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.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
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