Magazine

Taylor Made

Paul Taylor and Michael Trusnovec talk about the company’s 60th anniversary season and the next chapter.

 

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.

The Conversation
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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Rant & Rave
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I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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