Lisa says

Lisa Viola opens up about her struggle to become a cherished Paul Taylor dancer

OPEN ARMS Viola performs Taylor’s Brandenburgs.

OPEN ARMS Viola performs Taylor’s Brandenburgs.

Behind Lisa Viola’s comic meticulousness, effervescent daring and lyrical simplicity is a dancer who didn’t always have it so easy. Celebrating her 13th year with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Viola, 42, is proof that with perseverance a dancer can find a creative home, a successful career and even a Bessie. Born in San Francisco and raised in Honolulu, Viola, who originally aspired to be a ballet dancer, recalls watching a Dance in America program of people flying through the air and being caught. “As a kid, I always remembered that image,” she says, eyes twinkling. “Years later, I realized it was Esplanade.” Now, Viola gets to fly herself, and we’re the lucky ones. We get to hang on to her wings.

Time Out New York: When did you become serious about dancing?

Lisa Viola: I started being aware that I was doing this thing called dance at age seven or eight. I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I soon realized that I didn’t have the body type for it. I went to the School of American Ballet one summer and during my evaluation, the teachers said, “You should consider another vocation.” They didn’t even say, “Try another dance style.” [Sarcastically] That made me feel so good. It was devastating. I was like, Great! And here’s my check.

TONY: What happened?

LV: I was only 15, and I tried to stick it out on my own here. My mom came up initially for a year or so, but mainly I stayed with friends and at women’s residences. I couldn’t get any dance jobs. I didn’t have the technique to do modern dance, and if I auditioned for ballet companies, I didn’t have the body. It was just a really rough time. Basically, I had to stop dancing for a while, because I couldn’t even afford to take class.

TONY: It’s amazing that you didn’t give up.

LV: There were so many people telling me no, but I was pretty stubborn. I fell apart, sure, but when I finally did get it I was like, thank you. It’s weird to think back: It was a long time before things started to change, and Taylor has been great, but all the companies leading up to it were just as important. I worked with Rod Rodgers for five years before coming into Taylor. I was not even close to doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was just a very balletic modern dancer, but you learn, and I learned a lot.

TONY: How long did you study at the Taylor School before getting into the company?

LV: Three years. In 1989, he hired seven dancers. Slowly, I began hearing people say, “He’s not going to have any auditions for a long time.” That didn’t really matter to me, but what did was money. A year and a half later I was offered a scholarship. Three years after I started at the school, I was, like, Is this going to happen? I was 28. The school was changing directors—and I guess I was a little old to be at the school, so the scholarship was taken away from me.

TONY: That must have been crushing.

LV: [Laughs] Yeah! But there were moments when Paul would say something to me to make me think, Okay, maybe he’s interested. It was never anything concrete, but I hung in there and a month later, he needed someone to understudy for a dancer who was pregnant. That’s how I lucked out.

TONY: What was the first piece Taylor made on you?

LV: A Field of Grass was going to be my first piece, but then I blew my knee out. When I came back, he made a piece called Moonbine.

TONY: What?

LV: [Laughs] I know. Exactly. Moon-what? Moonshine? It’s a favorite only because it was my first one. The process was a little odd because I had just come back from a major injury, and he wasn’t going to make it easy for me. There were days when I was in tears. I was trying my best but it’s hard to keep up with people who are flying about and can do everything. There was one devastating day when I really thought he was going to pull me out, but then he gave me a solo.

TONY: Your comic timing is impeccable. What is it like to make Paul Taylor laugh?

LV: If I do make him laugh, someone has to tell me. I know this doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I never watch him. He sits dead center, and there are dancers who can look at him while they’re dancing, but I can’t. The respect is there, but I don’t look for his reaction. I’m still nervous being in a room with him. As the years go by, it’s weird. I guess with new people, this is the Paul Taylor they know, but I’ve been here for 13 years. It’s easy to say that he’s mellowed out—and he has—but he’s still feisty and really cares about how his pieces look. He can still do it all. There was one day, years ago, when Patrick [Corbin] was doing the Aureole solo, and Paul kicked off his shoes and he did the solo right next to him, side to side. You never know when he’s going to do something like that, but it was all there: the musicality, that serene calmness that he had as a dancer. It was so special.

TONY: How much longer do you think you’ll dance?

LV: I have a hard time talking about when I’ll stop. I’m slowly figuring things out because Paul’s work is just too hard to perform as long as you’d like to. I don’t really have a structured game plan. I have a time line. So far, I’m keeping it to myself.

TONY: What makes you love dancing as much as you do?

LV: To prove everybody wrong? I couldn’t let it go. But I do doubt myself. At City Center, I feel like someone’s going to tell me, “We know you’ve been faking it all along.” I can’t own it. It would be great to think that I could really grasp that before I leave.

TONY: What is your relationship like with Taylor?

LV: He’s really good at knowing if I’m emotionally there or not. I can just walk into the studio, and he’ll know if I’m having a bad day. And he won’t literally ask me what’s wrong, but he’ll say, “How are you doing today?” It’s usually a day when I’m just scraping bottom, and he knows it. And he’ll just squeeze my shoulder. He’s good in that way. He does talk to us, but it’s moments like that that are special to me. A couple of times he’s caught me, streaming tears. He’ll get me right at that moment. [Laughs] It’s like, “Why did you ask me right now?” But he just has that instinct.

Paul Taylor Dance Company is at City Center through March 19.