Sean Mahoney hated his childhood ballet lessons so much that he did almost anything he could think of to get out of them. He even faked the asthma attacks that got him into the studio in the first place.
“I was 12, the only boy in my class,” recalls Mahoney, now 34 and a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which performs at McCarter Theater on Wednesday, March 31. “But my teacher told my parents, ‘This kid has some talent. You just have to keep him focused.’ I didn’t want to hear that.”
Fortunately for Mahoney and the dance fans who have watched him — first as a member of New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet, more recently with the celebrated Taylor troupe — he stuck it out. In a review of the company’s opening night at New York’s City Center in the New York Times on Tuesday, March 2, dance critic Alastair Macaulay had this to say: “A particular thrill arises this season from watching James Samson and Sean Mahoney, not least in their brief dances together in ‘Beloved Renegade.’ They’re in their prime, and they seem relaxedly aglow with good humor and self discovery. The fury (Mahoney) discovers in ‘Scudorama’ is terrific and touching, because he seems to know it’s something he can’t help about himself.”
“Scudorama” and “Beloved Renegade” are both on the program at McCarter along with Taylor’s “Changes.” To be a member of the Taylor company is to be in on the creative process of one of the most important, prolific choreographers of contemporary dance. Still active at 80, Taylor is a sly genius who manages to convey the sheer, visceral joy of movement while embracing the dark side. Again and again, he surprises his audiences — and his dancers.
“You never really know what to expect,” Mahoney says of working with the master. “You have to be there 110 percent of the time. If he can smell fear, you’re in trouble.” Mahoney will be giving a master class in the Princeton Ballet Studios on Sunday, March 28, as a fundraiser for ARB and the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Mahoney’s parents first sent him to ballet classes because his asthma prevented him from doing just about anything else. “It was really a series of accidents,” he says. “I couldn’t play any sports. No swimming, no ball, no paper route, no mowing the lawn. I couldn’t even play the violin because I was allergic to the rosin for the bow.”
Then his mother’s sister, Carol Parker, formerly a dancer with the modern troupe Pilobolus, suggested Sean try ballet. In Levittown, PA, where they lived, the Mahoneys enrolled Sean at the Knecht Ballet Academy. “I kept it a secret at school,” he says. “I wanted to quit so badly. But then my father, who was a construction worker at the time, decided to take ballet classes himself to help me out. Now I realize how great that was. I still didn’t really like it, and my father said to me, ‘One of these days you’ll appreciate the ratio of men to women.’”
The school’s director, Fred Knecht, knew that Princeton Ballet School, which is the official school of American Repertory Ballet, was offering boys-only ballet classes. He told the Mahoneys, and they decided to enroll Sean, at the same time signing up his sister, Erin, for other classes. She went on to a successful performing career, first with ARB and later the Washington Ballet. The Mahoneys, in fact, are an institution at Princeton Ballet School. Mom Cindy is now the school’s registrar. During Nutcracker season, she serves as the assistant stage manager, or as she calls it, “head kid wrangler.”
For 14-year-old Sean, being in a ballet studio full of boys was a revelation. “Right away, it felt like home. It was this ‘unity in the community’ thing,” he says.
He continued to study at the Knecht school while taking the boys’ class at Princeton Ballet. Soon, he was tapped for student roles in “The Nutcracker” and the career-track program for serious ballet students. He began spending more time at the Princeton school. Among his teachers was the late Philip Jerry, ARB’s ballet master in the early 1990s. One day when Jerry couldn’t be at the school, his longtime partner Patrick Corbin, a dancer with the Taylor company, led the class in his place.
“He taught us a section from ‘Esplanade’ (a famous Taylor piece),” says Mahoney. “I was 17 at the time. And I just took to it right away. It was a lot of fun, unlike anything I had ever done before.”
At Corbin’s urging, Mahoney went to an audition for the Taylor company. “I had never seen them before, but I went anyway,” he marvels. “There were a couple hundred guys there, looking for one spot in the main company. I didn’t get it, but Paul got the idea around then to start a second company, called Taylor 2, to do outreach — kind of like ‘Taylor light.’ And I was asked to be one of the five members of that company. I did it for two and a half years, and I had the time of my life.”
Ultimately, though, Mahoney felt frustrated. He moved on to the dance company of Taylor veteran David Parsons, appearing with them for a while. “It was the same frustration,” he says. “It was great movement, and I was eating it up. But I felt like I was getting ahead of myself. I thought maybe I was approaching this the wrong way. I stopped dancing for a bit, hit the rest button.”
Mahoney did some modeling, and danced in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. He still felt unfulfilled. Around this time, he heard that ARB was looking for extra male dancers to appear in “The Nutcracker.” “I had some time off, so I went down to Princeton. I ended up joining the company.”
It was around this time that Graham Lustig became artistic director of ARB. A dancer he had worked with previously, Peggy Petteway, joined at the same time. Petteway lived in Philadelphia and commuted each day to ARB’s Princeton and New Brunswick studios. “She and Sean, who was living in Bensalem, began carpooling,” says Lustig. “You might say that the rest is history — they got married a few years later.” Petteway has continued as a dancer with ARB and teaches at Princeton Ballet School.
Lustig immediately recognized Mahoney’s strengths. “Sean is a strong and clean, masculine, powerful, musical, strong stage presence,” he says. “He was great as Petruchio in my ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ And he’s a good, strong partner.”
When ARB staged Val Caniparoli’s ballet “Lambarena,” which blends African movements with classical ballet, Lustig gave Mahoney a major role. “I had a solo, and I loved it,” Mahoney says. “I thought, ‘Why am I enjoying this so much?’ And I realized, it’s because it felt like Taylor.”
So he auditioned for Taylor once again. Only this time, he was nervous. “Had I burned bridges? And could I do this after doing ballet?” Mahoney remembers thinking. But he was accepted back into Taylor 2. A year and a half later, a spot opened up in the main company — “the only way you can get in,” he says. It was 2004, and Mahoney was in.
He is fascinated by his time with Taylor in the studio. The choreographer often asks the dancers for a measure of improvisation as he develops a new work. While he might focus on one thing one day, he can completely switch gears the next.
“It can be the exact opposite of what you expect,” Mahoney says, “nowhere near what you were doing the day before. You think he’s not watching you, but he is. It’s kind of like structured chaos. He’ll say, ‘Show me what you’ve got,’ and then he’ll put a spin on it, and it turns into these amazing Taylor works. I don’t know of any other choreographer where you can go through three or four works (in one program) that look like they’re each from a completely different person.”
“Scudorama,” which is on the McCarter program, is Mahoney’s favorite work to dance. Taylor performed the lead role himself when he choreographed the piece in 1963. “What an honor beyond belief to do this,” Mahoney says. “And what he has done to help me in the role is pretty incredible. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to dance. But I love it.”
Paul Taylor Dance Company, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Wednesday, March 31, 8 p.m. $42 to $53. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org
Mahoney will be giving a master class in the Princeton Ballet Studios, 301 North Harrison Street, on Sunday, March 28, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. as a fundraiser for ARB and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. $25. 609-921-7758.