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Paul Taylor’s Dancers Reflect on the Simple Lessons They Learned From Their Beloved Teacher

Taylor with PTAMD dancers Annmaria Mazzini and Michael Trusnovec. Photo by Richard Calmes

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."

"Everyone is trying to project something about themselves during the walk," says Annmaria Mazzini, who retired from the company in 2011. "You're alone and everyone is looking at you while you're trying to breathe and look relaxed, but you feel so vulnerable and on display."

This diagonal stride across the floor has became the company's audition trademark, a chance for dancers to be seen as individuals in pursuit of their dreams, beautiful flaws and all. Many perform with Martha Graham precision—a clear shift of weight. Others add arms or change focus.

Based on the walk, Taylor knew whom he would hire, according to Michael Trusnovec, who has spent 20 years with the main company and two with Taylor 2. A youthful strawberry blond, he is the most seasoned Taylor dancer among current performers. (Taylor nicknamed him "Hank from Yaphank.")

Bugge and Trusnovec in ""Esplanade," 2014. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of PTAMD

"Paul had an uncanny knack for finding dancers who would get along," says Trusnovec, who notes Taylor was always watching people, not just for their athleticism, but in the way they treated each other in the sidelines.

Harmony fostered long careers and relationships—sometimes marriages—among dancers who gazed into each other's eyes and transformed into otherworldly beings. In a studio without mirrors, they developed a sixth sense of each other.

"Paul taught me to trust," Novak says. "Commit, despite the unknown."

Faith in Taylor's vision freed dancers to tumble into feverish stories. In Oh, You Kid!, performers depicted the gaiety of the 1900s, as well as the era's acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan. As Taylor responded to an offended viewer: "Art is dangerous!"

"He liked making fun of outrage," says Mazzini. Taylor taught her not to take herself so seriously. "He was a button pusher."

One of Mazzini's first major roles was the little girl in Big Bertha, a seminal piece that starts joyfully and descends into incestuous rape and spousal abuse.

"I loved how macabre and disturbing it was," Mazzini says, chuckling. "It felt like high art. The first time I performed it, I invited everyone. My grandparents came. My dance teacher from Allentown filled up a bus of little kids to go from Pennsylvania to New York for a Sunday matinee. As I lay on the stage in my bloody nightgown and felt the cold rush of air from the curtain coming up, it suddenly dawned on me that maybe this wasn't the right show for friends and family to see."

As much as Taylor experimented with darkness, he found light in the glorious Esplanade and comedy in Funny Papers. If gestures were punctuation, Taylor would be a strict grammarian.

"Because he was not a man of words, I learned to listen with my eyes," Trusnovec says. "He was specific to the end. It wasn't just the gesture, but the space around the gesture—the timing and shape—and how it affected the viewer's eye and heart. I think he was so particular because he had needed sign language to communicate to his [late] partner."

As a storyteller, Taylor considered himself an observer, a sort of journalist who "reported" pedestrian movement without moralizing. While modern dance can be intimidating, Taylor communicated ideas through his stunning yet approachable dancers. Interpretation was left to the individual.

"The work ages well," Trusnovec says. "It grows with you and your life experience. That's why people stay in the company so long. Either they haven't figured out how to go deeper or they have figured it out after so much time that they just want to revel in it."

"Onstage we could transcend the fourth wall and even the theater," says Mazzini, who could feel the spirits of former dancers and audience members. "It was almost supernatural how his dances could come alive, but then they were over."

Despite high stakes, Taylor didn't dwell on success or defeat. "I don't think he was afraid to fail," Bugge says.

Mazzini went further, conveying Taylor's intrigue for insects and their short life cycles. "He wasn't afraid of anything, including death," she says.

When Trusnovec visited Taylor in June for the last time, he said, "Hey, Paul. It's Hank from Yaphank." And Taylor brightened up in recognition of a loyal friend. Taylor once said in an interview that he chose dancers he liked.

This year lends itself to the celebration of Taylor's massive repertoire of 147 dances, according to Novak, whom Taylor recently advised not to be predictable. It will also be a year of firsts.

On Labor Day weekend, the company conducted its first audition without its dancemaker. Tryouts began with that famous walk.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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