Patrick Corbin: life after ballet; the former hippie at the School of American Ballet finds the grass is greener at Paul Taylor Dance Company.
All eyes are on Patrick Corbin, whose solo leads off Paul Taylor's A Field of Grass, a pungent evocation of the hippie sixties. As the curtain rises Corbin's character is sitting cross-legged, not only in grass but most likely on it.
To the strains of "Mother Nature's Son," one of a string of Harry Nilsson songs, Corbin, clad in the era's obligatory denim, rises, turns, and accelerates in widening circles. His arms are wide, his palms are up, his head is back. His ecstasy is contagious, creating widening circles of Corbin fans.
He's more winsome than handsome, and less muscled than some of the other Taylor men (though he said he began pumping iron the minute the Paul Taylor Dance Company audition notice went up). Yet he brings to the dance brash confidence, palpable intensity, and a seamless fusion of his own classical background--four years with the Joffrey Ballet--with Taylor's distinctive modernism.
Corbin, twenty-nine, first leaped into the spotlight, and into the public eye, when he created the role of the caddish young man of Company B, Taylor's 1991 evocation of World War II set to recordings by the Andrews Sisters. As Johnny, the heartbreaker in "Oh, Johnny, Oh," Corbin jumps and spins at crazy angles in a reckless endurance contest that would kill anyone not suited to the moves or whom the moves didn't suit. But thanks to Taylor, Corbin, unlike the lost flower child of A Field of Grass, has found what he was looking for. All it took him was a quarter of a century, a heap of talent, and a lot of persistence.
His odyssey began at the age of three. His mother, a former ballet student, saw that little Patrick had a lot of energy. "She wanted to channel it, and that was that," the blond, nicely biceped Corbin said one night over a Thai dinner on Manhattan's West Side. "Before I knew it, I was doing it every day."
In conversation, Corbin seems like anything but a self-described "gloomy gus," but he says that when he was a kid he didn't feel like smiling when he was dancing. Even then he thought of it as serious work.
He graduated from the "Dolly Dingle thing," a neighborhood studio in Potomac, Maryland, where he learned tap, jazz, ballet, and acrobatics, to studies with Bernard Spriggs at the District of Columbia City Ballet, and then to the Washington School of Ballet. As a teenager he recalled how his mother, Rosemary, "the car goddess," ferried him there from his Potomac high school. "She'd have a steak and a baked potato in the car for me, on a tray, and I'd eat it as she drove me in the Pinto, with the sunroof pushed back."
His teacher, and a lifetime inspiration, was Alastair Munro. "He was bigger than life. He looked like Rock Hudson, very masculine. He was very caring and supportive of all of us. He taught us to love ballet, which is hard when you're twelve or thirteen," Corbin said, chuckling, "and have to look in the mirror every day."
Mary Day, still the school's director, was another strong influence; when Corbin cut class to go to rock concerts, she never took away his scholarship. And so was the Washington Ballet's late choreographer Choo San Goh. "He could be really hard, but he had such clear ideas about what he wanted from you."
And Corbin always had clear ideas about what he wanted, too. He never doubted for a minute that he would be a dancer, from the days when he solemnly tap danced for his elementary school classmates at show and tell--"Gene Kelly was my idol"--to his dance recitals, to his appearances with Washington Ballet. George, his father, who is an electrical engineer, and Rosemary, who owned a couple of ice cream stores, were always "totally supportive," he says. And Mary, his older sister, helped pay for his summer workshops.
What Corbin wanted was to join New York City Ballet let and live and work in New York, and he set out on this chosen career path with studies at the School of American Ballet. His first summer, at seventeen, he took an SAB workshop and also took classes at American Ballet Theatre II, the short-lived school started by ABT.
That first summer was "wonderful," but by the second, adolescent rebellion had kicked in. Perhaps prophetically, Corbin became a hippie. "I had long hair, past my shoulders." He was not asked to continue his studies at SAB. "Madame [Nathalie] Gleboff told me I lacked ,the gift of movement.", Corbin's father's reaction? "Well, for the record, say he said she was full of beans." But he also suggested that Corbin get a haircut. He complied.
After another year in Washington, Corbin took company class with City Ballet through the good offices of alumna Bonita Borne and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, with whom Corbin had studied at the Chatauqua Institute. Things did not work out the way Corbin hoped. "Peter [Martins] showed up the third day. It was sort of a runaround. I was pretty clueless at this point. He said, 'You need fine tuning. Why don't you go to the school?" Corbin thought that meant that he was accepted, but no; it meant that he had to audition. He got in, and spent "a miserable year."
Of his SAB teachers, "Andre Kramarevsky was really supportive, but Stanley Williams was cold to the point of being cruel." Williams is one of the world's most venerated ballet teachers; his pupils have included the likes of Martins, Edward Villella, and most of City Ballet's recent dancers.
"In class, I stood at the barre under the clock," and Williams went around the room giving corrections. "When he got to me, he'd look up at the clock," Corbin said with a laugh. "I thought maybe I should stand at the other side of the room." Now, said Corbin, when Williams reached him he'd fiddle with his trademark pipe.
Corbin found himself ignored again at his part-time job, scooping ice cream at a shop on Columbus Avenue. His SAB classmates would stop by for cones and pretend they didn't know him. He also killed bugs for an exterminator, and ferried messages at SAB. "I was exhausted all the time."
For a while Corbin lived on the Lower East Side in a studio apartment. His roommate had painted everything yellow--"the TV, the shower, everything"--and one night had a fight with a crazed downstairs neighbor who had sneaked into their place through a window. "I was quaking in my boots." Finally, he moved uptown, sharing an apartment with dancer Loren Schmalle. "He was my sanity and my saving grace. He kept me going," Corbin said. Schmalle "was talented but very lazy. He'd never go to class. They loved him. Peter Martins was calling our apartment, wanting him to join City Ballet." Schmalle didn't want to. Corbin, who was dying to get into that company, settled instead for Kansas City Ballet. (Schmalle is now pursuing an acting career.)
After only a month in Kansas City, he returned to take an ABT II summer workshop. "If there was a glimmer of hope in New York, I had to do it."
But he found himself awash in the politics of the era, when ABT's new artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov was at loggerheads with ABT II's leadership. "It was very painful and horrible. He obviously didn't want us around. There was a lot of friction." But there was an upside:
Before ABT II was dissolved, Corbin had his first encounter with the choreography of Paul Taylor. "Christine Spizzo taught us the fugue from Airs and I absolutely adored it."
In 1985, Corbin joined Joffrey II and then tried out for the main company. "Mr. Joffrey likes you very much, but he thinks you may be too short" was the word. "I fell into a heap, crying on the sofa. The next day, I found out I had gotten into the company." He remembers the delight he felt. The first day he and another new dancer, Victoria Pasquale, watched the company rehearse Jiri Kylian's Forgotten Land. "We just smiled at each other. We were very proud of being in this company. Later that day we started learning Arden Court, Taylor's lyrical masterwork. It was my real introduction to Paul, and I fell in love with it from nanosecond one."
He loved the jumps. He loved the shapes. And he found it "hard as hell. You sweat a lot." In the men's duet, he found the William Boyce music "so uplifting, it takes you by the sternum. It's an incredibly musical dance. You never feel like there's a cheat or something missing. When the overture begins you feel like you're getting shot out of a cannon."
While at the Joffrey he met his companion, dancer Philip Jerry, and "it was absolute bliss. We started to go everywhere together," touring Europe and across the States. But after Jerry left the company (he's studying art history at Princeton, where they live), Corbin found that he was looking down the barrel of his own private cannon--stage fright. Much as he admired Joffrey and Gerald Arpino for their love of dance, Corbin was daunted by their constantly posting notes of correction on the bulletin board where the entire company could read them. Corbin says, "My dancing was getting worse and my technique was getting worse. I was terrified to go onstage."
In 1989, he decided it was time to leave. He began auditioning, getting callbacks for Jerome Robbins, Broadway and San Francisco Ballet. "But Paul asked me to join his company, so it was good-bye. It was something I had to try." He'd survived an audition of two hundred fifty men that went on for two days. His first class with Taylor included Tom Patrick, Andrew Asnes, David Grenke, Rachel Berman Benz, and Caryn Heilman. "When Joao Mauricio taught me the first couple of dances," Corbin says, "I just felt as though I'd stepped into this happy, adult atmosphere. You could see the sun. Cathy McCann sort of retaught me how to dance. She liked my dancing, and would give me attention in class and rehearsal. She taught me not to be afraid of looking unattractive."
From McCann and Mauricio, Corbin began understanding line: "Just something I never had. I didn't know how to make a nice arabesque. I still struggle with it in ballet class, but now I have a sense of the pure joy of being in class, rather than going after an unattainable ideal." One of his teachers, Jeremy Blanton of Joffrey II, always said, "technique is a means to an end. Why get freaked out about what you're doing? That's what I always tell myself when I stare at my ugly old self in the mirror."
But at Taylor's studio in SoHo, there are no mirrors. "I love it. If it feels right, it's going to look the way he wants," and the way ballet mistress Bettie de Jong wants. "Nothing gets past them." Corbin's favorite of the repertoire is Esplanade, the company's signature piece, "so musically complex and so simple. There's constant brainwork. You can't put on the automatic pilot."
Corbin also took on a new role as the detective in Taylor's Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), revived last fall. The role was created for Christopher Gillis, who died last year of AIDS. "I never thought I'd be asked to do that part," Corbin says, sadly recalling Gillis in the role and in life. "Chris was godlike when you saw him onstage. You had thoughts about whether he was human or not. His cool persona and his beauty were intimidating at times. The sheer strength involved in that part!" It was the polar opposite of Corbin's role in Company B, "spazzed out and frenetic." Mauricio told Corbin, "I think it's going to change your dancing."
"I was incredibly nervous about it," Corbin says, "because it was Chris's part, and he was sick. He was dying." Gillis spent the last months of his life on tour with the company. "It was his decision, and Paul backed him 100 percent. That was a hard year, when Chris was leaving us. Gods don't waste away. It's just not done."
On opening night in New York City, as Corbin began his duet with Sandra Stone, he says, "a feeling swept over me, just striving to be calm and to manufacture something strong and beautiful and quiet." Stone helped, he says. "With Sandy, you really go someplace else. When you're with her, she's right there all the time." As for Taylor, "Paul is totally about evolution. He didn't want me to do Chris's part; he wanted to see Patrick doing the part."
Corbin believes that Taylor has accepted him for who he is. As the troublemaker of Company B, he gets to act upon his personal proclivity for not smiling all the time. "Paul embraced it and didn't hold it against me," says Corbin, adding, "I feel like I'm becoming the dancer that Alastair [Munro] thought I could be, and it's thanks to Paul."
Taylor has urged Corbin in his five fledgling choreographic efforts so far to be himself: "I've learned a lot from Paul--that simplicity is not an easy thing to come by, that you have to know how many times you want to see something."
With some of his friends from Taylor and the Joffrey he gave a concert last fall. "It was a lot of fun, but the solo for myself [Hustle, set to Lou Reed's "Take a Walk on the Wild Side] was the scariest thing in the world, like letting people in to watch you take a bath." They also did a piece to Arvo Part, Part One, for three couples on pointe: himself and Jodie Gates ("my best friend"), Meg Gurin, Tom Mossbrucker, Nicole Marie Duffy, and Grenke.
Corbin also choreographed Psychedelic Six Pack to six psychedelic songs. Was Taylor an influence? "I don't know. I hope so. If somebody said it was derivative, I hadn't tried to be, but that's not too bad. You're learning something from where you are.
"Paul told me, |What you don't want to be is a baby Paul Taylor. Why would anybody want to be that?' He's right. He's doing it better than anybody. Why even try?"
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|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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