Volume 76, Number 39 | February 21 -27, 2007


Private dancer

How Lisa Viola finally found her voice

By Chris Bragg

Two years ago, Lisa Viola stood speechless on the stage before a full house at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea.

Viola, a Paul Taylor dancer known for her charismatic performances, had just won one of the dance world’s great honors. But in her acceptance speech, she struggled to conjure up a single word.

After a torturous minute, she explained her difficulties to the crowd.

“Paul Taylor has been speaking for me for years,” she said.

Then, she said simply, “I need a beer.”
“It was horrible,” she says of the 2004 speech after she won the Bessie award for sustained achievement, noting that she did indeed have a beer afterwards. “I don’t like talking.”

For Viola, 43, self-expression has always come more easily through movement than through words. And her dancing speaks volumes, says John Tomlinson, manager of the Paul Taylor company.

“Why is she as brilliant as she is?” he asks rhetorically. “Why is Einstein a genius? She’s one of the greatest dancers alive.”

In particular, colleagues say, Viola can express different emotions on stage unlike any dancer they have ever seen. The Paul Taylor company is famed for its vast range of styles, and Viola has mastered all of them, whether the piece be “lyrical and beautiful, romantic, humorous, very high energy, exploding, or evil,” according to Tomlinson.

“The amazing thing about Lisa is she can embrace all these types of dancing with complete conviction,” he says. “Some members of the company can only do one or the other, but Lisa can do them all.”

“She’s a chameleon,” says Michael Trusnovec, her frequent Taylor dance partner. “Anytime she walks on stage, it’s like she’s becoming someone else.”

For many colleagues, Viola, a 14-year Taylor veteran, has been projecting that brilliance as long as they can remember. Viola, however, says she doesn’t forget her arduous road to stardom.

With shoulder-length black hair and soft dark eyes, Viola tells her story in a quiet voice, her hands moving constantly in sharp gestures that serve as punctuation marks when words fail.

She moved to New York City at 15 and didn’t land a full-time dancing job at Paul Taylor until she was 29. Along the way, she was told to quit, struggled to learn a new style, and sometimes didn’t have enough free time to even sleep.

“Because of my so-called struggles, I’ve had a real appreciation for things,” she says.

Born in San Francisco in 1963, Viola moved to Honolulu, her mother’s original home, when she was four. While other kids did hula dancing, Viola showed talent in ballet classes, and Viola’s mother took her to New York for a summer workshop at the School of American Ballet when she was 15. It didn’t go well. A teacher told Viola she had the wrong body type for ballet.

“She told me I should consider another vocation,” Viola says.

But driven by an insatiable love for movement, Viola persisted at ballet, though without much success. She says her career took a sharp turn around 1986, when she saw her first Paul Taylor performance.

Though she had known of the company, she had never considered modern dance as a career. The very first piece they performed was a Paul Taylor classic called “Roses,” a technically challenging slow dance set to Wagner.

“What fascinated me was to see that modern dance was so lyrical, so beautiful,” she says. “Before I thought it was funky music that you can’t count. I can only describe it as the blinders flying off.”

She loved the way the dancers flung themselves across the stage; unlike ballet, every movement didn’t have a name and didn’t look as choreographed. She decided to give up ballet and pursue modern dance full bore.

Coming Full Circle

In a flowing white skirt, Viola stands to the side as five pairs of men and women sweep slowly across the Paul Taylor studio. Mid-piece, the couples sit down, and the focus turns solely to Viola and Michael Trusnovec.

They move in circles, and though they move constantly, they rarely lose contact. Viola falls gracefully toward the floor and Trusnovec picks her up steadily by one arm, lifting her high into the air, her skirt waving.

In this moment, Viola has seemingly come full circle: the piece being performed is in fact “Roses,” and Viola is now the piece’s lead female dancer.

While Viola now makes the piece look effortless, getting her foot in the door at Taylor was difficult. Because Viola never went to college, she initially didn’t have any exposure to modern dance. “There’s only so much you can fake,” she says.

Still, she landed a job at a smaller company called Rod Rodgers. At the same time, she hung around the Taylor Company constantly, in hope of someday working there.

“She was the hardest working dancer I’ve ever seen,” says Tomlinson, who worked at Taylor before Viola was officially hired.

Viola remembers those years as the most grueling of her life. She would rehearse each night at Rod Rodgers from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., then work a graveyard shift from midnight to 8 a.m. answering emergency phone calls at a doctor’s office. Always by herself, she’d try to listen to the radio or read. At 9:30 a.m. she would head to class at Paul Taylor.

“This is definitely not a career where you make a whole lot of money and retire early,” she says.

Viola sometimes thought about quitting. She did get a boost in 1990, when Taylor decided to give her a scholarship to take classes at the school. However, three years later, the scholarship was revoked because Viola, at 29, was seen as possibly too old to be in the company.

Then, one month later, in the fall of 1992, a Taylor dancer became pregnant. The company knew Viola could fill the void quickly; she was at class every day and knew the choreography. They asked if she would join the company.

Describing the moment when she was finally able to give her week’s notice at the doctor’s office, Viola raises her hands towards heaven.

“It’s a hard road,” Viola says, a point she underscores with struggling young dancers. “But I just don’t like it when people give up too soon. Be stubborn.” She feigns a gentle slapping motion towards an imaginary student.

Kindred Dancers

The main Paul Taylor studio in Soho is a big, bright room with peeling white brick walls and a jet black floor.

Bettie De Jong, the company’s rehearsal director, has been at Taylor for over 40 years. A tough woman from Holland, she’s one of few people in the room more experienced than Viola, and she has some advice to offer.

“Can you do it with your body rather than your hand?” she asks Viola, motioning toward her. Viola nods, and repeats the corrected motion eight times in a row, until De Jong is satisfied.

After De Jong, though, Viola clearly has seniority. There is a vote, for instance, on whether to re-rehearse “Roses.”

“Lisa voted yes,” one of the dancers says. “That counts for like six votes.”

“Because of her quiet strength, she’s a natural born leader,” says Patrick Corbin, a former Paul Taylor senior dancer who was Viola’s frequent on-stage partner. “The other dancers really look to her for guidance in her actions, and they respond and emulate [her].”

Viola is often referred to in press accounts as Taylor’s principle dancer, though no such official designation exists at Taylor. (Viola instead uses the terms “senior dancer,” or even “senior citizen dancer.”) Inevitably, she gets questions about retirement. Viola says she tries to be vague in her answers.

“I know the day I give my notice it’s going to be hard,” she says. She estimates that it will come in a couple years. Professional dance is hard on the body, and Taylor “doesn’t have room for people to just stand on stage,” she says.

After she retires, she hopes to teach Taylor works to other companies.

Her colleagues think she’ll excel at whatever she pursues because of her work ethic and her extreme attention to detail. But they don’t want to think about her retirement just yet — she’s still dancing too well.

“She must have the fountain of youth or some elixir,” says Trusnovec. “I’m amazed every day.”

Taylor, at 76, is a choreographer who dance critics say has also remained young and fresh despite his age. These days, he can usually only be found in the studio when he’s choreographing a new piece.

Viola says despite having worked for Taylor for 14 years, their relationship remains strictly professional. “He’s still the choreographer, I’m still one of 16 dancers,” she says.

Her colleagues, however, believe the professional relationship between Taylor and Viola is a special one. “You can tell he loves her,” says Trusnovec. “He adores her because he’ll ask her to do something and she’ll break her leg trying to do it.”

Colleagues say Viola and Taylor share similar personality traits. For instance, Viola typically only does interviews or photo shoots for the press when Taylor specifically asks her to. Otherwise, she’ll decline. However, Taylor rarely asks Viola to do public relations because he empathizes with her desire for privacy, Tomlinson says.

“She’s a mirror of Paul Taylor because he also hates the limelight,” he says.

Tomlinson says that the two virtuoso artists, the genius and his long-time muse, both have a desire to simply let their art speak for itself.

“It’s a business,” he says, “that’s not about talking.”

The Paul Taylor Company will be performing March 2-18 at the New York City Center, W. 55th St., between 6th and 7th Aves., 212-581-1212, www.nycitycenter.org.

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