From the first day of rehearsal to our performance, and due to several casting shifts, I have had the privilege of learning three different roles in Party Mix. The three roles that I’ve learned have been the only three male roles in the piece. In most circumstances, this would not be something of note, but Paul Taylor has a long history of distinctly gendered performances and performers. The idea of the “Taylor Man” is one that has been established by modern dance audiences since the early days of his company. One New York Times article from 1984 described the men in Taylor’s piece, Arden Court, as follows:
“Anyone who saw Mr. Taylor, not only broadchested but big and beautiful, when he was still dancing in the company, will have no trouble recognizing the basic body type in this group. The combination of grace and strength in these dancers is a given and for all their outstanding solo work, they are modern-dance’s best partners. Muscular and quick, they perform the kind of lifts, devoid of preparations, that ballet partners do not.
“And so while Mr. Taylor has spawned them – creatively speaking, let it be added – they also represent an even newer extension of his way of dancing. They know how to borrow ballet’s momentum, fluidity and speed even in the most unballetic movements that the Taylor choreography demands. And yet they remain modern-dancers, but the kind of male dancers that this art form has very rarely displayed. They are eloquently masculine in vigor and projection. Mr. Taylor has no use for the unisex dancers rampant since the 1960’s in modern-dance. His male and female dancers are not interchangeable. Nor are his male dancers in the background.”1
“Combination of grace and strength.” “Muscular and quick.” “Eloquently masculine in vigor and projection.” I will be the first to admit that these qualities do not come naturally to me, as a cisgender woman. Yet the opportunity to embody these qualities, to understand what it means to be eloquently masculine, is something that I was ever excited to embrace and attempt.
This process has been one of the most challenging dance experiences that I’ve ever had. I have never been much of a jumper, yet the Taylor men bound across the stage for the majority of Party Mix. This semester, I bought my first heating pad in an attempt to speed up my body’s healing process between rehearsals. I’ve been sore, bruised, blistered, scraped, and otherwise battered in my attempts to leap, slide, fall, and support with the tenacity of the men I’ve watched in videos and on stage.
Yet with great challenge comes great reward. The ecstasy of nailing a combination that was nearly impossible two weeks prior. The flush of running through Party Mix from beginning to end, collapsing when the music stops but overjoyed at making it that far. The amusement of overhearing visiting artists ask which role I was playing, as if it were so difficult to imagine that a woman could be performing as a Taylor Man. The pride of overhearing one visiting artist recognize me in the part immediately, a small moment that validated the blood, sweat, and tears that I’ve poured into this project and into becoming a more versatile dancer.
I was as surprised as anyone when I was first cast as a male dancer back in January, and I honestly didn’t believe it would be possible to do the role(s) justice. But somehow I made it work, and today, I feel nothing but gratitude. Gratitude for Ruthie and Amanda in trusting me to rise to the challenge. Gratitude to my fellow dancers for their endless patience as I’ve failed and failed and failed before finally getting it right. And finally, gratitude for Paul Taylor, for if he hadn’t constructed such rigid gender binaries in his pieces, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to break them.