Heather McGinley talks about dancing for Paul Taylor

The daring Heather McGinley talks about her upcoming season with the Paul Taylor Dance Company

Heather McGinley performs with Paul Taylor Dance Company

Heather McGinley performs with Paul Taylor Dance Company Photograph: Paul B. Goode

When the Paul Taylor Dance Company hits the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) for its annual New York season, one of the many standouts will be Heather McGinley. Gearing up for her most packed repertoire yet, the dancer explains that being a Taylor dancer—whether partnering Michael Trusnovec in a new work or supporting Michelle Fleet in an iconic one—is to be a part of a family.

While growing up in St. Louis, Heather McGinley was consumed by ballet—specifically by the Cecchetti method. “It’s very antiquated and romantic—broken wrists and things—but I found that the way the torso moved was so satisfying,” McGinley says. “We’d do a pas de chat and have to pick up a handkerchief off the floor, so you’d have to really bend. The upper body had to sing.” And that’s how an aspiring ballerina ends up in modern dance.  As McGinley, the sleek, redheaded wonder of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, gears up for her biggest season yet, she talks about the inspiration behind her roles. What’s the motivation behind playing a disgusted, fed-up hooker? Naturally, it dates back to a trip on the subway.

How did you get into dance?
My mother put me into dance class at four. No one in my family was a dancer, but she just thought it would be good for a little girl to have poise to be comfortable in front of people.
Did you like it right away? What kind of dance was it?
Tap and ballet—as much as tap and ballet for four-year-olds can be. [Laughs] Yep—loved it right from the beginning. Although as a young child, I had pretty bad stage fright. Whenever we got to performance time, I would sit and cry for a solid hour; and then when it got time to go onstage, all of a sudden it disappeared and I had the best time, but I’d have to be talked off a ledge the hour before the program started.

Do you still feel that? 
Not like that. That probably faded away when I was six or seven. I remember just being inconsolable.

When did you start serious training? 
My family moved to a different suburb of St. Louis when I was eight. I tried out several studios in the area before I found one that I felt comfortable with and at that studio the main training was the Cecchetti method. The first year I was in that studio I took my level-one exam, and then every year did another exam and ended up finishing my diploma by my senior year in high school. So I’d say around ten or 11 was when it wasn’t just a fun thing where I got to see my friends at ballet class. It became something a little more serious. At ten, there was an end-of-the-year recital, and one of my classmates got a scholarship for the following year; I think I had it in my mind that the word scholarship was always attached to college. I had a lot of older cousins who I’d heard say, “I got a scholarship to this university.” I thought, Oh, you can get scholarships to other things? When she got a scholarship, I was inspired: I thought, Next year I’m getting one. I was much more focused in ballet class, I wasn’t as chatty with my classmates and I did get a scholarship the following year. That was definitely a turning point in my focus.

Who was your teacher?
Lisbeth Brown was my main ballet teacher for ten years. She was a second mom a little bit. We spent so many hours in the studio together and by the last couple of years it was several days a week just the two of us in the studio. I was the only one working on the final-level exam, so I was the only student at that point.

You were on a serious ballet path. Did you attend summer programs? 
Yes. I did Cecchetti summer programs, but I also did one of the American Ballet Theatre satellite programs in Alabama when I was 15. I did a couple of summers with Ballet Austin. I definitely wanted to be a ballet dancer, and it wasn’t until my junior or senior year in college that I realized that ballet wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I became much more interested in doing something contemporary. But I went to Butler University, which has a very strong ballet-focused program. That’s definitely what I thought I was going to do there.

Most ballet dancers don’t go to college.
True. [Laughs] Partially, it was because my parents really wanted me to go. Maybe my sophomore or junior year in high school, I told them I was not going to college; they were the ones who started researching dance programs. One year I auditioned for the Ballet Austin summer program, and there was a snowstorm, so there were only four dancers there. My parents started chatting to the woman running it; I don’t think they knew who she was, but she started talking about dance programs and how, at Ballet Austin, they appreciated a dancer who was a little bit older, who knew herself a little bit better and who had a little bit more to offer. She had gone to Butler University and started telling my parents about dance programs. There was at least one dancer in the company that had graduated from Butler. That’s where that idea started. And I always enjoyed school. I was easily convinced. When I went to see their studios and watched a couple classes, I knew I could learn a lot there.

Is that where you encountered Paul Taylor’s work?

Yes. Not until my senior year actually. [Former Taylor dancer] Susan McGuire became the modern teacher there. Almost all of my modern teachers were Graham-based; the previous teacher before Susan was also a Graham-based teacher, Norman Walker. I don’t know that she still does this, but when Susan began teaching, there was quite a bit of Graham in her class. We would start with a few of the floor exercises.

How did the technique fit with your body?
I enjoyed it, but I hadn’t given it a lot of thought. Later, when I was taking a class at the Graham school pretty consistently for about a month or so, I was sick for a couple of days. When I came back, one of the teachers pulled me aside and asked, “Why weren’t you in class?” Then she told me, “I think if you really work at this, you could dance in the company.” That really inspired me to continue working on it, and I did really fall in love with the technique. It’s very satisfying: the shift of weight and the opposition in the body. It was the first time I learned to enjoy the floor. At the time, the studios were all these old wood floors and dancing barefoot and feeling the floorboards under your feet—there was something really delicious about it.

How long did it take for you to be hired by the Graham company?

I danced for a year and a half in Graham II. I got a phone call from [artistic director] Janet Eilber asking me to take company class. She pulled me out into the hall and said, “We’re going on this big tour to China, and we’re expanding the cast, and we’d like you to be part of it.” So that started as just that one tour; one tour turned into many tours, and I was there for two-and-a-half years.

What was that experience like?

So many things—maybe a little overwhelming too. It was my first professional experience, Rehearsals are run a little differently. As a student, you often walk into a rehearsal where no one knows anything, and now you’re walking into a studio where people have been performing for years and you need to fit in with them—it’s certainly a transition, and that was a big part of it. It’s great because you can learn so much and observe, and I was familiar with the choreography already from being in the second company. Though sometimes that’s more difficult, because you learn, “We’re going to do it this way.” [Laughs]

Did you have a lot of contact with Janet?
Not a whole lot. Not until a few years later. My final performances with the Graham company were a theater project in Italy, and she directed the dance part of that. I got to work with her quite extensively, which was great. It was Cercando Picasso, or Seeking Picasso; that was a fantastic experience, especially just being in Italy for six weeks. Getting to do the same show every night—I hadn’t experienced that in my career yet. And just getting to work on little things from show to show. There were only nine dancers, so we had a lot of responsibility; we were onstage more than we were offstage in 90 minutes with no intermission. It’s great to spend that much time onstage.

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