At the beginning of this month, New York City Ballet principal dancer Janie Taylor, one of the most captivating dancers since George Balanchine died in 1983, took her final bow along with her husband, fellow principal Sébastian Marcovici.
As it happened, Taylor concluded her career by reprising the very first principal role she ever danced in the company, the heroine seduced by Death in Balanchine’s La Valse. Taylor and Marcovici also performed Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun, a rethinking of Vaslav Nijinsky’s groundbreaking work for the Ballet Russes, set in a ballet studio. Taylor’s 15-year career was under the leadership of Balanchine’s successor, Peter Martins, but her unwavering service has been to the company’s founder, Balanchine himself. Her insistence on looking back has made her one of Balanchine’s greatest disciples, and Janie Taylor’s departure will be a huge loss not only to the company, but to the dance world at large.
Along with energy, attack, and clarity, George Balanchine loved individualism in his dancers. Yet Taylor says her style doesn’t come from trying to be different, or more like “herself,” but from her unwavering dedication to Balanchine: “I sometimes say that I wish I had been born 30 years earlier,” she says. While many dancers are concerned with making a ballet their own by approaching it differently than anyone else, Taylor says she prefers to depict Balanchine ballets the way they looked when he was creating them.
With a lofty jump, and flexible limbs and back, Taylor epitomizes Balanchine’s American ideal. But while she is never afraid to take incredible risks (she can be frightening to watch), it is the inherent contradictions in her dancing that make her so appealing. She can outjump some of the men in the company, but there is also a vulnerability to her. Onstage, her near-translucent skin appears to glow from within.
At 15, Janie Taylor left her family in New Orleans to train in New York at the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the New York City Ballet. She initially felt inferior to her classmates and wondered if she belonged in a lower level, but she was eager to learn and revered her teachers because they had worked directly with Balanchine. One in particular, Susan Pilarre, recognized Taylor’s potential, and her visual teaching style spoke to Taylor. “Something that makes a good dancer is having a very clear idea of what you want to look like,” Taylor says. “And [Pilarre] made those details and those shapes seem so important.” In 1998, after a haunting performance of Balanchine’s Harlequinade at the school’s annual workshop performance, Taylor received the prestigious Mae L. Wien Award and was invited to become an apprentice with the New York City Ballet. She was awarded her corps contract only one month later. At the beginning of her career, Taylor would regularly perform every night, often in multiple ballets.
Taylor was never the most proficient technician in the company, and would occasionally stumble out of pirouettes. But achieving perfect technique was never her ultimate goal. “I think it’s okay for someone to be a really special dancer, and they may fall down or not be as secure as someone else,” she says. “But I still feel like it’s worth seeing, and sometimes even more enjoyable to watch.” Taylor says that when technique is overemphasized, femininity can be neglected, and that’s a mistake. One of Balanchine’s last ballerinas, Merrill Ashley, who was known for her stellar technique, wrote in Dancing for Balanchine (1984):
Balanchine valued individuality and how ready he was to overlook shortcomings, provided he received enough in return. . . . Suzanne Farrell was his favorite and she broke the rules both on the stage and, more surprisingly, in class.
A majority of Taylor’s repertory is made up of Balanchine ballets, and to prepare, she requests videotapes (“the oldest thing I could get my hands on”) from the company video archives. She also spends time at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center studying VHS tapes of the original Balanchine casts. Taylor was fortunate to participate in several filmed coaching sessions for the George Balanchine Foundation, led by former dancers including Allegra Kent and Violette Verdy, who originated roles. Taylor says their instruction was illuminating but that there are only a “small handful” of NYCB dancers today who are interested in how Balanchine ballets were originally danced; many debut principal roles without ever having seen the ballet.