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Janie Taylor in “Solo at Dusk” by Bobbi Jene Smith. Photograph by Josh Rose

Far Away and Personal with Janie Taylor

I had the pleasure of interviewing Janie Taylor, my close friend of 25 years, in advance of the L.A. Dance Project’s upcoming run at the Joyce Theater. From May 3-15, LADP is presenting two programs of works by female choreographers—one of whom is Janie. Though she started choreographing just three years ago, Janie has two ballets in the lineup which will have their NYC premieres: “Adagio in B Minor,” a duet to Mozart, and “Night Bloom,” an ensemble piece to Stravinsky that will close every night. She will also perform in Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber’s Covid-inspired work, “Solo at Dusk.”

Janie’s NYC choreographic debut is an eagerly anticipated event. She was beloved by audiences here during her 16-year career with the New York City Ballet, where she and her husband Sébastien Marcovici were principal dancers. I’ve seen recordings of both ballets, and even on a small screen Janie’s inimitable style and quirky intelligence shine brightly. We found the time to Zoom from opposite coasts to discuss her choreographic process, her late transition from dancer to dancemaker, and the logistics of travelling with infants—she has a 5-month-old son who will also be making his East Coast debut. I’ve stricken the boring particulars of car seats in taxi cabs from the record, and our conversation has been further edited and condensed. Even though Janie is dealing with pre-tour rehearsals and the round-the-clock exhaustion of early motherhood, we managed to cover a lot about her choreographic process and glimpse into her wondrously artistic brain.

Janie Taylor! You had a long successful career at City Ballet, and then a fruitful second act dancing with LADP. What made you decide to choreograph at long last?

Benjamin [Millepied, artistic director of LADP]. (Laughs) I was never thinking about choreographing, I had never thought it was something I’d want to do. But then he was making a piece on us and he tasked us with generating some of our own material. I guess I was doing an okay job, because then he suggested I try to make something. The duet, the “Adagio in B Minor,” was my first try—just something I was working on in off hours. It wasn’t on the schedule; we were just trying it out. (Chuckles) I thought I’d just quit after 2 days if I didn’t like the experience, or maybe I’d make it to the end of the piece and it would be terrible and that would be the end of it. Or scenario 3: I finished it and he liked it and we actually put it into our programming that season.

I loved that pas, and I thought it seemed so mature for a first stab, which is why I thought maybe you harbored a desire to choreograph long before then. I’ve always known you to be one of the most creative, and generative, people on the planet: drawing, sewing, making stop-motion films. You branched out into costume design while still at City Ballet—creating for Chris Wheeldon and Justin Peck. And then for Ben at LADP. And for a few years you curated and put out a wonderful art periodical, Quartermarks, to which you also frequently contributed works. Do you think there’s a reason choreography never crossed your mind before then? It’s funny.

I think I just assumed that I wouldn’t be good at it, or I wouldn’t have ideas for it, and maybe it was also because, you know, in our training we were so focused on one person’s work, on Balanchine. Even though we did get to do new pieces and have those experiences, which was always really fun, I think as a dancer I felt my job was to illustrate someone else’s vision. I think I was so concentrated on that job, that I never let it flip to the opposite…forgive me, my lack of sleep makes me forget words and I mostly communicate in charades now (laughing).   

I understand!

You know, at LADP, I ended up in some rehearsals and pieces with new choreographers who asked us to come up with stuff, which never happened to us at City Ballet. Even if we had a new choreographer, it was always the type of choreographer who knew exactly what they wanted and would give us every single step and not really ask for our input in that way. And that was frightening to me at first, to be asked to offer something in the studio without having ever practiced that. But like you mentioned, once I started choreographing, I immediately thought, oh this is exactly what I do with my little stop-motion films. You have to know the movement that needs to happen and the timing of it and how to create an environment for it to happen. I realized I’ve actually been doing this on a teeny tiny scale for a while.

You’ve been a dollhouse choreographer for decades.

Exactly, choreographer of inanimate objects! It didn’t feel as foreign as I thought it would.

At City Ballet you danced the Balanchine and Robbins rep, and you worked with Wheeldon, Peck, Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky, Peter Martins, and numerous others. Then you go to LA and you’re immersed in modern dance classics: Merce Cunningham, Bella Lewitzky, etc—whether you danced them or rehearsed them. [Taylor works as a rehearsal director, teacher, and repetiteur for the troupe as well.] You know firsthand—more than most people—how very many different choreographic processes there are. So, what is yours? Are you spontaneous in the studio? Do you have musical markers? Do you preplan steps, sets and diagrams?

So far, I haven’t been super spontaneous in the studio. I think for one thing, because it’s new for me, I feel very nervous about people’s time. I don’t want people to be waiting around on me. I think as I do it more maybe I won’t feel that way. I do a lot of preparation on my own, and I’m definitely very music driven. I always have a piece of music that leads me, and then for sure I make a lot of notes and drawings. For “Night Bloom” I had basically the tiny set made at home so I could move the pieces around. So I work out a lot of it by myself, but always with the dancers I’m going to use in mind. Especially here, I know our dancers so well it’s easy to do that. But I’m about to make another piece and I’m waiting on the music, so I’m running low on prep time. I might have to try a different process this time—where I have to start without music. What’s that going to be like? It could be fun to figure that out. Maybe it’ll bring out something different than what I would usually come up with.

“Night Bloom” by Janie Taylor. Photograph by Josh Rose

“Night Bloom” has large geometric shapes which the dancers manipulate. Did these set pieces precede the steps or vice versa?     

Actually, the shapes preceded everything—even the music—because it was begun during the pandemic at a time when we thought we still weren’t going to be able to partner with each other. So I was trying to figure out how to make something interesting where people were only going to be dancing alone, solo after solo after solo. I thought if I could constantly change the set, it would make it more interesting than one person at a time in the same space. I wanted to feel like we went to a new place each time. Then I had a trouble finding music that would go well with the pieces changing, and how frequently I wanted them to change. And I was listening to this Stravinsky piece that I used to listen to in Paris all the time because it made me feel like home. [Janie lived in Paris after her NYCB retirement while Sébastien worked at the Paris Opera Ballet.]

Did “home” mean the US? NYC? The stage at the Koch Theater?

It just kind of meant Balanchine’s World. And Stravinsky is probably my favorite composer. And I had forgotten Peter’s [Martins] piece to that music, that I had understudied, but it only went like once while we were there. So I never connected that music to his piece but it was thematically part of our world.

Oh yeah! I forgot about that again, ha! We had this conversation when you first sent me the “Night Bloom” video too. I was like, how do I know this music?

Hehe, yeah, you keep forgetting you danced in that! But my musical memory wasn’t attached to it that way either.

(Laughing) I was in the corps of that piece, but they set it like the day before it went—we worked crazy overtime hours—and then it only went a few times. What was it called?

“Concerto for Two Solo Pianos.”

Right. That was a disaster. We hardly knew it and then it just disappeared. But the music is fantastic.

(Laughing) Yeah, during Covid I played the record one day at home just to put something on that always makes me feel good. And then I realized it would be perfect because of how quickly the music changes, and how often, and that was what I needed for my shape set idea. And by the time we were making it, we were able to start partnering, which is why it isn’t just solos. And thank goodness, it’s better to have many people in that ever-changing set.

I was wondering if the “Night Bloom” shapes spun out of that movie with the giant dancing rocks you showed me in Hawaii [on a mutual vacation, the last trip for both of us right before Covid]?

No. Not really, I think I just like giant things right now. (Laughing)

You’re so over dollhouses.

Exactly. But I’ve been waiting to reshoot that rock thing with better lighting so I can show it somewhere. They’re not related, other than I like big objects.

 

Still from “Sonata for Saras” by Janie Taylor, for Los Angeles Dance Project.

Balanchine choreographed for elephants; you did rocks! And then the Sara film: was that before or after “Night Bloom”? [Sara Mearns starred in Janie’s “Sonata for Saras,” in which Sara appears in triplicate on one screen.]

It was before.

And it was choreographed over Zoom, right?

Yes.

That must have been challenging.

It was, but she was great and super invested. Jenny [Ringer] had asked me to make a little piece for the Colburn students at the time, which was over Zoom. And I was trying to figure out how to make that interesting, so I had started filming myself. And since I was home, the only way I could see what I was doing was to film myself in my backyard—I have a million videos of me dancing in my backyard! I guess now that I can go back in the studio and look in a mirror that will change. But I was trying to see, with film, how I could fit more of the students together even though they were apart. So I was filming myself doing one girl and then the opposite girl to try to put them on the same screen, which totally worked, but it was a million Janies, which is like your nightmare!

(Cracking up) I still have nightmares about a ghost Janie army.

Good! And so I thought, oh my gosh, this is really interesting, because every time I would do the same dance, even though I thought I was doing the same thing, I looked completely different from the other Janies because that time I stretched the music here or my demeanor was softer there. I was the exact same person but there were these tiny differences, and I started to be really interested by that. So I decided to use that concept with Sara. I mean, every day we do all the same things over and over again, but with a different mood, or in a rush one day. So I was focusing on the mundane things we do a lot.

And life felt especially mundane during the pandemic. What was that, like, eating grapes step?

Spaghetti. (Laughing)

Spaghetti! I loved that.

Sara and I made lists of things we do over and over. And eating spaghetti was obviously one of mine. But I think she maybe also eats pasta a lot.

That’s a dancer thing.

Yeah. I had made like a shopping list of steps on paper, and I filmed it in my yard while physically reading from the paper each time, which I liked. But Sara felt uncomfortable holding and reading from the paper. She felt more comfortable memorizing it. I said if you can memorize three very similar, but slightly different, versions of the same long thing then go for it! And she totally did. (Laughing) I definitely needed the cheat sheet!

Even busy Sara was that bored during the pandemic! That piece was great because it was the one thing during that long period of watching so much dance on film that nodded to the subtle differences of live performance, even though it was a film. It encapsulated both experiences. You were saying this is what we do, we dance the same ballets every night, but they’re different. And it was a reminder of what we were missing online. I though it was brilliant.

Why, thank you! There was the option of digitally making her the same while we were editing. Peter Walker and Emily Kikta helped with the filming, and he kept saying I can make her exactly the same for you. But I said the whole point is that she’s not exactly the same, that’s why she went to the trouble of memorizing three versions!

I have to say that from your very small body of work so far—though really it’s been a lot for just a few years, particularly pandemic years—it’s amazing to me that you have such a strong choreographic voice. Your stuff is immediately recognizable, it looks different, and it looks like you. It’s incredible that Ben just suggested offhand that you try choreography, and you had this fully formed vision just waiting there all along. It surprised me, though it shouldn’t have, with your long history of rock ballets etc! Anyway, maybe because I’m your close friend, I feel that I see all your favorite things in your dances. I see Ugly Dolls, your dead cats, your love of dancing “Liebeslieder,” the delicate precision and sensitive musicality you used to bring to your old City Ballet roles, your obsession with ghost stories—it’s all in there to me. So I want to know: do you consciously incorporate all your zany interests, hehe? Do you work in chunks of imagery from your life? Or does it just pour out of you from one integrated faucet? I’m so curious!

(Laughing) A little bit of both. I’ll think: this section is a séance, and what is that in a dance? But the music leads me a lot too, sometimes it’s just obvious to me that THESE are the steps for this music. But there are moments where I’m not really sure what something is, so then I consciously go to images of things I love in real life, or a shape I want to make. I was rehearsing “Adagio” the other day and we were working on a lift and I was telling the girl just don’t really do anything. Like a corpse. And then it looked right. And I thought, hasn’t everyone seen Corpse Bride a million times? Doesn’t everyone dance all the time thinking about that movie? (Laughing)

(Cracking up) You are also performing at the Joyce, in Bobbi Jene Smith’s piece about Covid.

Yes, it was made in response to the pandemic, that’s why we have masks. And it was the first thing we did during the pandemic for the drive-in performances we held in our parking lot. Thank God for the great California weather.

Only in LA! You designed and made the masks, right?

Well, it was her idea that she wanted us to be covered in flowers. She showed me some photos and I pretty much just constructed them. It’s a really beautiful piece, she was so great to work with. Everyone had to work separately, so she would send one person off with a task. The part that I do is especially nostalgic, which feels fitting for now, but at the time it was about the kinds of things we weren’t able to do, and mourning what it was like before the pandemic. But we were separated, so I don’t know everyone’s full character story, but each one of us has our own story that we’re telling simultaneously. It’s kind of like a group of people who have been misplaced together.

What’s your character’s story? Or do you not want to say?

She had tasked me to write a letter, and then to make movement based on that letter. My character is a grounding and maternal force for the group. Maybe she’s seen more—or lived longer. She’s separated most of the time in her own little living room corner, which looks exactly like the corner of my bedroom at home. It felt very much like I was being myself.

But you weren’t yet pregnant then?

No, not yet. But Bobbi had a 7-month-old at the time, and now she’s here to rehearse us again and I have an almost 6-month-old, so it feels very connected. My character steps in when things go awry, she kind of tends the garden of people. But I only do one little solo throughout. It’s to this old French song, and the dance is about remembrance and looking back. I think Bobbi’s really good at seeing who people are right away and pulling from their lives.

That’s extra impressive during that masked and isolated time. I can’t wait to see that too. You’re not dancing “Adagio in B Minor” at the Joyce though? Even though you made it for yourself?

No, (laughs) I passed it on. I’m sure I’ll never choreograph for myself again; I’d rather see others. Benjamin had suggested I do that, and it was helpful to start that way, being in an insecure space about wasting people’s time. But it also helped me understand, once I was able to do it on myself, how I could do it on other people’s bodies. It was a helpful exercise.

Well, I’m sorry not to see you dance more. I’ve missed that so much! Do you think you’ll switch over to choreography completely now? Will this be the last thing that you perform?

I do think it’s probably gonna be the last time I dance, although I wasn’t wanting to make a big deal about that or announce it, even within my own company. I had a nice big retirement at City Ballet, and this has all been extra fun. I’m just kind of letting things happen. And obviously the first one didn’t stick, so…. (Laughing)

Haha oh no, you’re the Tom Brady of ballet! Okay, time will tell!