TAYLOR GORDON CHASES DOWN HER DREAM
This article is written by CLAUDIA LA ROCCO at THE NEW YORK TIMES
TAYLOR GORDON thought she might have a heart attack as she sprinted from RADIO CITY to THE AILEY CITIGROUP THEATER.
“I was literally shoving tourists out of the way,” said the diminutive Ms. Gordon, who looks like a high school student.
Welcome to the life of a New York freelance dancer.
On that November afternoon she was racing from the Christmas Spectacular to Ninth Avenue, where she was assisting the Ailey Extension teacher Kat Wildish’s student performances. In a city made for multitaskers, Ms. Gordon fits in all too well.
Just 21, she has been living her dream of dancing in New York for five years, with the first two also spent training 30 hours a week at Ballet Academy East on the Upper East Side, getting a bachelor’s degree in communication arts and a master’s in publishing and working in internships at magazines like THE NEW YORKER and Pointe.
She landed the RADIO CITY job (too short at 5’3″ to be a Rockette, she danced in the ensemble) during her final semester of graduate school in 2008. The grueling schedule included quadruple show days.
“Now, thinking back, I don’t know how I did this,” said Ms. Gordon, who finished her studies at Marymount Manhattan College in January 2008 and her graduate program at Pace University the next December. She laughed, shaking her head.
“At the time it was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I do this?’ ”
There may come a time when Ms. Gordon regards her career as a freelance ballet dancer with the same incredulity. The demands of professional dancing are punishing for even those who belong to full time companies, where dancers have salaried positions and access to classes, physical therapy and coaching.
A season spent shadowing Ms. Gordon revealed a city teeming with freelancers who scrap for every opportunity, endure dispiriting cattle call auditions and struggle through injuries, often without health insurance. They must find and pay for technique classes themselves (as well as expenses like pointe shoes). And, of course, they have to cover the rent.
“Those of us lucky enough to be in a company for a long period of time cannot fully appreciate the rigors of that lifestyle,” said Judith Fugate, a former principal with NEW YORK CITY BALLET who, with Medhi Bahiri, directs the troupe BALLET NY, which they formed in part to give opportunities to freelancers.
“But this is the place to be if you’re a dancer in this country and it’s why so many people gravitate here, especially for ballet.”
(Ms. Gordon auditioned for the company last month but didn’t make it; Ms. Fugate was seeking older dancers, though she said Ms. Gordon “has all the attributes of a good ballerina.”)
Ms. Gordon knows these rigours well.
She pays $1,200 a month for a glorified walk in closet near Lincoln Center; the kitchenless room is something of a ballet shrine, packed with dance books, photographs of performances and clusters of used toe shoes. (Ms. Gordon has never thrown a pair out.) She made roughly $25,000 from dance last year, mostly from RADIO CITY, a union job that also provides health insurance (she is in physical therapy for bursitis in one ankle), a godsend for freelance dancers.
The grind of auditions and stress of an uncertain future overwhelm her at times. But there are also great highs for Ms. Gordon, who grew up in Milford, Massachusetts, dancing at her family’s studio from the time she was 2 and later at the Boston Ballet school.
Her mother Tracey Wright recalls taking her to see the company’s Nutcracker when she was 4. Her daughter calmly announced, “I’m going to do that.”
And she has. Here are snapshots from Ms. Gordon’s past season:
OCTOBER 27 Ms. Gordon was engulfed in a roly poly bear costume. Only her head, with its big eyes and sweep of dark hair, was visible. Her feet, clad in pointe shoes, seemed incongruously delicate.
It was Week 3 of the intense RADIO CITY rehearsal period. The cast was practicing the Nutcracker scene and Ms. Gordon, one of the Ballerina Bears, had to execute fouettés while compensating for the unwieldy suit and, once she donned the bear head, poor visibility.
“Nobody said it was easy,” Matt Clemons the assistant director said, holding forth on the Zen Bear attitude.
“Believe it or not, if you smile in your bear head, it makes it better. The Rockettes are the stars. But you are the heart and soul of the show.”
Exiting the studio, the dancers dropped their focused miens, complaining of aching shoulders and of legs that “feel like cardboard.”
Ms. Gordon’s bursitis had flared up, but she was clearly delighted to return to RADIO CITY, with several months of salary ahead.
“I haven’t had that relief in a while,” she said. (Auditions for 2010 were in May; she hasn’t yet learned her fate.)
DECEMBER 5 Ms. Gordon’s parents, maternal grandfather and step grandmother clustered inside a packed Starbucks near Rockefeller Center. Her family had travelled from Massachusetts to see her dance at Radio City; her mother brought her dance students last year.
“They were like, ‘Wow, she’s a star,’ ” Ms. Wright said. “We were crying; just the magnitude of it all.”
On that big stage Ms. Gordon does indeed seem the star, skating through tightly choreographed group numbers with aplomb. The gig, she said, “is a dream come true I didn’t even know I had,” validation that she could actually make it as a professional dancer.
“In our small town people don’t venture out,” Ms. Gordon said. When she left at 15 to study at The Rock School in Philadelphia, “it shook the whole town.”
Her mother sighed over the play dates and Halloweens that Ms. Gordon passed up, but her daughter only shrugged.
“That’s when you make the choice: Are you willing to give up everything you have for this? There was no question for me.”
JANUARY 6 There’s no stoicism like that of an auditioning dancer. Ms. Gordon’s tryout for the METROPOLITAN OPERA BALLET consisted of lots of waiting, performing for 72 seconds and a better luck next time speech.
“I did my best,” she said, filing out of the cinderblock room.
“On to the next one.”
JANUARY 30 Ms. Gordon was one of several women rehearsing with Exit 12 Dance at the Battery Dance studio in TriBeCa, part of an informal audition process.
“I just want to see how strong you are on pointe,” the artistic director Roman Baca said.
“Really no pressure.”
Ms. Gordon’s poker face stayed firmly in place as she learned phrases from La Bayadère and Homecoming, a work based on Mr. Baca’s military service in Fallujah, Iraq.
“She’s definitely one of the more professional dancers we’ve seen in a while,” he commented during a break.
Ms. Gordon would eventually land the job (over 70 dancers responded to his on line posting; 30 auditioned) and is to perform with the troupe next Friday through Sunday.
FEBRUARY 11 The choreographer Rebecca Kelly’s SoHo loft was a hub of activity before an improvised fashion show to benefit her ballet company. Ms. Gordon sat on a couch, surrounded by racks of costumes, applying heavy eye makeup with another dancer Allie Schwartz.
“I don’t want to stay out there too long,” Ms. Gordon remarked, laughing and gesturing to the catwalk, “because I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Strutting sexily did not come naturally to the quiet, introspective Ms. Gordon. But she was game, plunging into angled arabesques and tangling with a partner.
With the RADIO CITY job behind her, Ms. Gordon was working part time at a real estate agency and was back in the unpredictable swing of classes, auditions and smaller shows.
“That’s my whole life: just run and you’ll make it.”
Ms. Schwartz said, “That’s what I think every day I’m crazy hectic: I’m Taylor.”
MARCH 16 Dancers lined the hallways of Pearl Studios in the fashion district, clutching head shots as they waited to audition for a Cats national tour. Ms. Gordon, who arrived 75 minutes early, was #278.
“Too many people. I have to remind myself that I got Radio City through one of these big cattle calls.”
In the end she did not stick it out for her number to be called. She had rehearsals and leaving the city wasn’t appealing.
MARCH 21 Ms. Wildish’s students were performing again and Ms. Gordon, who has a work/study arrangement that allows her to take Ms. Wildish’s classes free, fielded questions from nervous amateur dancers.
“I made the program. I made the schedule. I made the tech list. I made the costumes,” she stated, laughing.
“Actually dancing is the least of my worries.”
She called Ms. Wildish something of a second mother, cherishing the continuity of daily classes with one teacher.
“She’s not outgoing and it’s been quite a challenge trying to pull all of that out,” Ms. Wildish said.
“On stage she really lights up.”
JUNE 12 A classroom at Stuyvesant High School has been transformed into a theatre: costume racks, ballet barres, an orchestra and, in an impossibly narrow space, dancers learning steps for a last minute rehearsal of Tchaikovsky & Friends, a New American Youth Ballet recital.
Ms. Gordon wouldn’t usually take such a job, but the lure of live music, even at a performance for young students, was irresistible.
“Last night I was almost in tears when they started. To be this close to this music is incredible.”
The next day’s performance was chaos, with tiny children taking centre stage as their parents recorded every misstep. Ms. Gordon was a quiet, dignified backup dancer, an island of calm connected to glorious music.
JULY 5 On this sultry night Ms. Gordon stood on one of ballet’s biggest stages: the METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE. She was performing in AMERICAN BALLET THEATER’S ROMEO & JULIET — as a supernumerary, not a dancer, playing a member of a bridal party.
“Amazing,” she stated later in an email message.
“I watched all of Act 1 and 3 from the wings and…Ahhh!”
You could think of Ms. Gordon as always a bridesmaid, never the bride in ballet. But she is philosophical.
“Everybody dreams of being in ABT or of being in a company of that calibre,” she explained one late fall afternoon in her apartment.
“But the reality is I don’t have the ballet feet and the ballet legs…and my whole life I’ve struggled with that. I had a lot of friends who quit because of that very reason. If they’re not going to be the best of the best, then they will have no part of it. Being on stage, it’s so much a part of me that I can’t imagine, ever — even if it’s little nothing bits.”
“I have to perform.”