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.
One former NYCB dancer, Jacques d’Amboise, says that Balanchine used to ask his dancers, “Why are you holding anything back?” In her one and only performance of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux in 2002, Taylor seemed to have been coached by Balanchine himself. Dancing with complete abandon, she was reminiscent of another Balanchine ballerina, Patricia McBride, as she devoured space with a wonderfully springy jump while remaining feminine and beautiful. Taylor says she assumed she wasn’t any good at the role because she was never asked to dance it again. But that performance was, by far, the greatest rendition of the ballet I’ve ever seen.
In 2004, Taylor performed more than at any other time in her career: She felt a little run down, but figured that some exhaustion was to be expected with her demanding schedule. She also noticed that she’d been bruising easily, but thought nothing of it. As a precaution, Taylor visited her doctor, who performed a routine blood test, and she returned to work.
Then, in the middle of rehearsal one day, the doctor called with the test results. He urged her to stop what she was doing and go immediately to the nearest emergency room. Taylor was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a dangerous autoimmune disease which destroys platelets in the spleen, resulting in a dangerously low platelet count, meaning blood doesn’t clot. Her doctor prescribed a steroid regimen that controlled the disease, but each four-day bout of steroids left her joints loose, making dancing extremely precarious. In the month-and-a-half between treatments, however, Taylor had her blood tested regularly and was not only able to dance, but rose to the pinnacle of her ability.
In 2005 she performed the lead role in Balanchine’s Square Dance, a ballet that is almost technically impossible and shows the company at its most virtuosic. Taylor was coached by Merrill Ashley, who had revived the role with Balanchine in 1976, thus making her a star in the company. “Balanchine wanted a high level of energy in every movement,” says Ashley in Dancing for Balanchine. “It made no difference whether we were moving slowly, quickly, or not at all.” And you can see Ashley’s instruction through the clarity of Taylor’s slicing footwork. Taylor was promoted to principal dancer before her second performance, but Square Dance was also one of the last allegro ballets she would ever dance. After months of treatment, the steroids were deteriorating Taylor’s body, and shortly after her promotion, she decided to have her spleen removed.
The surgery was a success, but the steroids weakened her, and her injuries were slow to heal. As a result of her illness, Taylor had to rebuild her repertory with dramatic adagio roles (usually reserved for more experienced ballerinas) rather than the allegro roles for which she’d been known. Over the next few years, Taylor debuted in Balanchine’s Davidsbündlertänze, Liebeslieder Waltzer, and La Sonnambula, among others. The new rep forced her to explore a different side of her capabilities, and critics noticed Taylor’s development.
Taylor says her approach to dance hasn’t changed over the years, but she has been forced to develop her mental acuity. She can no longer afford to injure herself by continually trying to dance by trial and error: “I try to use my brain a little more now that I’m older.” While other dancers perpetually run through choreography, or practice turns in succession before the curtain goes up, Taylor can be seen sitting or standing quietly by herself, looking blankly into space. But she’s not in a daze; she is running the ballet through in her mind so that she’ll know exactly how she will approach each step before setting foot onstage.
Taylor and her husband are relocating to Los Angeles, where Marcovici will begin a new position as ballet master with Los Angeles Dance Project, where Taylor plans to take company class. She is designing the costumes for Justin Peck’s new ballet for NYCB, which premieres this spring, but she has no plans to dance professionally. While there is no shortage of creative outlets for Janie Taylor, she says there is nothing she won’t miss about being part of the New York City Ballet. She looks forward to a life without pain, however: “I can’t remember the last time I just felt great, so that’ll be a nice relief.” Then she smiles to herself: “Or it’ll be, like, ‘Well, this hurts, but who cares? It doesn’t matter!’ I think that’ll be nice.”
Sophie Flack, author of "Bunheads," is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and Ballet Review.