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.