicle to tell stories or portray psychological states of mind. The dance world had to find a new name, so we called it “contemporary dance.” But now, with all the dance on television, the term “contemporary” has slid around to mean several different styles. Mulling over the still-shifting use of these words, we at Dance Magazine decided to canvass key figures in the field to get their takes on the difference between modern and contemporary. Turn to “Modern vs. Contemporary: Which Is More Now?” to see 10 different opinions.
It’s Nutcracker season, and we report on four new Nutcrackers in “Dance Matters.” We also have a “Centerwork” on coaching the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis students who perform in American Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker. In this intriguing production, Alexei Ratmansky has integrated the children into the story more than usual. His snow scene begins with Clara and her Nutcracker innocently playing in the snow and escalates to a frightening storm—through wildly musical choreography. Read Elaine Stuart’s “When Kids Run the Show” to see how the children animate the story. And to all Nutcracker dancers everywhere, have a good holiday season!
Photo of Parisa Khobdeh, above, and photo of Wendy Perron, at top, by Matthew Karas.