Heather McGinley talks about dancing for Paul Taylor

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

Can you talk about Marathon Cadenzas?
Sure. It’s inspired by the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which I saw for the first time right before Paul started working on this dance. It’s such a dark film! I don’t think the dance is quite as dark; we do a lot of social dances. You feel like you’re in a dance hall for parts of it. There are moments where all the couples are doing different movement, so there’s a lot of freedom where you can really have a good time with your partner and let him throw you around. Then there are moments of unison, where we’ve been ironing out the exact angle of everyone’s arm. We all have very different characters. Mine is very snobbish; I’m kind of in love with myself, and I’m very much hoping to get noticed at this event—I’m strutting around most of the time. So we’re in a dance competition and Michael and I end up partners. It’s a lot of fun. There are a few scenes in the movie—remember the derbies? There’s a derby in Marathon Cadenzas. The first day that Paul was setting this up, we started power walking in a circle. The first few steps, we all giggled a little, like it seems absurd. We’re just running in a circle. You can’t really run. But then you realize how uncomfortable it is and the desperation that the people who had to do this must have felt and then knowing if you were last, you were going to lose this whole thing. I had a glimpse of what the people felt like in the movie; those are some of the most despairing scenes. I wasn’t expecting that in rehearsal at all. As for my character, I’ve decided I’m far too pretty to be in this derby and someone should carry me or something, so Michael is basically dragging me the whole time. [Laughs] But we learn so much more about a dance once we’ve done it onstage in front of an audience; there’s a lot more to learn.

Are there period costumes?
Yes. And because I think I’ve shown up to get a Hollywood contract, I’m wearing a very shiny long gown. [Laughs]

You’re in American Dreamer, too, which is a New York premiere. What is your role in that?
We’re all part of a dance company. You see a bit of backstage. There’s an exposed side of the stage, so you see the dancers waiting on the side before others dance, and the characters in the dance that’s being rehearsed‚ we’re kind of all the same person. In the opening number, the lyrics are, “Molly, do you love me?” and all the girls in that section are Molly. It’s very simple, and I think that’s something that Paul does really well. He knows how to make something simple, which is difficult because it’s hard to make something simple and still have something happen. He’s always very specific about exactly when to pause in every gesture; he’s very clear about all of those things.

How often is he in the studio?
We kind of just never know what’s going to happen. Is he going to work for a half an hour, is he going to work for three hours? We know he’s coming in. We might have an idea of what he’s working on; maybe yesterday he said, “We’re going to start with that duet tomorrow.” There’s a lot of anticipation.

Do you like that?
Yeah. Well, it makes you anxious sometimes, but that’s why we’re here—to work with him. It’s great. Even if it’s the smallest gesture and he says, “We’re going to have you do this,” it’s exciting every time.

What are you dancing in Esplanade?
I’m dancing Bettie’s part, which I’m really excited to do. That’s another role where I get to be coached by the original dancer; that’s always special. It’s just a really interesting part, and it has another one of those camaraderie things. My role is sort of stoic, and I don’t really interact with the other dancers—or even if they’re trying to interact with me, I don’t really see them. For the final three sections of Esplanade, as the movement is building and they’re running harder and harder, I always feel like I’m just so there in spirit for the people throwing themselves at the floor onstage. There are a couple of moments, like the final exit when Michelle is left onstage and everyone runs out that first wing, where I’m always at the wing making sure everyone can get out. I have this backstage choreography, this backstage job. I remember Bettie telling me, “Now, you have to go over here, and this is your job—you will hold the wing for everyone.”

It’s a remarkable dance. Are you sad not to be able to do all the running and sliding and jumping? 
Yes and no! It might depend on the day. I hope to do one of the running and sliding parts at some point, but I think Bettie’s role also suits me. This will be my first New York season doing it. And Private Domain is another one that’s fun to perform. I have never seen it from the house. It’s interesting to hear what people say depending on where they sit in the theater. The view is obscured by the set that’s directly downstage, so if you sit house left, you’re not going to see the same exact thing as if you sat house right. You definitely feel that we’re in our own world.

It’s not the same as Taylor’s Last Look, but that feeling of being in your own world is certainly similar.
Yeah. There are a lot of moments in Last Look where you get really uncomfortable. Like you’re watching it, but you kind of don’t really want to watch it, and I think that’s absolutely the intent of Private Domain. Last Look—there’s something terrifying about it, and in this one you don’t feel as terrified. You might feel a little bit dirty. If you do, then we’ve done our job right. [Laughs]

How did you learn to do makeup the Taylor way?
Well, I had my experience in Graham, which was very dramatic. Lots of lines coming from your eyes, and in Taylor it just seemed more like you needed to do makeup to accentuate what features you wanted to accentuate. For certain dances, everyone wears the cherry-red lipstick in Company B, let’s say, but otherwise…

It should just be you, right?

Yeah. And if there’s something that’s not working with the way you’re doing your makeup, Paul himself will give you a note about it. Over time, you find what works for you. Everyone’s a little bit different, which makes sense. The hair was a little bit difficult for me coming to Taylor, because in Graham your hair was just always up, either in a giant high bun or a giant low bun. There were a handful of principal parts that had hair down, but I never danced any of them. But [at Taylor] you could easily be required to have three completely different hairstyles in one program, which is a lot of stress in between pieces. That’s a learning curve for me right now. It is a lot of fun to wear your hair down for certain dances and it influences the way you move for sure.

How have you improved your stamina?

The only way to improve stamina doing Taylor dances is doing Taylor dances. [Laughs] There’s no other answer. We can have a few weeks off and you could work out all day, every day, and it will not be the same. I keep going back to Mercuric Tidings, because it requires so much stamina. Beyond all the running and quick footwork and things, there are moments where in this style you have to get really low to the ground and then stand back up. It’s just so much work in the legs. Nothing else is going to require the same physicality.

What does it mean to be part of a company that has such a rich legacy as far as dancers are concerned?

It’s fantastic. You really feel like you’re a part of something and you always will be. I think that’s the thing: I’m not just a part of it this year or until I retire. It’s something I’ll always get to be a part of. I’ll always be family to this family.
Paul Taylor Dance Company is at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) Mar 11–30.

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