Bettie de Jong joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1962, when its members were Mr. Taylor, Dan Wagoner, Liz Walton, Bonnie Mathis and Shareen Blair; her Company debut occurred on April 15 in Paris. She danced until 1985. During those 24 years – the longest stint of any Company member – Mr. Taylor set 24 parts in these dances for her: Tracer, Piece Period, La Negra, Scudorama, Party Mix, The Red Room, 9 Dances With Music by Corelli, From Sea To Shining Sea, Post Meridian, Orbs, Lento, Public Domain, Churchyard, Foreign Exchange, Big Bertha, Book of Beasts, Fetes, Guests of May, Noah’s Minstrels, American Genesis, Esplanade, Cloven Kingdom, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), and House of Cards. Bettie, who was Mr. Taylor’s favorite dancing partner, became the Company’s Rehearsal Director when he stopped performing in 1974. The cognoscenti see her deft touch throughout the repertoire. Reviewing the Taylor Company’s 2004 City Center season, Mindy Aloff wrote in Dance View New York, “Regardless of whether a given dance is profound or superficial, likable or grating, it will always be beautifully made and, thanks to the Taylor Company’s rehearsal director, Bettie de Jong, performed with intensity.” A native of Sumatra, Indonesia, of Dutch heritage, Bettie moved with her family to Holland after World War II on her 14th birthday; New York has been her home since 1958.
TaylorNotes: You grew up in a very difficult time and place: Indonesia during the Second World War.
Bettie de Jong: My growing up years in Java were very, very nice; it was a warm climate but we were on a plateau so it wasn’t excruciatingly hot. These were the days of ceiling fans. School started at 7 and we were out by 11 and we went straight to the pool every day. For a kid it was heavenly. It was wonderful until the Japanese prison camps, but when you’re that young you don’t take away what mature people take away from it, you just remember the silly things. You do remember the hunger. It took me a long, long time to be able to leave food on my plate when I had had enough to eat. Once in a while I get flashbacks of being behind barbed wire. Once, with Paul in Berlin, the wall had just gone up and the dancers wanted to go into East Berlin, so we took the underground train to Friedrichstrasse and when I saw all those people standing in line I said, “No thank you!” and took the next train out. If I wasn’t obligated to go with Paul’s Company to the USSR I would have backed out. The idea of being state-controlled… It comes from nowhere because we weren’t in really bad camps – only the last one and that didn’t last very long – it’s just implanted that to be interned behind barbed wire…
TN: Dancers generally seem to know at a very early age what they want to do…
BdJ: I didn’t, though. I took dance classes when we moved to Amsterdam when I was 13, but I was as tall as I am now, and all the boys were smaller than I. I knew the local ballet schools weren’t going to take me because on pointe I’d be another few inches taller, and there was no modern class. When I saw the Martha Graham Company I saw that Miss Graham used tall women and I thought, Aha, that’s my chance. I came to the U.S. to take classes at the Graham school, thinking I’d go back to Holland and teach Graham.
TN: Do you remember the first time you encountered Paul?
BdJ: Oh sure, at the Martha Graham School. He was a big guy who could do anything. The first piece I saw Paul dancing in was John Butler’s Carmina Burana, or it may have been Balanchine’s Episodes; I snuck into the ballet in those days. The first piece I remember him in from the Graham repertory is Embattled Garden. He jumps out of a tree after the dancing has been going on for a while. He was able to be so still that I had not seen him. When he jumped out my heart just leapt out of my chest! That tree was nothing, and he was a bulky guy! It was just amazing.
TN: How did you come to join his troupe?
BdJ: I heard that he was having a closed audition, by invitation only, because one of the dancers had two children and couldn’t go to Europe with Paul. Martha had a kitchen at the Graham School where the senior staff could make coffee and she allowed me to use it, and I stumbled into Paul there. When there’s something on my mind I blurt it out, and I said, “Is it true you’re having auditions?” And he said, “Yes, but it’s by invitation.” Then he said, “You may come.” And I said, “Can I?!” So he gave me the time and place. Well, the steps were all very fast and I hadn’t moved that fast in my life. I walked out with Dan Wagoner, who I knew, and he said, “Paul said he’d never thought about having a tall woman in his Company.” So the next day I went to Graham class as usual and got home around 1pm and the telephone rang. “Hello?” “Where ARE you? We’re REHEARSING!” Paul had never told me!
TN: Did you have the same happy/stunned reaction that dancers do now?
BdJ: It was different then because it was a smaller group and he didn’t have that many dates; it was more like, Oh gee, I’m getting to dance and I’m going to get paid a little for it. We carried our own makeup, we washed our own costumes. But I was delighted. I was going to get to dance.
TN: You arrived in 1962 but you weren’t cast in Aureole.
BdJ: I had gone home to Holland to visit my dad, who was dying, and by the time I got back Aureole was finished. Audiences loved Aureole and it was on every program. That was the hardest part about not being in it, especially with only six people in the Company; it would have been a nice way to finish the evening with everybody in the piece.
TN: Do you get a twinge when you’re rehearsing Aureole now?
BdJ: When I hear that music I get nervous. I have nothing against the dance; I did Paul’s solo once when he wrecked his ankle at the American Dance Festival, and part of Dan’s part when he wrecked his calf muscle. Because it was such an important dance in those days I still get sort of worked up. Even though I wasn’t a regular in it, I got nervous for everybody else.
TN: What was the modern dance scene like at that time?
BdJ: There was a lot going on, just not a steady stream of companies. Sophie Maslow would do a big Chanukah show at Madison Square Garden, Anna Sokolow was around, Pearl Lang was around, Martha, John Butler, Lucas Hoving, José Limón. All these modern dancers were choreographing and they asked their friends to dance, so the companies weren’t always the same.
TN: This must have all been so new to you.
BdJ: We did From Sea to Shining Sea, with all sorts of American images in the third part, and when it came to Betsy Ross sewing the flag and saluting, I saluted with my palm out, and Paul said, “De Jong, we don’t salute like that,” I said, “Oh certainly, yes,” and he said, “You’re crazy.” So the next season Eileen Cropley came from Britain and saluted the same way I had and I said “See!” That’s how we saluted in Europe: palms out, to show you have no weapon. Paul always made fun of me. Of course, I didn’t even know who Betsy Ross was; I called her Betsy Roth. That’s how new I was to this country!
TN: Were you aware how potentially controversial works like Big Bertha and From Sea to Shining Sea were?
BdJ: From Sea to Shining Sea yes. Paul was way ahead of the times in terms of poking fun at America. Big Bertha was very often requested because it was so powerful, but child abuse was still a forbidden subject here in the 1970s. With all the talk about the military/industrial complex, audiences could identify with the idea of a machine destroying our society rather than focus on the father abusing his daughter. The minute child abuse started to be widely talked about, we had the dance taken off the bill.
TN: What abilities does it take to be Paul Taylor’s rehearsal director?
BdJ: When I started doing it I didn’t have any skills at all, none, except for having a pretty good memory of the dances and what other people did in them. I guess I was always interested in the geography of the whole dance rather than my own little part so I always knew what other people were doing, and I think that prepared me. I’ve found that I have to hear the music to know what’s coming in the dance. It’s not just muscle memory but eye and ear memory. Some people are just more in tune. Lisa Viola is very good at that; she sometimes sees things I don’t, and I’m not as detailed as she is. Mary Cochran always had a very good eye for what a dance should look like. Patrick Corbin is very good at coaching. I don’t want to be, because I was never coached. Paul let me do what I thought was right and if it wasn’t right he would give me another image. I feel that a performer should have that freedom, so I don’t like to tell people how to do something unless they really have the wrong approach, and then I’ll try to be general. If I tried something and Paul said ‘Keep it,’ I will translate that to the next dancer, but I feel they should be able to make their own choices. That’s part of the joy of performing.
TN: Dancers say how much they appreciate hearing from you what Paul’s original intent of a moment or gesture was.
BdJ: There was very definitely an image Paul gave us with “the conversation” in Esplanade. He wanted us to be unable to make contact with each other, and used the term “ghost” to indicate the idea that we were invisible to each other.
TN: Was that his way of suggesting a dysfunctional family?
BdJ: I think he was looking for a haunted house, for memories. That’s why my figure never looks anybody straight in the eyes, but always somewhere past. But those images can be read differently too, like in other art forms. No two people look at a painting the same way, and that’s fine.
TN: Do you think your persona led Paul to places he might not have gone otherwise?
BdJ: He always used me for my height; I was always the tallest person, sometimes in heels and a high hat. I don’t think I took him anywhere he wasn’t able to go anyway. On the other hand, he used all of us for the qualities we had in particular, so we all took him to places he might not have gone had we not been there.
TN: Where have you enjoyed going on tour? How do you spend your free time?
BdJ: I really love Paris. It lives. And I love the French countryside, too; the audiences give us standing ovations. I enjoy Italy when I’m there with Taylor Executive Director John Tomlinson, because he speaks some Italian. I had a great time in Turkey, and we were in Teheran while the Shah was still in power; I had taught one of the Princess’s handmaidens at the Graham School. I’m a knitter, crocheter and an embroiderer, but I can’t do any of it anymore because of arthritis; that used to be my pastime on planes.
TN: You’ve had a unique vantage point on the Company from 1962 to the present; how has it changed?
BdJ: The attitude is very different. Technically they’re way above the caliber we were; these kids can do anything. There’s better understanding of how to train people; better nutrition; very few people dance with injuries. But in terms of real commitment, we would go through hell to do a performance. It’s such a different world. And today’s dancers don’t ever say no to Paul; we said plenty of no’s to Paul because we were all his age in the beginning. If something felt funny we would say, “It’s not organic.” Now they say, “I’ll try!”
TN: Looking back, what gives you satisfaction or a feeling of pride?
BdJ: Just this whole experience for me, because I do not come from a theatrical family. Sometimes I walk backstage at a theater and think, Gee, I should have been something completely different! My mother was a nurse, my father was an agricultural engineer dealing with diseases, my sister was a nurse…. I had no familiarity with theater life. So this is all very miraculous to me. My father understood it though. He was involved in agricultural research and he could see the traps and the good things of being in the creative field. How I arrived here I really don’t know, I really don’t.
TN: Are there historical figures you would like to have met?
BdJ: I came here at a time that was very rich in terms of dancers and choreographers, so I got to meet pretty much everybody except for Hanya Holm, and Doris Humphrey, who died about three weeks before I arrived in this country. I met Ruth St. Denis at Jacob’s Pillow on her 50th Anniversary! I saw her “incense dance,” and she did a little dance with Ted Shawn. We were sharing a program with Alvin Ailey, and she knew who the Taylor Company was.
Eran Bugge joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Fall 2005. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Hartt School of the University of Hartford, from which she received a B.F.A. degree in ballet pedagogy. In 2012 she was the recipient of the Hartt Alumni Award. TaylorNotes caught up with Eran when she returned from her belated honeymoon in Iceland.
TaylorNotes: You grew up near DisneyWorld – that must have been great fun!
Eran Bugge: Oviedo, Florida was a good little community to grow up in. There was a horse farm near my house, a grocery store on the corner, a middle school and an orange grove. Some of that has since been taken over by strip malls.
TN: Do you feel like a New Yorker now?
EB: Yes. My husband and I love the city. We love public transit and not having to own or drive a car. We love the convenience of the city, like being able to walk half a block to get milk, or ordering delivery of absolutely anything. We love having access to all the art and culture, or even just that particular rare ingredient for a recipe. The world is really at your fingertips in this city. We really can’t imagine living anywhere else – it would take a wonderful opportunity to tear us away. I think we’d live here happily forever.
TN: When was your first dance class?
EB: A creative movement class when I was three. My favorite teacher was Miss Leslie. Many years later she came to a Taylor performance without knowing that I was in the Company, flipped open the program and discovered my name. Turns out she has always loved Paul Taylor and even named her son Taylor. I keep thinking: How are the stars so aligned that my very first dance teacher is such a fan of Paul Taylor’s?
TN: At what point did dance become serious for you?
EB: It seems like it has always been serious; it’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment. My Mom loves to tell a story about one of the possible turning points, and probably the only time I told her I wanted to quit. I went to a very strict dance school and you could only study ballet for the first few years of your serious training – jazz and modern got added in after you had a solid foundation. We drove about 30 minutes each way a few days a week for ballet classes at the time and I would get carsick at least once a week. After one of these roadside pullovers on a hot Florida highway I was crying and told her I didn’t want to go to dance any more. She encouraged me to hold out one more year because I would be allowed to take modern dance and maybe I would like that better. I agreed it was worth a shot – and I never wanted to quit again. Later, during my junior year at the Hartt School, I was persuaded to take the Taylor Summer Intensive, and I fell in love with Paul’s style. It became my goal to get into this Company.
TN: Tell me about your audition.
EB: Patrick Corbin was teaching class and one day Paul stood in the doorway. He asked my name and where I was from, and then I was invited to audition for Taylor 2. The audition lasted forever, and I wasn’t chosen. A few months later there was an audition for the large Company; it didn’t seem as grueling as that earlier one. At the end, Paul walked over and took my hand; it was surreal. I auditioned on Sunday and started work on Monday.
TN: I have in mind what I consider to be your breakthrough role…
EB: Diggity – my first really big role! Diggity was a young, spunky role, and it was the first time I was really alone onstage in the Company. It goes back and forth between really luscious, classic Taylor movement and quirky, weird movement. It doesn’t have a super clear storyline, so I invented my own story: I was an only child, a little girl playing in her room and imagining all her toys come to life, and the cutout dogs were part of that: a massive dream sequence.
TN: Dancers of every era talk about the challenge of the metal cutouts of dogs placed around the stage in Diggity…
EB: They’re such an obstacle, it’s inhibiting. I watched the video of Lila York recently and she soared around the stage as if the dogs weren’t even there, whereas I felt like I was constantly trying to dodge them. I actually kicked a dog – sliced my foot bad enough to need a tetanus shot. But I love that dance. The kids I taught it to last summer really enjoyed it too. They didn’t have the obstacles of the dogs so they just got to enjoy the movement.
TN: We’re doing Diggity again in March. Do you have a different view of it now?
EB: Yeah, because I’m not nervous! The first day in rehearsal, Michael Trusnovec told me that he had looked at videos of my first performances and was going to suggest that I free it up a little, but in that first rehearsal I was already doing that. I’m still true to the movement, but I’m a little freer in it.
TN: You’ve talked about the challenge – pain, really – involved in doing some of Paul’s works…
EB: It’s mostly in the lungs. When I first did Esplanade the last thing I wanted to do was run back on stage and bow; I needed 30 seconds more to breathe. You run off stage and you’re panting and you have to run right back on and look pleased! Esplanade was one of the hardest things I’d ever done – and then it was Brandenburgs, and then Musical Offering, and then Mercuric Tidings. Just when you think, I got this, this dance is fine, you do a new dance that’s a cardiovascular challenge and you’re thinking, No, THIS is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The very first time I did Cloven Kingdom we were on a giant football field of a stage and I was the girl with the silver ball on her head part of the time. You spend half the first section leaping and half your time running backstage to get to the other side, and then you do cartwheels, and that headpiece has a strap right near your jugular. I run, run, run, throw the ball on my head and then leap, leap, leap and then run, run, run, leap, leap, leap, then take it off and give it to someone in the wings and run back on to do the cartwheels. There’s a difference between pain and suffering. There’s tremendous pain in finishing Esplanade but you do it anyway because the reward is having danced a masterpiece for an adoring audience.
TN: You have that gorgeous duet with Rob in the fourth movement of Esplanade, where you walk on his prone body and stand on his stomach.
EB: That’s still hard to do. It’s funny: each guy is different. With Rob it’s like stepping on a hard floor, whereas Michael Trusnovec relaxes his stomach a little more, so that’s like standing on a waterbed! At the beginning when I was doing everything gingerly Bettie would say, “Just stand on them – then they know where your weight is and they can help you.” If you try to pull up in order to feel lighter to them, you’re actually making it harder.
TN: He supports you as you lean far forward, looking like the figurehead on the prow of a ship.
EB: The way the counterbalance works, I can’t always tell if I’m leaned out far enough.
TN: Have you had the opportunity to show all of your sides through Paul’s work?
EB: For the most part. I haven’t done super angst-y, very dramatic things. That’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of me. I’ve done a lot of ingénue rolls. Paul’s giving me more mature roles now; either that or I’m a more mature dancer and I’m just approaching them differently. I feel more like a woman now when I’m dancing, instead of like a girl.
TN: What was the turning point?
EB: Sunset was my first mature role, the first time I did not feel like “the little one.” And then Roses, a role I never expected to do. My role in Piazzolla comes closest to that angst, but she’s really got more anger than angst, and that’s hard for me. Paul keeps telling me to be meaner; I think he knows that’s not naturally part of my personality. He wants me to be angrier and angrier. I’ve always wanted my dancing to be clean and precise, and do the movement just so. Piazzolla got me to trust that I can do the steps the right way and live in the moment emotionally.
TN: You took on a very different role, that of “doula” for Amy Young and Robert Kleinendorst when Amy was pregnant.
EB: Doula is a Greek word; the modern use is someone who assists at a birth. It’s a role that, in our culture at least, seems to have gotten lost when birth moved from the home to the hospital. In ancient cultures, when a woman went into labor, many women from the community who were knowledgeable about childbirth came to be with the mother to help physically and emotionally as she went through labor. There’s a lot to be said about the constant emotional support that someone in addition to the father can provide – someone who has knowledge of different massage techniques and things that help the woman cope with the pain associated with childbirth. They can reduce the need for medical interventions. Amy and Rob asked me to be there early in the pregnancy because we are really close friends. And we trust each other so much on stage – when you’re exhausted at the end of Brandenburgs, but you know you can get through it together; that kind of thing. Amy said, “If you see Rob stressing out, you know him well enough to tell him, ‘Go take a nap.’ He’ll listen to you more than he might listen to a stranger.” I was so honored that they wanted me to be there. And they have a beautiful baby girl, Sadie Jane.
TN: You’ve been doing some research into Taylor history in connection with your video editing; have you found anything of special interest?
EB: For four years I’ve worked in the video archives and I’ve been transferring videotape to digital storage. It’s amazing how much we have about Paul’s dances going back to the very start of his career – probably before he had any clue what his future would be like. The fact that he’s got stunning photos from his first dance in 1954, Jack and the Beanstalk – it’s just remarkable that they’re still around, as well as the notebooks Paul kept from the start. It’s all been documented so well. Maybe he really did know what the future would hold.
TN: What stands out in your mind from last season at Lincoln Center?
EB: It was challenging with Parisa out and the other injuries that occurred. I was lucky to not have any injuries; I felt strong. Normally by the third week everything has been rehearsed, but this season we had several extra rehearsals and touch-ups along the way. I enjoyed the season a lot. I was at a place where I could really get more into the emotions and the characters that I was dancing. I was especially proud of Sunset and Piazzolla. And I felt very connected to everybody – the changes in casts seemed to heighten our awareness of each other on stage.
TN: You were the Dance Captain for Marathon Cadenzas — did you sense that it matured from the first performance to the last?
EB: Definitely; they always do. You learn a lot about a dance when you’re doing it for an audience; you can feel what’s working and what’s not working, in a way that you can’t in the rehearsal studio, so you might emphasize one thing or another. Gossamer Gallants is an example of that. Paul has said that it’s gotten very broad; when he first made it, it was much subtler. But it’s hard, when the audience is guffawing, not to escalate it with them. At this point we’re reining it back a little.
TN: Private Domain and Fibers seemed to go over particularly well.
EB: That’s the second time I’ve done Private Domain. It felt a little more gelled than the last time we did it. The Xenakis music sets a mood, but we have internal rhythms that we dance to. For the fast duet I do with Sean, I have a rhythm that I sing in my head that matches the steps, and I’m not listening to the music at all.
TN: Because of those archways, at various times you’re completely hidden, half-hidden, or completely visible to the audience.
EB: And in the same moment you are all of those things too, depending on where the audience member is. Last time I was aware of when I was visible and when I wasn’t, whereas this time I tried just to dance, and let that take care of itself. I think we all felt more confident and able to take it to the next level.
TN: What about Fibers?
EB: I’ve liked Fibers since they first put it together – it has such interesting movement. Some snippets we’ve seen in later Taylor dances, but there’s so much movement in it that isn’t familiar at all.
TN: You’ve just gotten back from Iceland, where you celebrated your third wedding anniversary – how did you choose Iceland?
EB: A few years ago we went to Norway on tour, and I loved it. I was surprised; I didn’t expect it to be so green and lush. We were there in the summer, when the sun hardly goes down. We took a boat through the fjords and the scenery was so beautiful. You need a little sweater, but you could do a hike and not get disgustingly sweaty. My husband is from the Canadian Rockies, and he’s not a lay-on-the-beach kind of vacationer – that would be the worst idea ever for him because he likes to be active. It’s just a six-hour flight to Iceland, and they’re cheaper than those to Norway. It’s so beautiful – the scenery is just amazing. In twelve days we went from town to town to town around the perimeter of the island and saw a good part of the whole country. It was awesome; we want to go back.
TN: I don’t often run into people who say “I was just in Iceland and I can’t wait to go back!”
EB: Yeah, it was amazing!
TN: One of your hobbies is gardening. What do you plant?
EB: I try to plant tomatoes every year. Our neighbor is an amazing gardener and has given me beautiful plants over the last few years. We have a weeping Japanese maple that has tripled in size since we planted it.
TN: What are you looking forward to in the 2015 season?
EB: Sea Lark has been fun to make. I really like the music, particularly the music for the trio I dance with Francisco and Aileen. That was a fun interaction with Paul; there was a lot of give and take, and I hadn’t had a lot of dances made on me before. This season I get to revisit dances I didn’t feel completely confident in before. I have more time to really delve into the roles and not worry about getting the steps right.
TN: Eventide is one – that dance seemed to hit audiences and critics anew the last time you did it, as if they hadn’t realized what a magnificent gem it is.
EB: Watching films of the original cast gives me chills. We all really cherish that dance. To me it’s almost like going to church; there’s something sacred and transcendent about doing it, like a religious experience .
TN: Sean Mahoney once said he never fails to tear up at the end of it.
EB: For me, it’s not a physically taxing dance, but it’s emotionally taxing for all of us. Heather and Cisco’s duet is physically challenging, and Heather can’t believe it’s a “rest” dance for me! Other people have moments of happiness in it but I have very few. She can’t resist him so she’ll take whatever she can get, even though she knows her heart’s going to get broken at the end. Paul says that they’re all one couple. I know it’s his dance but I totally disagree with him; I do not believe that my couple can also be Parisa and Michael’s couple. It’s as if they’ve been together forever and they care immensely about each other, and perhaps something tragic has happened to them like the loss of a child. In their two duets one is struggling and the other gives support; it’s a wonderful relationship. Whereas in my duet with Rob, Rob’s character has a wandering heart and he leaves me at the end. Then again, Parisa and Michael leave each other at the end as well, so maybe we are all one couple. That’s a theme in Paul’s work: you can have many impactful relationships in your life and they’re all valid. Even in the fourth section of Esplanade I change partners three times. So over the course of your life you have different relationships and it’s okay to pass from one to another. You learn and grow from them.
TN: You’ll be paired with Rob in Eventide again.
EB: I love dancing with Rob – it’s a really deep emotional connection with him on stage. I can create a world with him that’s very real, and that’s a very vulnerable thing to do with somebody. I think our friendship helps to make that more authentic on stage.
TN: Brandenburgs is another one you’re revisiting…
EB: It’s so fun! I don’t have to think about the steps anymore, and that gives me the freedom to take risks and do something exciting and new, push technical things. One of my solos has a turning sequence and it got to the point where I tried to put triple turns in, something I don’t do in any other dance! Brandenburgs is like an education in luscious classic Taylor movement, which informs everything else you do.
TN: There’s that great section when the whole cast is rocking side to side on the balls of your feet…
EB: That’s really hard! You’re tired and you’re trying to look pretty while you’re rocking your whole body side to side, and Paul always wants us to rock as far and as fast as we can. Sometimes it feels like he makes choreography that’s actually impossible, and he’s not interested in your achieving it but in seeing you try to achieve it. Or sometimes someone has achieved it, so he’ll add a turn because it looks too easy. He wants to see that physical effort. Kate Johnson, who originated the role, came in and worked with me on it as well as on Sunset. The opportunities to work with her have been some of the highlights of my career.
TN: And now you’ll get to dance Brandenburgs to live music.
EB: It’s going to be over the top! It will be an amazing season with live music and having the Shen Wei and Limón companies around.