Heather McGinley talks about dancing for Paul Taylor

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

Was Gossamer Gallants the first new dance made on you?
Yes. That was a lot of fun. I don’t think we knew how funny it was when Paul was making the dance. Which I have found to be true with all the dances I’ve been in: When you’re in the studio and working on all the details and formations and counts, it’s very hard to wrap your brain around what an audience will see, and when we got onstage in Gossamer, it was like, Oh. That’s how this is seen. We thought there were some silly moments in it, but we didn’t realize how funny it had been crafted. I was nervous, but excited to work with him that first time.

How did he get started?
The opening section is the men. The women bugs skitter across a couple of times, but the second section is the five women, and I very clearly remember Paul putting each person in an opening pose. Michelle Fleet was laying on the floor in the front, and he said, “Now, Michelle, you’re going to be laying here looking luscious.” [Cracks up] I’ll just never forget that he used that word. We hadn’t seen designs for the costumes yet; everything was just really new. He told us the men were kind of a brotherhood in the dance, but with women a sisterhood’s different than a brotherhood—even though we’re all on the same team, we also have little moments where we’re not so excited about each other.

Can you describe your costume?

Lime green. Very iridescent. Skintight. If you’ve done a sweaty dance before that one, it’s not so easy to get on. We have a cap with the big bug eyes just above our forehead and these antennae that move around and wings. Very shiny. And with a corset push-up as well.

The dancing is fast in that one.
Yes. It’s not easy on the legs. Definitely, your calves and your feet will be tight after that dance. I think that’s the other thing about Taylor dances: They’re often very quick, very fast footwork. One of the dances we’re doing this season is Mercuric Tidings, and it’s so fast. Since 2005 or something, they changed the recording to one with a faster tempo, so it’s just lightning speed at this point. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the stamina that you need for the Taylor rep. The first time I ever did Mercuric Tidings was in my first season, and I was sharing a role with Parisa, so I hadn’t performed it yet. We were in Mexico in the mountains, and I almost succumbed to the altitude: It was during the tech rehearsal, and I missed one of my entrances because I had collapsed in the wing. I couldn’t breathe. The stagehand had moved the oxygen tank; they had oxygen tanks for us on both sides, which everybody was using once we got to the shows. In the tech rehearsal, the press was there and we were all in costume; it was a really big stage—so you had to run even farther—and even farther than that if you had a crossover and had to run back behind the stage. In the third and final section I was standing in this half-on, half-off position onstage, and I almost blacked out. We had the show that evening. I made it through, but that was difficult.

What is it like to dance beyond that?
The near misses are exciting, because there’s so much traffic happening. I might have to lead three girls from the wing; we run out, and you know that the path will open just as you get there, so you’re running at people while knowing they’re going to move when you get there. It’s pretty thrilling.

How long did it take you to become a Taylor dancer? Are you one now?
I’m still working on it! It might depend on the dance, too. The movement in Mercuric Tidings is movement you would do in any given Taylor class, let’s say. The footwork is balletic, so we know how to do jetés; the upper body is scoops and vs—shapes that we’re very familiar with. It’s just fast so maybe it took some time to build up that kind of stamina.

Whose part do you dance in Black Tuesday?

Annmaria [Mazzini]'s. I’m so excited and honored to do this role. I actually saw Annmaria do it in one of the very first performances in St. Louis. It was made for ABT, but the Taylor company first performed it in St. Louis. Just putting on the costume is exciting: It’s gorgeous. I remember being in the audience and feeling completely transported to the Depression, and it’s the same thing when the music comes on dancing it now. The heartbreaking solo happens toward the end of the dance when I’ve just had it. It’s a nice build to that for the character in the dance. In the beginning, I’m maybe flirting with some of the men looking for my next trick and by the time we’re dancing with Rob [Kleinendorst], who’s playing the pimp now, I’m just getting more and more angry.

It’s a great solo.
Yes. And it’s something that’s a lot of fun to play. In a solo, you can take more or less time to do something, and it feels different every time I perform it. There’s the section where all the men rush out and begin tossing me around and one day in rehearsal, I was looking in a certain direction, and it was making my weight tip in a strange way so they were having trouble. [Rehearsal director] Bettie [de Jong] said, “Look up, look up!” I am desperately reaching away from them, and onstage it’s dark, and I don’t see who’s passing me so I just have to have an absolute trust in the men and that’s when it works.

Do you think about how you might play with the solo before you go onstage?

Yes. I try not to go over it too much before a show, because I don’t want to predetermine everything. I might go over something very technical like after they dump me on the floor, I’m going to run past center so I have room to do that step. Sometimes it might be determined by how my costume moves that night. If I’m doing something where I’m rolling on the floor, and my skirt is all twisted up then that’ll be part of it—pulling that back down and showing how much I’m exposed and vulnerable in that moment. Sometimes it just depends on how the costume moved that night.

Did you work with Annmaria?
Yes. I definitely wanted to see if she had anything to pass on about what she was thinking or what Paul said when he made it. She had some wonderful images to pass on. She remembered a story I told about a guy who had exposed himself to me on the subway. I hadn’t given that any thought in over a year, but she said, “Do you remember that story?” She wanted me to use that feeling of my skin crawling. So not the incident itself, but more how I felt about it—how I was really fed up and a little bit grossed out. You could see Annmaria, as a dancer, focus so clearly onstage, so she had a few ideas about places where that would be really effective for me. I’m also learning how important stillness is. That’s something that Bettie’s been working on with me on in the solo. There are moments when you shouldn’t just move through it. Even if you hit the shape, you have to let it read, and it takes a while to get comfortable doing that when you’re still getting into a solo. Just allowing yourself to pause sometimes; you’re really vulnerable in those moments.

What else are you dancing this season that you’re looking forward to?
I’m very excited for the role I’m doing in Dust. After the opening section, the group leaves the stage and I’m left standing over Sean Mahoney, who’s laying on the ground, and I have this solo where I’m lamenting over him, even tearing my hair out, and it’s very contorted. I feel like I can be very over-the-top and it still wouldn’t be enough. You can’t twist or pull hard enough or hit the movement or sustain it, because it’s like you’re being pulled apart. There’s a great image after I’ve been dancing around Sean where I lay on the floor in front of him, and it’s like I take his sickness [by] lamenting his ailment and then the rest of the cast comes in and they have these ropes in their hands and it’s as if they’ve disemboweled me. The whole piece has such striking images. I remember seeing Dust several times over the years; it just happened to be on almost any program I randomly bought a ticket to. I even remember seeing it on video when I was in college, because Susan was in the original cast. It’s such a moving piece. When it first starts, you kind of think, What is this about? And then by the end, you just have tears in your eyes. You’re so sad and hopeful at the same time. So that’s another dance that takes a lot of stamina: I’m literally throwing myself on the floor and getting back up and spinning and throwing myself on the floor again. By the end, you feel the whole cast as if we’ve been through something together. When everyone gets in their opening position onstage, we whisper to each other, “See you on the other side.”

There are so many different dances in this company. How do you turn off those emotions so quickly to dance a different piece?

In a very simple way, the costume and the hair do help. There was this one day where just for a half second, I confused characters in two dances. I was working on Black Tuesday where, at the end of my solo, I collapse on the floor and Michael [Trusnovec]’s character comes and picks me up, and I kind of pull myself together and strut away. Just before rehearsing Black Tuesday, we were working on the new dance that will be premiering at Lincoln Center, Marathon Cadenzas. I dance with Michael quite a bit in that piece, but have a very different character: prissy and helpless. We had just spent an hour working on this part where he was helping me off the floor and then for a half second in Black Tuesday, he went to pick me up, and I started to be that other girl. [Laughs] That was a nice moment for me to remember that you really do have to shift your focus and who you are. You can really feel you’ve been through a lot in a program though. I’m not dancing in Sunset, but it’s a beautiful piece and I tear up a little at the end every time. There are days when I think, If I’m in the dance following Sunset, I have to separate myself from what’s going on onstage and really think about what dance I’m doing next. Sometimes even not being in it, it can still get to you. I think we get each other into [the right mood] as well.

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