The rising Taylor star performs at City Center.
Mon Feb 15 2010
Paul Taylor thinks of all of his dancers as stars—and indeed they are—but Laura Halzack has an extra special something. A member of the Taylor company since 2006, Halzack, a statuesque 28-year-old, has made a radiant mark in iconic roles created for Bettie de Jong, the former Taylor star and current rehearsal director. She is what’s known as a find. But while a student at Purchase College—she lasted a year before putting her dance career on hold to obtain a history degree from the University of New Hampshire—Halzack auditioned for a student production of Company B. “I totally got cut,” she says. “I did lighting that semester. I remember thinking, Oh I’ll never be able to do that Taylor stuff.” Funny how things change. After a day of rehearsals in anticipation of the company’s City Center season, she spoke about her career over tea in Soho.
You started dancing very early, right?
I was four. I started dancing at a local school. I’m from Suffield, Connecticut, but the school was actually in western Mass—it was called the Dance Slipper, which is so cute, right? I had a great teacher and I mostly started out in jazz, lyrical, tap and some acrobatics, which appear in the Virgin of Guadalupe solo [from Taylor’s De Suenos]. It kind of came full circle! I never thought I would have to do a front walkover again. But that’s where I started and during the summers, starting in seventh grade, I went to the school of the Hartford Ballet. I was still playing soccer and I didn’t really commit to being a full-time dance student until I was a sophomore in high school. I was 15 when I began training very intensively.
It was hard-core, right?
It was. The teachers were great. I had Franko DeVito, Alla Osipenko and Maria Youskevich. Alla Osipenko taught Vagonova and Franco was Cecchetti. I think that’s why Paul always teases me about my Cecchetti attitude. [Laughs] That’s what he must have studied back in the day because he makes a lot of Ceccheti references. It was intense: six days a week—modern one day a week; pointe twice a week; variations twice a week; and partnering. I did that all through high school and went to SUNY Purchase for a year. Then I quit dancing for three years and got my degree in history at the University of New Hampshire.
What happened at SUNY Purchase?
I don’t know if something happened at Purchase or if it happened before, but dance sort of started to feel like a job. I just wasn’t mature enough to handle it at the time; like I said, the training [at the Hartford Ballet School] was excellent and I improved so quickly but I think by the time I got to Purchase I was experiencing a bit of burnout and for someone who loved dance so much, I didn’t have that same love affair with it anymore. It felt like it was pushing me in a way that I didn’t want to go, so I decided that if I didn’t feel like I loved it anymore I should just take a step back for a little while and explore other facets of my intellect and my personality and just be a “normal” college kid. I’m so grateful I did it.
It gave me a new perspective and when I came back to dance, it was on my own terms. I felt like I was coming back to it as a young adult—it wasn’t from a childish perspective anymore where you see yourself through everyone else’s eyes. I saw myself for who I really was and then I was able to blossom from there. So it was an interesting journey, but a really good one and I’m glad that I did it. I certainly wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I’d probably be a teacher. Probably history.
I’ve always just loved it. It’s one of those funny things; it was either going to be English or history and because of all the credits I had acquired in performance at Purchase, after my second semester at the University of New Hampshire, I found myself a second-semester sophomore. I was bumped up ahead and I had to declare, so I just blurted, “History.”
That’s kind of how I became a dance writer.
[Laughs] Really? It’s funny how those things happen. I ended up loving it and I’m such a talker—a big part of being a history major is that a lot of the classes are discussion-based. I really liked that about it.
What was your focus?
Native American history. And that was nice too because I got to make my own major—I got to take classes in the Latin American department, the Spanish department, history and women’s literature. It was really a fun way—a creative way, let’s say—to go about it.
Were you taking dance classes?
I was cold turkey my first two years and then made friends with a girl in my history class who was in the dance department. We had a conversation and she found out that I had been a dancer. She said, “You know, you really should come by and watch our rehearsals,” so for a while I would just go and watch my friends rehearse with their jazz company and it kind of made me think, They look like they’re having so much fun. So I talked to the head of the dance department and they were kind enough to let me pop into classes every once in a while, not registered, just kind of under the radar. In my senior year I decided to audition for the show and I ended up doing it and it was just fun. After I graduated, I was teaching at the Dance Slipper. I went home and was trying to figure out what to do with my life and I went back to teaching and I think that’s where I really fell in love with dance again—it was through teaching. I started taking classes at the Hartt School as a part-time student and then this woman, Amy Marshall, who used to dance in Taylor 2, was teaching there. I loved her class; basically she invited me to her summer intensive and said, “You should try the Taylor intensive, too,” and I did it and she asked me to join her company. Right after that and I moved to New York. I like being able to look back on it, but it’s still kind of crazy. I can’t believe I’m in this company, you know? [Laughs] I’m still so excited about it.
Well, it’s a good fit. There’s always something odd about being in the right place at the right time.
It is. And it’s very weird. You think of that story and it really could have been anything. Having met Amy? It was great because she’s so influenced by Paul and then her telling me to go to Paul’s intensive. I fell in love with his style and from that moment on I dreamed of being in the company. I certainly didn’t think I would get in, but it was a nice goal at the time.
What was it about Taylor’s style that suited you? What felt good?
I loved how much it moved, but I also just loved the range. You get to do really meaty dancing where you sort of feel like you’re flying and then you get to do dances that require you to sort of exist in space like in Beloved Renegade or Esplanade. It’s a whole other way of channeling your personal energy into something—to have the challenge of holding the stage with a look or a glance. And there are also dances when you get to be funny or really ugly, horrible dances where you just get to be awful. I think what I love so much is the intensity.
And you grasped that from the Taylor intensive?
You get exposed to a variety of it because you learn new repertory every week and then there’s a showing: That’s how I got to see so many different things. There are four levels; each group learns something new every week and then we all perform it for each other at the end. As I recall, Paul even came to see one of our showings when we learned the last section of Promethean Fire. It just felt to me like Paul is somebody who sees possibility in everything. And not to mention the fact that the people were so nice and the teachers were so great; I felt it was an environment where you could really be yourself and tap into what’s creative about you within the range of your work.
It’s true—it’s about individuals.
Yes. Individuals who dance really well together but everybody has their strength. Paul is able to draw on that so well.
Did you audition for the company?
I danced for Amy Marshall for two years, and that was the only company experience I had—the whole time I was studying at the Taylor school. Heather Berest had announced that she would be leaving the company; Paul had been watching class quite a bit and one day he called me over to him and introduced himself. It was very cute because he said, “Did you know that we are having an audition?” I tried to play it cool. He said, “Would you like to come?” and I said, “Oh, I would love it.” You know, like, “Would you like to go out for a cup of coffee?” [Laughs]
What happened at the audition?
I showed up early and ended up getting pushed into an earlier group, so when I first danced in front of him, I wasn’t warm at all and it was a really hard combination that had some crazy triple turn into a jump. I almost fell flat on my backside. I just remember him looking at me afterward and saying, “Oh, Laura, I know you can do better than that.” [Laughs] I was mortified. Fortunately, I did get a callback. I think it came down to six women and it was just one of those moments where I kind of thought, Well, you made it to the end—good job. And he said, “You’re all great, but I can only pick one of you,” and he turned to me and said, “Laura it’s you.” I felt like Miss America or something, which sounds so stupid, but I really couldn’t help it. It was the job that I had dreamed of having.
It hasn’t gotten old.
I don’t think it will, either. I’ve had such a positive work experience in this company—everyone’s been great. Paul’s been great, Bettie’s been great; I feel like I’m constantly learning and growing and I feel like in a job like this you can’t ask for more than that. I feel so lucky. I really just do and that’s all there is to it.
Tell me about performing Scudorama, a dark piece from 1963 that was revived last season. You danced de Jong’s part?
Yes. That was the first, I guess, featured part I had in a dance that was a little bit darker. The whole experience was so amazing—getting to work on reconstructing the solo with Bettie and also with [former dancers] Liz Walton and Dan Wagoner. They came in one day when we were first putting it together and just really encouraged us to go there. And in Scud—you have to go there.
Is there a different style to that dance?
I think so, because when Paul was making the dance, he was experimenting. He had found the beauty in Aureole and he wanted to make something that was the antithesis of that, so a lot of the movement in it is very quirky. When we were learning the dance and putting it together, it was important to the original cast members that we not stylize it. They kept saying, “Just do it.” And so it’s very punchy and strong and almost inorganic in a sense. Bettie’s solo is more organic, but her character is so different from the other characters and that was interesting—going from the first section that’s so frenetic and frantic, from that crazy movement and being asked to be aggressive and animal, to go to that place where there’s sort of a quiet knowing—you know what’s coming. Your death is impending and Bettie always said, “You’re the chosen one.” That was the idea; my understanding was that Sacre was budding in this whole thing, too. So that whole ominous-ness of getting sucked into the center of the stage and just having that quiet knowingness and being able to create a tension in the air—it’s that whole thing again with your eyes. I love it. I think that solo will always be close to my heart. And getting to work with Bettie like that? I learned so much.
Have you worked with her a lot? You’re obviously similar in body shape and have done her roles.
Quite a bit, it seems. I do her role in Esplanade.
That’s a really weird part.
Yeah, because [my character] appears out of nowhere—you go from this joyful frolic to all of a sudden this picture of a very androgynous-looking person who’s detached from everything. But I love doing that part too. Her coaching me in the subtleties of that was a great experience.
How did she coach you on Esplanade?
She told me, “You can’t see [the other dancers]. You have to see through them.” And it’s the whole thing about the eyes. She said, “You can’t really focus on anything—and don’t dance it. You just have to do it. Your mind has to guide this. You don’t have to do it like I did it, but you have to do it from your thoughts.” And that’s a lot of the way she coaches me. Essentially, she’s saying that I must become the character, and that’s probably why she was so brilliant at all of those roles, because that was how she danced. Her mind informed all of her movement; that’s why she could be graceful or broken and disconnected. It’s a hard thing to learn, and I’m still working on it, but it’s sort of a freeing way to be coached.
And she’s helping you create your own dancing from the inside out?
Yes. There was something so amazing about her. She was so long and lanky and she did have a very willowy quality sometimes. She was so angular though, too. She could be very scary—Big Bertha. I have only seen the video of that, but I keep going, Oh my gosh, I wish I could have seen her do it in person. She’s great because she still remembers everything. All of the muscle memory’s still there. The musicality. She could still get up and do Esplanade if you wanted her to. It’s all still in there.
You’re also dancing another De Jong part in Public Domain.
That’s another Bettie part that I like a lot. It was another sort of putting together a puzzle and it turned out to be one of those dances that Paul had edited multiple times over the years, so it’s had many incarnations. I think the one we’re doing now is a nice collage of all of them. I’m dancing with James Samson. He’s doing Paul’s part. And that’s fun. He’s so big! It’s fun working with him and it’s an interesting duet. There’s maybe one lift in it. It’s not a lot of partnering. It’s more moving in unison and finding each other’s internal rhythm; the movement is very quirky—it’s very floppy and disjointed, which was really challenging at first. But we had a great time doing it.
Taylor made an important role for you last season in Beloved Renegade. Can you talk about that?
I love that dance. It has something to do with the whole atmosphere that it creates. It’s the type of dance that washes over you, and I love the craft in it. He came in with Walt Whitman poems and quotes, and guided us that way. When I found out I would be playing the death-muse—he never mentioned the muse part, but he did mention the death character—he said, “You need to be like a breeze—cool and calm—but then there’s something constant about it.” The music [by Francis Poulenc] is so gorgeous. You’re not interpreting every note; you’re sort of living in each one as the moments pass by, but the whole dance is such a series of different moments. It’s almost like you can see the air around you or feel the atmosphere, and that is one of those feelings you can’t beat. [Laughs]
What is your part in Taylor’s new dance Brief Encounters?
It’s more of an ensemble piece, and it’s really fun. There’s lots of great movement in it. It started off where I think we didn’t realize how dark Paul wanted it to be and so it’s really evolved into a much darker, more sensual yet frustrated place—the lighting in it is beautiful. At the premiere I think we all understood it better. Obviously, Paul knew what he was doing all along. I don’t know if you’ve seen it on the side of the bus, but the men are in briefs and the women are in bras and underwear—and the stage is lit very dark in a lot of instances, and there’s even a section done in silhouette. So it has a really different look to it, which I think makes it very interesting, and that is contrasted with the nursery-rhyme music. There’s all the sensual movement and adult overtones—you can interpret it any way you want but I think it’s interesting.
It sounds nice and creepy.
Yeah. It’s really cool.
Are you in Also Playing, the other new piece?
I am not. I am the wonder-study for it. [Laughs] I understudy everybody in it. I am helping do costume changes backstage with Amy Young. The dancers have frantic changes during the piece and somewhere along the line it was decided that Amy and I are responsible for all of the backstage choreography. And because I’m the understudy of the dance, we had to have somebody understudy the costume changes that I do, which is absolutely hilarious. I think Michael Trusnovec is my understudy for the costume changes. Isn’t that cute? The dance is a lot of fun. It’s hysterical. It’s so cool when you think about it: One mind has such a range. And it’s not like Paul is just okay at comedy; his funny dances are really funny.
I like what you said about presence in his work—I think that’s really true. You’ve talked about what de Jong has said to you regarding that, but what has Taylor explained about the way he approaches presence?
To be honest, not much. Some people tease me that I’m dramatic, but I think I’ve always had that side to me. It’s something that I’ve never really thought about too much. I don’t know what it is that I project necessarily, but I know that it’s something that I feel. Maybe that’s what Paul saw in class that day. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it was something like that because a lot of the roles that I do get rely on me being able to be different characters or to be able to have some sort of an aura. If it’s bad or good or whatever. And I do enjoy doing them. He gave me guidelines in the beginning of Beloved and then he kind of let me run with it and has been very supportive thus far.
You usually hear when things are going wrong?
Yes. That’s usually what happens. You get your note, your correction, and then otherwise no news is good news. [Laughs]
What have you gotten notes about?
When I first got into the company, like every new person, I got a lot of notes. For dances like Scud, Bettie likes to keep it fresh with me and I think the more we do the dance, more things come back to her and so she’ll give me new images. The latest is, “You’re like a broken bird in a cage.” That’s one that I got recently. Or “You’re falling too soft.” And I guess occasionally she’ll give me that, “You have a tendency to soften things—this is not a place where you would do that.” That was a note I got recently—to break harder in the solo. And then she gave me a great one in Runes the other day about the way I was using my back. She said, “You know, this is an old Graham thing.” [Laughs] I kind of love that: it was just a little more spiral in the chest and it was kind of great because I was doing my emotive thing and she was like, “No, it’s not really that. It’s this old Graham thing.”
Are you in Sunset?
Yes. That’s a great dance. I have more of an ensemble part. Eran Bugge is doing the lead that Lisa Viola did; she is gorgeous in it. I think it’s going to be a really cool thing for her. I feel like this cast of women—we’ve all been working really well together. That’s also another dance where you’re encouraged—you’re doing dance steps but you’re supposed to do them in a pedestrian way. Everything is much more gestural; it’s not so expansive. It’s about a moment in time so it’s really nice and I feel we’re all on the same page.
Do you notice how other dancers are doing, as with Bugge? Is that the dance teacher in you? Or is it being in a smallish company?
I think it’s being in a small company. And you’re happy for your friends when they get a role that really suits them and pulls out their best aspects in every great way possible. And you notice that for your friends, any time that something really great happens for them. But it is a small group, and we all are constantly around each other—we watch each other dance so much, I think you get used to everyone’s nuances and growth.
You dance a lot each night—how do you handle it and balance it?
I think everybody has to do different things and the bottom line is that this season is always hard and it’s always going to be different and you’re always going to be dealing with that extra adrenaline that you get every night. Personally, I can’t sleep after the shows. I’m so revved up. Even if I do the smallest part, the excitement of it all keeps me up. We have a physical therapist that will come if you need muscle tension work done or get an injury. I still try to take class every day during the season to stay strong and loose. I like to take ballet.
Who do you study ballet with?
I like to take Zvi Gotheiner’s class at City Center. I have also recently taken Graciela Kozazk’s class at Peridance and I really liked that. It was different than Zvi’s; I feel like Zvi’s class is very dance-y, but he talks a lot about energy and where you hold tension. And I used to be such a tense dancer.
Uh. Yeah. [Laughs] I used to try to make everything happen. Zvi’s class was great discovery for me when I first moved to New York. It really helped me to understand my body better. I also study at the school, and every once in a while I like to take Max Stone’s class; it’s a jazz/contemporary class and I just love it. It’s so noodle-y. Actually, Michael and I were taking that class a lot over the break. I take Gyrotonics a lot. I go to Kinespirit, and that’s been great for me. It’s helped me open my back up and strengthen my arms. Because I’m so loose, I find Pilates to be really hard. It bothers my hip flexors, but Gyro—with all those great big circular movements and the way you can arch and extend—feels great on my body. I do yoga occasionally. I like to run in the summer, but I don’t do it so much because it tightens you up.
You have said that when you’re performing, you want to experience something, not show it. What do you mean?
I had the tendency to be very self-critical, and I realized that was a real block to any sort of artistic enlightenment. This was really when I first got in the company, because I was so nervous all the time. I just wanted to do well, and yet any time I tried to, I wouldn’t do my best because I was probably trying too hard. I started watching some of the senior dancers in the company. Annmaria [Mazzini] gives such emotional performances. And I don’t want to pretend to know her process, but at least it appeared to me from the outside that she really just let herself experience things. And I think Michael [Trusnovec] does that a lot, too. He moves very differently than she does, but I think it’s similar: You just do it. You let it go. I found it to be very freeing because when you make yourself open to the experience, you discover so much more in the role, in the character. You find new limits for yourself. It’s enriching to your process, because there are more possibilities. It’s not really perfection you’re going for. It’s not imperfection either, but it’s something that’s real. Real is imperfect, but real is beautiful, too. If you’re in it and you wobble, so what? You’re in it and that’s what reads rather than something that’s beautiful but perhaps a little empty.
How have you come into your own in the company? What has that process been like?
I don’t know, because I feel like I’m still figuring it out. I feel it’s this whole idea of opening myself up to these experiences and not judging where they came from or where they’re going to go, but just trying to exist in every moment. I’m not judging myself. I’m not wondering what I look like through anybody else’s eyes. I think I’m having the courage to be myself—and seeing where it takes me.
Paul Taylor Dance Company performs at City Center through Mar 14.