Introducing our newest company member at GroundWorks – Taylor Johnson.
Taylor is versed in a wide range of styles of dance as well as improvisation, classical partnering and dance composition. While at Juilliard, she performed works by Kate Weare, Jose Limon, Risa Steinberg, Merce Cunningham, Jennifer Goggins and Eliot Field, and danced alongside former GroundWorks member Michael Marquez and current member Gemma Freitas Bender.
Tell us about your dance background. Did your upbringing influence your artistic pursuits?
I started dancing when I was four years old. My mom was a big influence. She enrolled me in gymnastics when I was three, but I wasn’t having much fun. So my mom asked me about it and I told her, “Mom, I’ve told you since I was three that I wanted to be a dancer!” (Laughs) So she finally put me in dance class.
When did you know dance was your calling?
My mom definitely influenced both my sister and I. She was a dancer. After she had kids she taught at a studio. Jazz was her specialty, which influenced me because I like moving in a sensual way. That’s what jazz is about – whether in dance or music – it has that sensual feeling and quality to it. When I was a kid, I really gravitated toward that – I loved moving across the floor, taking up space.
Dance has always been a part of my life. When I think back, you could say I decided at age 11 or 12 that I wanted dance to be my career. At that stage of life, dance is taking over all of your free time, so you have to choose. As a kid, I was fully committed. I wanted to dance forever. I wanted to be on Broadway. I want to perform for the rest of my life.
You knew at a young age that you wanted to be a dancer. Sounds like that made for a pretty intense childhood.
I grew up in Columbus and attended a competition studio. It was not conservatory like – technique was important but not the focus. It wasn’t until I was 16, sophomore year of high school, that I started homeschooling while getting serious about my dance studies at Planet Dance in Cincinnati, which is like an open class-style studio.
I was 16 when I moved to Cincinnati on my own. I got an apartment with a 25-year-old who I didn’t know, and I essentially became an adult. I took responsibility for myself at a very young age. That was a huge transition. But that’s where my ballet training took off. Yeah, it was intense. At 16 I had a full-time job, working from 7:30am to 4pm as a nanny; then I would go to the dance studio and work until well at night. I was also homeschooling myself.
You were very focused at a young age. At 16, what plans did you have for the future?
I wasn’t planning on going to college. I was going try to make it in New York. I wanted to move there and dance. That’s all I wanted to do. One of my teachers sparked this idea of me going to college. I told myself if I’m going to college then I’m going to the best one or nothing. So I auditioned for Juilliard and got in! I was in the class behind (former GroundWorks dancer) Michael Marquez and (current company dancer) Gemma Freitas Bender. I learned so much at Juilliard and graduated with a million tools in my toolbox.
How did you first hear about GroundWorks?
I had two knee surgeries after I graduated and I took some time to recover. I went back to Columbus with my husband. During this time, I was collaborating with Gemma on a performance. She had just joined GroundWorks and was telling me about the company and how much she loved it.
My husband and I were trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives. Ohio is not the first state that you think of when you think “dance.” But he expressed that he wanted to stay in Columbus. So I thought, I should reach out to Gemma to see if they had an opening. I reached out to her as a shot in the dark. It’s rare for a company of five people to have an opening. So I jumped on the opportunity the same day that Gemma said a company member was leaving.
What do you like best about working with GroundWorks?
I love working in small groups. To be able to have that one-on-one attention with the director and with your coworkers is special. You don’t get that a lot in dance. Especially, coming from Juilliard where there was 24 people in my class; to be able to really get to know each other is special. I really love David (Shimotakahara) and the way he works and how he interacts with us. It’s very professional and also very personal at the same time. He knows what he wants, he’s clear and he’s really respectful, but he’s also goofy and funny, and we can be casual and have fun together.
Dance is a huge part of my life, but there are also other aspects that make up my life. It’s inspiring when you’re working with a director and with other artists who take interest in you, other than the dancer part of you.
I’m so incredibly grateful because this company is so high caliber. Everyone is so talented and giving and generous. It wasn’t something I was expecting to find and I was delightfully surprised.
What makes you unique as an artist?
I try to be completely willing and open-minded about everything. I think that brings a sort of ease about me. I’m very confident in my choices but I’m also open minded. I think listening is so important in relationships. I am willing to hear your opinion and try it. It’s this confidence – you can tell when you meet someone and when they are dancing that they are confident. I bring that confidence, and the ability to step back and let other people come forward. Each person in the company has a specific language and I want everyone to be able to share and bring their uniqueness.
You will be making your debut as GroundWorks’ newest company member during its Fall Dance Series. What are you looking forward to?
We’ve already learned Amy (Miller)’s piece and that was phenomenal. What an amazing experience! She was organized, and she gave us so much room to interpret, to bring our own personalities. I’m excited to perform that piece because it’s about the connection between us dancers. It’s an example of a piece that’s not about one person but about many key moments with five people.
I really love David’s concept for his piece. I love American Folk in general whether it be exploring farming or Amish tradition, which he’s taking a lot of inspiration from.
Take Five, the Dave Brubeck piece, is just such a fun piece. I grew up doing jazz – it’s all about rhythm and isolation. I always have the best time during this piece, with a huge smile on my face! I love being on my tip toes and challenging my body. It’s like coming full circle back to my roots.