Story by Katie Dravenstott | Photos by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company. Originally appeared in our 2019 MPrint issue. Read more here.
Known as one of the top-tier modern dance companies in america, the Paul Taylor Dance Company (PTDC) is extremely selective when it comes to its dancers. The fact that so many SMU dance alumni have gone on to perform with the company says a lot about the training these individuals received from SMU Meadows’ dance division.
Q: What did you find appealing about SMU’s dance program when applying for college?
Mazzini: I was attracted to the immersiveness of the conservatory community because I was hungry to be working in close proximity to other artists, musicians, actors and designers. An alumnus of the Meadows M.F.A. theatre program, Charles Richter (’75), director of theater at Muhlenberg College in my hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, recommended I apply to SMU.
Trusnovec: As I was finishing high school, SMU came to my attention because of a recruitment call from Joe Orlando, who was on the jazz dance faculty in the Dance Division at that time. For me, it was important to find a balanced university experience with a strong, well-rounded dance curriculum covering many forms, and rigorous academic offerings.
Smallwood: When I visited the school, I saw the fall semester performance and knew a few of the seniors. I remember being very impressed with the quality of the work and realizing that I should be looking at the dancers that a dance division was graduating rather than simply the ones they were recruiting. Anyone can make offers to attract talent; only a good division will actually develop it.
Duveneck: I liked how diverse the program was, focus- ing on jazz, modern and ballet equally. I wanted as much versatility in my training as possible. I also loved how strong the academics were at SMU. Knowing how short a dance career could be, it was important to me that I had a well-rounded undergraduate experience.
Q: How were you introduced to Taylor’s aesthetic?
Mazzini: Dr. Shelley Berg’s 20th-century dance history class. She showed us Ruth Andrien (a principal with Paul Taylor from 1974 to 1983) dancing the falling solo in Esplanade, one of Mr. Taylor’s masterpieces, and I was entranced. She added video to SMU Meadows’ Hamon Library, a fantastic collection of archival and television footage of the company, which I devoured. That research was the foundation, the very beginning of my learning of the Taylor style.
Trusnovec: I was introduced to the Taylor aesthetic while a student at SMU. Annmaria and I were regulars in the Meadows library, watching any films they had of Mr. Taylor’s dances. I was also cast in Esplanade in my senior year, my first experience dancing a Taylor work, and reaped the benefit of Mr. Taylor’s personal visit to SMU when he received the Meadows Award.
Smallwood: I was required to audition my first week in school for Esplanade and 3 Epitaphs when Paul Taylor was receiving the Meadows Award. I knew absolutely nothing. It became a fascinating semester of discovery and exploration. It changed my understanding of dance, as I realized that virtuosity comes in many different forms.
Duveneck: Knowing the connection between SMU and Taylor, I attend- ed a summer intensive in New York before my junior year. I loved how varied the work was and the sense of community that the current and for- mer dancers had in the studio. The next year Ruth Andrien was a visiting guest artist for the semester and staged Cloven Kingdom on us, which was one of the highlights of my time in school.
Q: How has your SMU dance education aided you in your professional endeavors?
Mazzini: After studying Martha Graham technique and loving all the Graham films available to us, I had some wonderful moments in the studio with Mr. Taylor as he shared with me his memories of dancing in these works.
Trusnovec: My SMU dance experience made me an incredibly well- rounded dancer, an independently driven one with a strong sense of professionalism. I believe my success with the Taylor Company, and everything I’ve done outside of and since my time with the company, has been because of this.
Smallwood: The technique I gained and understanding of the inter- connectedness of dance has served me throughout. Having danced for Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, David Parsons, Robert Battle and Lars Lubovitch, it’s been vital to understand what motivates each and marry an artistic aesthetic with the underlying physical motivation.
“His gift was giving each of us the power of choice, and instilling in us the ability to trust in our personal truth.”
Q: Which SMU faculty members and classes challenged you the most?
Mazzini: I have never encountered anyone before or since quite like Bob Beard. He insisted that we “have an opinion” about everything we did. He demanded absolute authenticity in every moment, so with him there was no faking or hiding. It was consuming, exhausting and wonderful.
Trusnovec: Bob Beard’s modern classes were the most challenging for me. I had not had a lot of experience in the Graham technique at that point, so grasping all of the details and understanding the foundation of the movement, especially considering my body wasn’t perfectly suited to its demands, was a great mountain to climb.
Smallwood: What struck me as a common thread among the majority of the faculty was that they spent our early years challenging what we thought about dance so that the opinions and sensibilities were our own rather than those of our early teachers. Then our later years were spent refining those beliefs wherever they had settled for each of us. These were the early steps of finding my voice as an artist and gave me the con- fidence to continue to develop my voice throughout my career.
Duveneck: The diversity of the entire faculty’s expertise has always served me well working with an array of choreographers. Specifically, how Myra Woodruff challenged us to focus on detail and intention while studying the Graham technique is something I’m always thankful for.
Q: Did you know of other SMU dance alums in PTDC prior to joining the company?
Mazzini: I was the first! I joined Taylor 2 in 1995. I was at SMU with Michael, who shared my early enthusiasm and obsessiveness for Tay- lor early on at SMU. I was also there with Joseph Gallerizzo and Shanti Guirao, both of Taylor 2.
Trusnovec: Annmaria was two years ahead of me at SMU and we worked closely together on many projects while students. She joined Taylor 2 about six months before I graduated and joined the second company myself. Two years later I moved into PTDC and a year later she followed. She and I started a long wave of SMU Dance Division graduates who have since populated the Taylor companies.
Smallwood: At SMU, I had shared a role in Esplanade with Michael and had coached Parisa Khobdeh with Robert Battle in 2001 when we staged Robert’s work Battlefield for the first time. I met Lee Duveneck before he was at SMU when I was ballet master on the Tremaine Dance Convention. I met Annmaria through Michael shortly after moving to NYC.
Duveneck: I knew of Michael and Annmaria when I started SMU since they were such big stars in the dance world. But I first heard about SMU from George Smallwood, whom I had studied with in high school. This was before he had joined PTDC (we both joined the organization around the same time), but he had such a successful career with other companies that I decided to audition for SMU.
Q: What valuable lessons did you learn from Taylor?
Mazzini: With Paul, there were so many paths to the truth of his movement, and he was very generous in trusting each of his dancers to find the path that resonated most for them. His gift was giving each of us the pow- er of choice, and instilling in us the ability to trust in our personal truth.
Trusnovec: I learned what it means to be part of something greater than myself. To be of service to an art form, an artist’s vision. I experi- enced firsthand the strength that lies within a company of dancers.
I learned the importance of being kind, the power in being a mentor.
Smallwood: You get to know Taylor through his dances. And you can only get out of it what you put into it. You have to continue to explore, continue to be curious.
Duveneck: The hallmarks of Paul’s work are also values that he in- stilled in his company. They demonstrate generosity of self, showing courtesy to everyone, and throwing yourself into the moment. Seeing how Paul and the senior dancers brought all these things into the studio daily made an indelible imprint on me.
Annmaria Mazzini danced with Taylor 2 for four years and with PTDC for 12 years, and is now a teaching artist, choreographer, dancer and jewelry artist. Michael Trusnovec retired in 2019 after 22 years with PTDC and Taylor 2, and now serves as director of worldwide licensing for the company. He will be a guest artist with New York City Ballet
in their winter 2020 season. George Smallwood has been a company member since 2012. Lee Duveneck joined Taylor 2 in 2012 and PTDC in 2017. Alumna Parisa Khobdeh danced with PTDC for 16 years before starting her own company, Parisa Khobdeh Dance Company, in 2019. Additional Meadows alumni who have been members of Taylor 2 include Susan Dodge ’98, Joseph Gallerizzo ’00 and Shanti Guirao ’97.