The Earth Moved: Falling In Love With Paul Taylor's Esplanade
I am 4, and it's a muggy July evening in the Berkshires. I am holding my mother's hand; my father and 12-year-old sister are just ahead of us in the sea of over-sized people streaming into the theater. It is 1982, and I am at Jacob's Pillow on my way in to see the first dance performance of my life—the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Blame it on that elusive thing, memory: In my imperfect one, we sit front and center on wooden chairs. My feet don't touch the floor. The ceilings are high, the wood beams rustic, and there is no air conditioning. Adults are fanning themselves while we wait. I am nervous and excited and feel tiny inside such a big space. The lights dim and I squeeze my mother's hand.
The dancers are so close they look immense, superhuman. I can hear the sounds of their bare feet taking off and landing, and the screeching of their skin against the marley. I can see sweat staining the armpits of their bright costumes. I can see them smiling—beaming, it seems, with real and relentless joy—as they throw themselves fearlessly into each others' arms or leap heartily over each other to the ground, and I am riveted. I want so badly to join them that my little bum is practically levitating off the bench.
Later, I find out this piece is called Esplanade.
At intermission, I refuse to leave my seat. I'd rather pee in my pants than risk missing a single instant of this new magic. The following week, my mother enrolls me in a dance class.
I am 29, and it's a cold March afternoon in New York. It's been 25 years since I've seen Paul Taylor live, and I am, needless to say, nervous and excited. In the quarter century since Esplanade inspired me to dive and fall and jump and run—to reach for that kind of bliss and feral abandon in movement—that story has become family legend, as good as gold, the uncontested story of my movement beginnings. I am worried that the real thing just won't—couldn't possibly—hold up.
In the last 10 years I have had, and lost, a dance career—not one of the Paul Taylor variety, with a steady income, busy touring schedule, and historical significance—but a career nonetheless. Mine was made up of overlapping rehearsals and odd jobs and unpaid performances on dirty, unsafe stages. It was of the fragmented downtown variety where I danced in silence, or with gigantic puppets, or to words. One that Paul Taylor might not recognize as a dance career, but one that allowed me to reach those mysterious places I saw in his dancers' eyes and bodies that night; a place where you really can be that free, that bold, that brave, and that human.
Once I am settled into my seat at City Center, feet touching the ground this time, I gaze around the audience, curious, hopeful. And there he is, sitting perfectly still in a suit and tie at the back of the theater. My heart flutters. I cannot believe that I am sitting mere yards from the man who changed my life. It takes all my powers of restraint to stop staring. I dig into my program and pretend to read.
Esplanade is, of course, on the program this afternoon. I have planned it this way. When I rented Dancemaker, the PBS documentary about Taylor, I had a potent, visceral reaction to Esplanade—it was like switching on a light in a dark, abandoned room and seeing that everything was just as I had left it. I knew immediately that was what I had seen—and, by extension, wanted to be.
Since then I have watched Dancemaker dozens of times and know the fragments of the piece as if I had danced it myself. Still, I am nervous. What if I think Esplanade (not to mention the rest of the dances) is stupid, boring, or obvious? What if my taste has changed so much that I can barely recognize what about Taylor's work made me want to dance so desperately? What if this family legend suddenly makes no sense?
Esplanade sneaks up on you—the simple walking patterns turn into skipping and running and sliding and jumping. The happy lifts and turns transform into sadder images of failed connections, of families that can't, or just don't, touch. But the mood lifts again, Bach's violin concerto speeds up and the movement becomes death-defying—the dancers soar backwards and seem to be plummeting to the ground—before being swept up by another body at the very last moment. The women jump into the men's arms from great distances, dismount, and start all over again. It is exhilarating and terrifying to watch, all of this humanness onstage, and I start, slowly, surprisingly, to cry.
It is not that the dancers are so terrifically skilled—which they are. It is humbling to witness such physical perfection at work. It is not that I am feeling nostalgic or regretful or angry or jealous, or even happy. It is something deeper, this feeling, something that slices right through to my guts. I feel that rare burst of light that only great art delivers: I feel lucky to be alive in such a wonderful, painful world.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.