Dancers need a lot of space to jump around in, and while adequate work space won't solve all the logistical and esthetic problems involved in forming a dance company, it's one of the reasons young companies often founder. For this reason, people who are asked about Jason Taylor's Theater Movement Exchange tend to talk first (and in tones of awe) about his studio: a huge, high-ceilinged area that Taylor and his co-director, Robyn Nash, have remodeled into cheery classroom and meeting-spaces.
The building in which their studio is located lies behind the Rive Gauche in Georgetown and has an unlikely history: It is said to have formerly house the White House Communications Center for the CIA. Now it contains arcades, a warehouse, a private cinema, and workshops, as well as the dance studio where Taylor and Nash offer classes in ballet, modern, tap and jazz. In recent weeks, the 12 dancers of Taylor's performing company have been rehearsing there for the company's debut, tonight at 8 at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium.
All of this - school, company, studio - has happened extraordinarily quickly, considering the normal impediments. Taylor and Nash have managed to come this far this fast partly out of sheer commitment and energy and partly because they have complementary strengths and assets.
Nash, a friend of Taylor's from the Capitol Ballet, has lived and worked in Washington most of her life and is well connected locally. Her father is an architect: her mother, Teixeira Nash, a painter and former Chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts. Taylor has broad professional connections in the black dance community beyong Washington and has danced on broadway and with choreographers like Ailey, Faison and Lousi Johnson.
Taylor has that long, attenuated look some dancers get. When he moves, he manages to suggest the way a Japanese calligrapher might convey the human body in motion by reducing it to a single line. Born and raised in D.C., he danced with the Capitol Ballet before leaving to travel and dance in New York, on the West Coast and abroad. In October of last year, he returned to Washington in the cast of "Your Arms Too Short To Box With God" and stayed.
Tonight's performance at Howard will be dedicated to the memory of Thelma Hill, the veteran New York dancer and teacher who befriended and encouraged a whole generation of aspiring black dancers and choreographers. The concert will feature a showcase of scenes from a full-length ballet based on "Paradise Lost," set to music of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff. The text for this project, which a teacher and choreographer in San Francisco, Kay Hoelzle Holden, originally composed for Robert Joffrey, has lain dormant for 38 years. Taylor's willingness to tackle it, after both Joffrey and ABT gave up on the idea, will convey something of the scope of his ambition.
Theater Movement Exchange is already the kind of place where dancers tend to congregate, and Taylor would like to see this organization help reverse the flow of good dancers out of Washington in search of work.
Taylor and Nash are attuned to Washington's need for a professionally run, black-based modern dance company capable of mounting performances on a regular basis. Two of the local companies that have served this need in the past, the D.C. Repertory Company and the Cole-Harrison Company, are temporarily dormant. Meanwhile, the dancers from these companies need to perform and continue to grow, and many of them have found their way to Taylor.
In his choreography, Taylor leans toward the fusion of ballet, modern and jazz idiom that Ailey laid claim to by moving it from Broadway to the concert stage and introducing black themes.
But Taylor isn't dogmatic or particularly contentious about his artistic preferences. He speaks primarily as a dancer trying to make a space in this city so that he and other dancers can do the kinds of things dancers need and want to do: move, choreograph, meet, train, perform.