Letting Go
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Paul Taylor has often been called the world's greatest living choreographer. At 80, he still produces two new dances a year, and his company is more successful than ever, performing at the New York City Center in the spring and then touring for much of the rest of the year. Taylor first became interested in dance in college, and danced with Martha Graham before starting his own company in 1954.

His most famous dance is "Esplanade," which he choreographed in 1975. Against a background of Bach, the dancers dive, slide, roll and flutter across the floor with reckless abandon. In the finale, women race across the stage one after another, each leaping into the waiting arms of a man who twirls, releases her, and turns back to catch the next one. Breath-taking in its bravado, athleticism and split-second timing, "Esplanade" is an embodiment of joy that brings tears to the eyes—and all without a single formal dance step. Taylor is known for creating dances from "found" gestures and movements observed in everyday life.

Halzack's third audition for Taylor, in the summer of 2006, began like the others. At a typical audition, about 400 women try out for one opening. There is no screening ahead of time. No headshots. No résumés. No videotapes. The music starts and on every count of eight, a dancer starts walking across the floor. "I can eliminate half of them by how they walk," Taylor recently told the Washington Post. "They're either too self-assured or not assured enough, or they're just weird."

Halzack passed the walk test, but later nearly fell on her bottom while performing a triple turn leading into a jump. With the heat rising in her cheeks, she muttered something "not very ladylike" and then, when she burst out laughing at herself, Taylor joined in. "Oh, Laura," he chided her, "I know you can do better than that!" To her surprise, she got called back the next day and once again made it to the final round. At the end, Taylor cast his gaze around the room and expressed regret that he could only choose one. Then he turned to Halzack and said softly, "It's you, Laura."

When Halzack reached her father by phone, she could hardly speak. But Greg finally gathered that Laura the Dancer was now Laura the Paul Taylor Dancer. It had been six years since she'd called to say she had to give up dance, and her dad knew she had now found her niche. "She can't not dance," he says. "It's in her soul." And hers may be a soul that is particularly suited to modern dance.

Laura Halzack '03 Tom Caravaglia
SCUDORAMA: Halzack and Sean Mahoney

From the beginning Taylor has bestowed upon Halzack a number of the roles originated for his former lead dancer, Bettie de Jong. The press seems to admire Halzack as well; she's been heralded as striking, musical, regal, superb, lyrical, balletic, exceptional and a rising star. Although petite seems a more apt description of her stature off stage, she's often described as statuesque—a reflection perhaps of her stage presence, which Nardone says is something that can't be taught. "It's a combination of who you are, what you are born with and what you do with it." Earlier this year the New York Times called her "the company's most beautiful woman [and] also its most enthralling."

For many young dancers, the dream is all about the magic—the lights, the costumes, the accolades. In four years with Taylor, Halzack has had all of that, as well as the chance to perform in about 10 different countries. And yet, she says, the reality is far different from, and better than, anything she could have imagined.

The shape of her day varies, depending on the time of year and location of the company, but it often entails being on her feet and moving—in a morning "gyrotonic," yoga or dance class; an afternoon "tech" rehearsal; an evening performance—for five to seven hours a day. When the dancers first arrive at a new venue, on tour at home or abroad, they look like a motley crew. In a small ornate theater in Great Barrington, Mass., one spring afternoon, they take to the stage for a warm-up in faded T-shirts and hoodies. There is stretching and yoga posing and leaping and pirouetting going on all at once, and all in silence. Instead of talking to themselves, they seem to be dancing to themselves. For a visitor, the effect is mesmerizing, rather like being in the presence of a very large tank full of tropical fish.

Against this backdrop, the managers and lighting people quietly work out some technical bugs. Finally the tech rehearsal begins with "Piazzolla Caldera," a complex piece set to tango music. Although there are no tango steps in it per se, the mood, the costumes and the moves are so "hot" that audience members can often be seen removing sweaters and jackets at the end of a performance. It seems to be about the underlying sexual attraction and the stylized maneuvers—reminiscent of both the military and the nightclub—between different groupings of men and women. The rehearsal, however, is about going through every move with coordination and precision. Halzack alone is in full costume, since she will be performing a new role for the first time this weekend. In one duet she slides down and around her partner's body like a silky piece of clothing. In the break after the dance is finished, manager Andy LeBeau, who attended UNH in the 1980s and danced in Taylor's company from 1995 to 2005, jumps up on stage to go over some of the rough spots. The talk is technical, spatial and anatomical. No magic. That will happen in performance.

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