Principal dancer Janie Taylor talks about her career with New York City Ballet, what it's been like working with choreographer Justin Peck on his new Year of the Rabbit and an illness that almost finished her career. The ballerina speaks about some of her favorite ballest to dance, including La Sonnambula, Afternoon of a Faun and The Cage.
At New York City Ballet, there are dancers, and then there is Janie Taylor, whose long blond mane and demeanor—she seems to be part woman, part creature—makes her all the more otherworldly. Justin Peck must realize that, too. This week, Taylor, dancing opposite Craig Hall, performs a lead role in Peck’s new ballet, Year of the Rabbit. Several years ago, after a devastating health scare in which Taylor was diagnosed with having an extremely low platelet count, she had her spleen removed. This season, she’s feeling stronger than ever. In advance of Peck’s premiere, Taylor, who recently married fellow principal Sébastien Marcovici, spoke about her journey back to the stage—as well as why being off of it isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a young dancer.
Time Out New York: You first worked with Justin Peck on a film, right?
Janie Taylor: Yes. That was the Chloé film, which was for Block Magazine; they printed an article and made a video to go with it. They had said, “We want to make a film portion—so you’ll just dance around,” and I was like, That’s going to look stupid. [Laughs] Unless I had something specific to do, I didn’t think it would come out very well, so I said, “Could I ask my friend Justin? He’s a choreographer; that would help me, and it would just look a lot better.”
Time Out New York: Had you seen his choreography?
Janie Taylor: I’d seen some of his stuff. Every time I had seen any of his work, I was really impressed. I guess I don’t always love new things. [Laughs] So it was fun to like something new, and I think he’s really good with structuring a lot of dancers and making really interesting formations. He has all these ideas about what to do with groups of people, so it’s not just a mass of 20 people in lines—one formation suddenly becomes something else and you don’t really know how that happened. It’s complicated, but not in a way where you feel like you’re watching something complicated. It seems almost mathematical.
Time Out New York: What is Year of the Rabbit like?
Janie Taylor: He’s using music by Sufjan Stevens, [which is based on] different years of the zodiac. There are six different years, but there is nothing specifically Chinese or animal about the ballet; I think there are hints of some of the animalistic qualities that are in the music. It’s not blatant. You just get the feeling of some of the characteristics of the animals, even in the movement patterns. A rabbit is not necessarily very fast, but evades its predators by changing direction quickly. The corps does a lot of really cool things. Every time I show up at a rehearsal that everyone’s in, I’m like, Wow. It’s been great so far. One of the sections I do is more upbeat, and then I do a very, very slow pas de deux. It’s nice to go to either end of the spectrum. I dance with Craig Hall.
Time Out New York: How do you like working with Justin?
Janie Taylor: He’s really fast and has a really good energy, and you always feel like you’re moving forward quickly. He has a lot of ideas, so there’s not a lot of downtime in rehearsal. But it’s also fun—you really feel like you’re making something every day. He’s always asking for something specific, which I like, and sometimes the dancers figure out how to make that happen—in that way, it feels collaborative. But he has his ideas about what he wants to see in his head already. You can tell. It’s all in there. For this, I think he had choreographed some of the sections in previous [Choreographic] Institutes. It’s something he’s been thinking about for years.
Time Out New York: You worked a lot with Benjamin Millepied, too. Younger choreographers seem to latch onto you.
Janie Taylor: [Grins] Lucky me. It’s nice also when someone’s a fellow dancer because you feel they do actually know your dancing and what you’re capable of doing because you’ve known them for a number of years. You’ve danced together; they’ve watched you dance. I feel like they actually know what I can do or can’t do. Sometimes choreographers come in and watch one class, and you’re like, Well, I don’t know if they really got to see what I could do from that.
Time Out New York: I also love when you dance with Craig Hall. I think you really complement each other.
Janie Taylor: I always feel really comfortable with him. We’ve done Afternoon of a Faun and The Cage together. Those are two of my favorite pieces to dance. I think they’re both really unusual and very specific—neither of them is [about] doing normal ballet steps. I think you have to think more about what you are or who you are in the piece and less about the step as a ballet step. So it’s a little bit of a different way of thinking about how you’re moving.
Time Out New York: What was the process like when you learned Faun?
Janie Taylor: I actually learned it with Victor [Castelli, an NYCB ballet master who died in 2005] some seasons before I first performed it. It was interesting because I was also in rehearsals with Alexandra [Ansanelli], who was learning it at the time. I was also taking in the same information and trying to figure it out as well. I remember Victor talking about the way you come in the door and the way that you look at yourself in the mirror: He was very adamant that you do those things the way you would naturally do them as a person. That makes it look more realistic and natural. That ballet is very intimate, and it’s also a place where you’re just in a room by yourself; you’re not necessarily aware of anyone looking at you. That’s different than the way we usually know we’re being looked at. It changes how you are and what you do.
Time Out New York: What about The Cage? Isn’t it one of your favorite ballets? I remember you bringing it up in conversations we had years ago.
Janie Taylor: [Laughs] Yeah. I remember watching it the first time in the theater and thinking that it was the coolest ballet I had ever seen. I never thought I’d get to be in it because it’s [usually cast with] tall girls, so I was excited to get to learn it. It’s just so much fun because you’re an animal, an insect. It’s hard because the movements that we make are very specific in regard to the hands and the curve of your body. They take a little while to get used to because it’s very much the opposite of how you would normally stand in a ballet class or in a ballet, but that’s what’s so much fun about it. You just get to be this bug from birth to adulthood and so you very quickly try to make that whole life transition, from learning how to walk to understanding your instincts as an animal and then coming into them and really becoming part of the tribe. You go through a lot of different phases in a short ballet. Trying to show the difference from the very beginning to the very end is a lot of fun.
Time Out New York: What is the sensation for you all as a tribe or as a group performing it?
Janie Taylor: It’s so much fun. Nobody wants to get taken out of this ballet. It’s everyone’s favorite thing to do. Everyone gets their crazy hair on and is so excited every time. And then when it’s over, you’re just like, Wait, I’m not done! I want to do more! It’s too short. It actually feels like you go into this other little world because the web is onstage and the lighting is so different, and then it’s over and the lights come up and you’re kind of like, Where am I? [Laughs]
Time Out New York: Another part I love you in is the Sleepwalker in La Sonnambula. What is your history in that ballet?
Janie Taylor: I actually got to do it for one of the Balanchine Trust videos a long time ago.
Time Out New York: Right—Allegra Kent coached you in a video session.
Janie Taylor: Yes. So that was really amazing. But then I didn’t learn it here until I danced it. So there was a long time period between those two things. That’s also always been one of my favorite ballets to watch; I was excited even just to have that experience with Allegra in me. To be able to try to bring [that coaching] to whatever I did in it. It’s interesting because she can still sort of show you exactly what to do and as soon as she stands up and assumes [the position of] holding the candle, you immediately understand what you’re supposed to look like and the feeling of the piece. Just by her carriage. That’s a lot to get from someone just like that. [Laughs] It’s one of those pieces where you’re not necessarily doing very much, but what you do or don’t do makes a huge difference.
Time Out New York: You like dramatic roles.
Janie Taylor: Yes, I do. It’s not that I don’t like more balletic roles, but maybe that’s my taste even as an audience member. Those are things that speak to me more. I don’t always love it when everything’s pretty. I like when there’s a dark side or some sort of undertone. I think that’s my general taste in anything in life, really. I don’t know why.
Time Out New York: How long have you and Wendy Whelan been making your photo blog, Ballet, Cats and Other Things?
Janie Taylor: That’s a good question. Maybe a year? I have always taken photos. I was using my iPhone and I had the ShakeIt app, which makes an image look like a Polaroid. I was taking a picture and Wendy was like, “What are you doing? What is that?” So I showed her and she said, “Oh my God, that’s so cool,” and she got totally obsessed with it. We both always just took a lot of photos and would put them on Facebook and a lot of people thought we should make a book. I mean we still kind of want to make a book. But we’re kind of slow about doing that, so in the meantime I was like, “Why don’t we do a photo blog?” Facebook is so…Facebook-y. I thought it would be nice to have a place that was just for that. We get a little slow sometimes. I’m like, “Wendy! Put something up!”
Time Out New York: How has Wendy impacted your career?
Janie Taylor: Wendy was always one of my favorites to watch as a young dancer. She’s not someone I necessarily could personally connect with as a dancer—her body and lines are so amazing, so she wasn’t necessarily someone I felt like I could be like, but I loved watching her. Then I got to meet her and she is one of those really amazing, nice people—a warm heart, which just makes her art even better. And then I actually ended up being her understudy a lot, so I kind of ended up following her around all the time, which was great for me. Her work ethic is so amazing, and I think you can learn [from her] how to treat people. She’s very professional, but she’s also fun and has a good time. She’s so positive. I was thinking that the other day. I feel like we’ve shared a lot of things in that way and we’ve just navigated toward each other a little bit. We’re friends.
Time Out New York: You’re so right about her generosity—I wonder if that spirit has something to do with why she’s been able to dance for so long.
Janie Taylor: Definitely. I think that what’s inside of you helps navigate where you go and what you’re able to do.
Time Out New York: But it’s horrible what you’ve had to go through about your health. Did you immediately know what was wrong?
Janie Taylor: I actually didn’t feel sick. I was coming back from an injury and I was really tired, but I was trying to get in shape. I’d been off, so I didn’t really think that was weird. And we’re always tired as dancers, so that’s not such a big bells-going-off kind of a thing. [Laughs] But then I got my period, and it lasted for an extra week. I was like, This is weird. That’s why I went to the doctor in the first place, and they were like, “Your platelet count is crazy low.” My doctor called me when I was in rehearsal. I listened to my voicemail and it was like, “You need to go to the emergency room now!” And I was like, What? I’m rehearsing. Maybe after rehearsal… Right away, they knew what was wrong. At the emergency room, they said that my platelet count was the lowest they’d ever seen; they made me get into a wheelchair to go to a room because if I hit my head or anything I probably would have just bled and they wouldn’t have been able to stop it. It was weird because I didn’t necessarily feel terrible, but then all of a sudden it was very serious.
Time Out New York: How scary.
Janie Taylor: It was. They couldn’t figure out why it happened; there are so many different things that can cause your body to have this reaction. If it would have stopped and been normal and then happened again, they could have put two and two together in terms of some similar thing that I had done or eaten or whatever, but mine was a case where it kept going.
Time Out New York: What did you do?
Janie Taylor: I took steroids, which would make my platelet count go back to a normal number. I did that every two or three months—four days of steroids and that would last me two more months or so. That was my cycle. Everyone’s different. I tried another medication just to see if that would be better; it didn’t work at all, so we kept on with the steroids. I would get my blood taken twice a week, run into class, wait for the phone call in between rehearsals. So a year and a half later, I really started to feel what the steroids were doing to my body, and I was finding it hard to keep dancing.
Time Out New York: Were you weak?
Janie Taylor: Yeah. The four days I was on them, my joints would be so loose—and I’m already loose, so I was like, This is not okay! I would feel really weak, and I would just be shaky and then I’d be performing and I thought I was going to sprain my ankle every five seconds. As time went on, it got worse and I was like, I can’t dance like this anymore. There were very few options left beside steroids, but one of them was having my spleen taken out, which was the only option that could be a cure. But it’s not a guaranteed cure. The upside was, if it works I’m cured and I wouldn’t be on something that’s destroying my body.
Time Out New York: What was the physical reaction to the steroids?
Janie Taylor: My muscles would immediately deteriorate and shrink. It was crazy. So I was like, let’s try it. I had to be on steroids constantly throughout having surgery and then for months afterward, which is a lot more intense than being on steroids for four days every two months. What I was feeling on the four days was times a thousand because there was never a break from it. My face blew up, and I was swollen, but my legs were this thin. [She presses her index finger to her thumb to indicate how small.] I had no muscle and because I was recovering from surgery I wasn’t dancing or exercising. I actually went on a tour to Denmark and danced there, and I was starting to get in shape to do Nutcracker, but I strained my calf. That took a year and a half to heal and a strained calf should not take any time. We realized my body was not healing. No one could figure out what was wrong with my calf and why it wasn’t getting better. At some point, a doctor suggested that I was experiencing delayed healing from having the surgery; my body was having to refigure out how to work missing an organ. That seemed like the most reasonable diagnosis. So I just had to be really patient and eventually it healed. Then, I immediately had a muscle-pull-type injury that took six months to heal. So it was a really long time before I could get my body to do what I wanted it to do. I was just trying to do very minimal dancing. One season, I just did Faun, which is super easy, physically. It was hard because I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have anyone telling me: “Oh, this happened to me before, and this is what it will be like.…” I was blindly, Let’s see—if I do this, what happens? It definitely took a long time to be able to get strong enough to get through a season. I could tell [the company was] afraid to give me anything hard to do. They didn’t want me to get hurt. It was a really long process. I still feel like I have to manage my body in a way that I never had to do before.
Time Out New York: How has your approach to dancing changed since your illness?
Janie Taylor: I am aware of my body being totally different than it was before. I just feel like I’m never not aware of how I’m feeling, and as soon as something starts to seem a little bit weird—usually, you’re like, It’ll be fine tomorrow. Now I’m like, Okay, we have to fix this now. [Laughs] I have to make sure I don’t do too much in a day so I can perform. I try to manage my rehearsals so I don’t do every single ballet I’m dancing every single day. For me, it’s a better way to rehearse anyway; in a strange way, I feel like when you do everything the same every day, it actually keeps you from moving forward. At the beginning, when I was really weak, I had to use my brain a lot more—dancers rely so much on their muscle memory and physicality to do everything for them, but I really had to think about why certain steps weren’t working. I didn’t have to do everything over and over. Because I couldn’t.
Time Out New York: You had to become more analytical?
Janie Taylor: Yeah. It was a different way of thinking about dance, but I do think it’s really beneficial, because if you know why something’s not working, you can make it work every time. And if you’re just hoping it’s going to work and relying on your muscle memory to do what you want it to do—your body changes every day, you feel different every day, so in some sense your muscle memory is not always accurate. You don’t always look how you feel. Sometimes you do something and you’re like, Oh my God, my leg feels like it’s so high, and you look in the mirror and you’re like, Whoa. [Laughs] It’s really low. So what your muscles are telling you isn’t always what’s happening anyway. It’s been a really long process. I don’t know how far I’m going to get and how much I’ll feel like I used to feel, but every year I get a little further. I don’t know when it stops. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: Did you seriously consider quitting?
Janie Taylor: I didn’t ever want to. How much I feel like I have to dance is part of what got me through what I was going through—and even got me able to dance again. If I hadn’t had that drive inside of me, I would have easily quit. It was very depressing.
Time Out New York: Did you know that you had such drive?
Janie Taylor: I always felt it was important to me, but maybe I didn’t know how strong it was. It’s more than something you want to do. You have to.
Time Out New York: How did Sébastien Marcovici help you?
Janie Taylor: He was really good. He knew that there wasn’t a lot that he could do or say to change what was happening and sometimes just having someone just be there, but not necessarily doing anything is what you need. He just inherently knew that: It was happening and there wasn’t much to do about it, but he was there for me, obviously. People just want to fix it for you and say, “Well, maybe you should do this” or “It’s going to be fine.” Sometimes you’re just like, “I need you to acknowledge what’s happening and how not fine it is and that’s what I need.” There were times I would just let myself sit in my room and cry, but other days I was like, I have to be a person. I’m not going to let this just completely take over my life. And you have to realize if this is what it’s going to be like, I have to still be okay with that and be able to enjoy my life in whatever way I can. You can’t just let that ruin everything. It was definitely devastating, but those things happen to people and you have to find a way through them.
Time Out New York: How do you feel now?
Janie Taylor: I’m fine now, which is amazing. I still have moments where I’m like, Oh my God—what if? Because I still have to go to the doctor and have my blood taken, and when it comes to that week…but I’m so thankful that I am not dealing with that on a daily basis anymore.
Time Out New York: I know that you design clothes. When you were going through your health scare, is that when you started making things?
Janie Taylor: I definitely didn’t have a lot to do at that time, and I had a creative void that was needing to be filled. Since I had time, I would just make clothes—leotards and things. I draw a lot. I actually think it is important for dancers to have times when they can’t dance—as horrible as it is, it gives you a chance to recognize other outlets, and to just learn things about yourself and life. Life experience enhances your dancing. It’s like a little bubble here; you’re in this building all day long, and you see the exact same people every day, and people start when they’re 16. I think, a lot of times, your growth gets stunted. A lot of people are diehard: I can’t get injured, I have to do this ballet and that ballet—and that’s a very strong mentality, but at the same time it almost takes away from your work, because you’re so focused on what you want to be doing. I find it kind of nice not having so many ballets; I really get to work on a piece and not be thinking about five pieces at once that all end up looking the same. I was on a certain path, and then I went on a totally different one. I did a lot of jumping and hard stuff before; [after the illness] I got to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have ever done or wouldn’t have gotten to until the very end of my career. I don’t know if I’m better at that now than at what I used to do, and it doesn’t really matter. It was nice to get to go to the other side.
Time Out New York: Have you changed your training since your illness?
Janie Taylor: I think we go through phases. Before any of this happened, I did Pilates a lot and then I wanted to not go to Pilates and I would swim every morning. I think sometimes your body just needs something different. I still like to get in the pool, but it’s more when I’m off that I do stuff like that. I have a bunch of annoying PT exercises to do before class in the morning.
Time Out New York: You just listen to your body. That’s what you’ve learned through all of this, right?
Janie Taylor: Yeah. [Laughs] I just wish it would stop talking to me.
Time Out New York: I read that Sébastien proposed to you backstage. How did it happen?
Janie Taylor: We were dancing Liebeslieder [Walzer], and we both love that ballet. It was funny because he was nervous. I actually had strained my calf two days before and I didn’t know if I was going to do the show, but I was doing it and I remember right before we started—we all get into waltzing position while the curtain is down—he was like, “I feel like I’m going to forget all the steps!” I was like, “What are you talking about? I’m the one who can barely walk!” [Laughs] His parents were in town, and he had told me before the ballet, “Don’t get out of your costume, just come to the door, my parents are going to come back.” He was running around backstage, and he kept going, “Janie, come over here!” I was like, “I’m talking to somebody—what is wrong with you?” He pulled me over and my family was there, too. He had told them. And then he just started proposing and I think I was like, “What?” But it was exciting. He had been planning it for six months. He wanted me to be wearing the costume. [Laughs] We love those costumes.
New York City Ballet is at the David H. Koch Theater through Oct 14.