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Dance faculty, students reconstruct Paul Taylor’s ‘The Word’

  • The Word
    The Word
    William & Mary students rehearse "The Word," a reconstructed Paul Taylor piece that will be performed as part of this year's DANCEVENT.
    Photo by Geoff Wade

Brute strength, unflinching endurance and an apparent ability to levitate seem to be the requirements that William & Mary students had to fulfill in order to be cast in the upcoming dance production of “The Word.” But those abilities are actually the result of nearly 12 months of hard work by students and faculty as they toiled together to carefully reconstruct the iconic Paul Taylor piece.

“I think that, for me, the end product is going to be exciting, but the process has been the best part,” said Associate Professor Leah Glenn.

The modern dance piece will be performed as part of William & Mary’s annual DANCEVENT concert, opening Oct. 31 in Phi Beta Kappa Hall. This is the first time that “The Word” has been reconstructed outside of the Paul Taylor Dance Company since it premiered at New York’s City Center in 1998.

Taylor, who is still choreographing today at the age of 83, has created 139 dance pieces since 1954 on topics ranging from war to sexuality. “The Word” is based on Saint John Climacus’ writings on the “Ladder of Divine Ascent” and related artwork, which shows saints climbing a ladder to heaven while demons try to pull them down.

At 29 minutes, the reconstructed work was no small undertaking for a university with only a dance minor. The idea began with a 2011 visit to William & Mary by Parisa Khobdeh, a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, who gave a master class for Glenn’s students.

Glenn told Khobdeh that she not only works on her own choreography but also reconstructs historical works from notation score. Glenn had previously done smaller, representative works; however, she was hoping to do something more substantial. Khobdeh encouraged Glenn to try one of Taylor’s longer works.

With Khobdeh’s name and no other connection to Taylor, Glenn sent him an email asking for permission.

“He said yes, which was wonderful,” said Glenn.

Although she had the green light from Taylor himself, Glenn had to next find the money to support the project. With the help of then-Contact Dean Teresa Longo, Glenn was able to secure funding through the William & Mary Class of 1939 Gillian Fenner Peterson Visiting Professor Award.

With funding in place, the Paul Taylor Dance Company sent Glenn the 300-page notation score and videos of the company performing the piece, which had evolved slightly with each progressive performance. Glenn also began to coordinate with other faculty members in the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance, gathering the support of Steve Holliday (lighting design) Tric Wesp and Mary Jo Damon (costumes) and Meg Hamilton and Dave Dudley (technical direction).

Auditions for the 12-member cast were held last November at William & Mary, and both members and non-members of the Orchesis dance company received parts.

“I told them it’s going to be really challenging,” Glenn said. “They were excited that they got to participate in a project like this.”

Although Glenn led the project at William & Mary, she says that Khobdeh, who is very familiar with the Taylor style as a member of the company, has done much of the reconstruction work, generously sharing her time and talents with the students throughout the year. Khobdeh taught the cast half of the piece last November and the other half in March. She came back to the university in August to host a weeklong residency where she taught classes that focused and the drilled on the characteristics and nuances of the Taylor style, said Glenn.

The Taylor style can be demanding for dancers as much of the movement initiates in the back, which really works the core and back muscles, said Glenn. It’s also somewhat quirky, she added.

“That’s what makes it so beautiful,” she said. “One minute the movement is really delicate, and the next it’s really strong and fierce.”

Taylor also uses a lot of pedestrian movements in his work – simple walking and running – but in a more stylized manner, said Glenn.

“That’s where the technical aspect comes in, making it much more challenging,” she said. “The work is hard. It is tough, but it’s beautiful and exquisite, and you want to master it,” she said.

The demanding rehearsals – two hours, twice a week – have not only been teaching the students quite a bit, but Glenn is learning, as well, she said.

“I feel like I can speak for the whole cast when I say this, we accomplished things that we just had no idea that we could,” she said. “There have been so many thresholds that have been reached and passed. Some of the work is grueling, but it’s just beautiful.”

No matter whether the students involved in this challenging production go on to a career in dance or something else, Glenn hopes this experience will teach them that they can push themselves to accomplish anything.

“The project is so much bigger than learning steps in a part,” she said. “It’s about a larger life lesson.”