Dancers who become a member of Paul Taylor Dance Company not only get jobs with one of the nation’s most historically significant modern dance companies, they also become a member of a family, complete with Christmas presents, invitations to summer picnics and raucous, awkward family reunions.
Those reunions? They happen at places like New York’s Lincoln Center, where on Sunday, 46 of the company’s former members will stage a revival of Taylor’s comical American pastiche “From Sea to Shining Sea,” in honor of the company’s 60th anniversary.
Taylor is not only one of America’s best choreographers but also one of its most varied, creating iconic works that range from insect impersonations to vaudeville shows to stoic requiems to sprite-like romps. Many dancers stay for more than a decade, and when they do leave, they remain on the roster of a close-knit, not-so-secret society.
“I’ve always felt part of the Taylor family,” says former dancer Constance Dinapoli, who now lives in Fairfax, Va. “When I was performing in New York, the alumni would come backstage, and they were so supportive. . . . Every year we’ve gotten invited to the summer birthday party for Paul on [Long Island], and alumni are always invited back to be part of the New York season.”
That’s not the norm in the dance world, she says. “It’s very special.”
In honor of Taylor’s 60th anniversary of making dances, The Washington Post talked with Dinapoli and two other members of the Taylor family with Washington connections: Liz Walton, a Brookland native who was a member of the original touring company and now teaches at University of Maryland Baltimore County; and Patrick Corbin, who grew up in Potomac, Md., and danced with Taylor for 16 years.
Walton, who turns 77 this year, grew up in Northeast Washington, where her father was a high school music teacher. She studied dance at the Capitol Ballet School. When it came time to choose a college, she went to Brandeis and earned a pre-med degree. Before enrolling in medical school, though, she took a job working with pediatric leukemia patients —“the most depressing job I’ve ever had in my life.” To de-stress, she took dance classes at a studio run by former Martha Graham dancer Bob Cohan. When Walton asked him if she should move to New York, he told her, “I don’t know, honey, but if you’re going, you better hurry up.” So she went to Juilliard, but also took a few classes at Martha Graham’s school downtown. It was there that she met Taylor. “Juilliard and medical school went by the wayside, and I never had a regretting moment,” she said.
After dancing with Taylor’s original touring company for six years, Walton left the troupe to get married and moved to Baltimore. She taught dance at the Peabody Institute and became a professor at UMBC, where she chaired the dance department for two decades and continues to teach. Her former students include local choreographer Daniel Phoenix Singh. At the reunion performance, she will reprise her role as the Southern Belle in “From Sea to Shining Sea,” wearing a custom-made costume for the occasion.
Years with Taylor: 1960 to 1966
Why Taylor chose her: In his memoir, “Private Domain,” Taylor writes that Walton was “a luscious mover, possessed of an outgoing disposition and a matching smile. Given good reason, though, she can display a truly goosebumping temper.” (“That was more than 50 years ago. Hopefully I’ve matured,” Walton said, laughing.)
Leading roles with the company: “I was in 19 dances with Paul, and 12 were created [with parts] for me. ‘Duet’ was made for me and Dan Wagoner, and later made into part of a larger dance called ‘Lento.’ ‘Duet,’ ‘Tablet’ and ‘Aureole’ were my favorites. . . . All the other dances I can watch, but it’s still hard for me to see ‘Aureole.’”
Next steps: “I could retire any day of the week, but I really love what I do. I have two fake knees, so I can’t teach advanced technique anymore, but I teach dance history and dance for beginners.” With funding from UMBC, Walton created a documentary featuring her chats with Taylor. This summer, she plans to help Dinapoli lead the first-ever Mid-Atlantic Paul Taylor Summer Intensive at the Peabody in Baltimore.
Growing up in Rochester, Minn., Dinapoli was an energetic, red-haired gymnast who reluctantly started taking dance classes to improve her floor exercise. “When I finally went, I really liked it, and I was drawn to contemporary and modern work,” Dinapoli said. She studied art history and economics at Stanford, but kept dancing, and had a chance to take a master class with the Taylor company. After graduation, she saved up her cocktail-waitressing tips, moved to New York and became a member of the company.
One of Dinapoli’s final performances with the Taylor troupe was in 1992. She was six months pregnant with her first son at the time but did not want to miss dancing while Taylor received his Kennedy Center Honors. She and her husband relocated to Fairfax in 2005, attracted by the opportunity for her to teach dance at George Mason University and for their three sons to attend Fairfax County schools. She now splits her time between teaching at the Peabody, GMU and the Washington Ballet, and also travels the country, setting Taylor’s dances on other professional troupes and student ensembles.
Years with the company: 1986 to 1993
Why Taylor chose her: In a program note for his 1991 dance “Oz,” Taylor said of Dinapoli: “She is . . . beautiful, both inside and out. If I had a daughter I would want one exactly like her, and that’s a fact.”
Leading roles in Taylor dances: “ ‘Company B.’ I’m the girl who was left onstage crying during ‘There Will Never be Another You.’ That was me. . . . In rehearsal, Patrick [Corbin] and I were supposed to do this over-the-back thing and we fell, and Paul decided that that was the moment, that it was the fallen soldier on the battlefield. He dropped that in, and the piece became more melancholy. He would have somebody fall, within these joyous scenes. That came from that accident. The lesson is that you just go for it full out, whatever a choreographer asks you to.”
Next steps: After several years in a temporary full-time position at GMU, she is now the director of contemporary dance at the Peabody, where she will lead the Taylor Summer Intensive in August. This spring, she’s teaching students at Indiana University to perform Taylor’s “Airs.” “When I go to set my works, I give them a huge history lesson, of the work, of the process and of where Paul came from,” Dinapoli said.
In the early 1980s, Patrick Corbin was a ballet-crazy teenager from Potomac who spent his Saturdays scooping ice cream at his family’s shop at the Montgomery Mall. E very other day of the week, he was dancing as a student at the Washington Ballet and “in theory” taking high school classes via correspondence. In 1983, Corbin, now 49, moved to New York to continue studying at the School of American Ballet. He then spent four years with the Joffrey Ballet, a company that performed several Taylor works. On a whim, he auditioned for Taylor and had to take classes to prepare for what would be a long new career in modern dance.
Years with the company: 1989 to 2005
Why Taylor chose him: “[Patrick is] the kind of dancer that’s always working to improve. He doesn’t settle back. He’s very versatile: He can do heroic type roles, he can do comedy, he can do drama,” Taylor told The Post in 2003.
Leading roles in Taylor dances: “He let me be who I was and discover things in myself that I didn’t know existed, and the best example of that is ‘Aureole.’ Mr. Joffrey had called me his little bulldog, but Paul let me be the tall, beautiful guy, even though that’s not my body type, and he gave me the angry bulldog dances too. He let me become a complete artist.”
Next steps: “I got my GED at 30, and now I’m working on a master’s degree in dance performance in choreography from the Tisch School at NYU. I took the back door into education,” says Corbin, who, unlike most Taylor dancers, never went to college. Once he finishes school next year, he plans to revive his own company, CorbinDances, a pick-up troupe that last performed in the District in 2008. He returns to Washington frequently, because his family is “disgustingly close” and can still be spotted in the audience at local performances, whether the Taylor company is onstage or not.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.