Clay Taliaferro is on leave this year from his position teaching dance at Duke. But he's not taking it easy. Taliaferro, age sixty-five, returned to the stage in February to dance the male lead in "The Moor's Pavane" with the JosÈ LimÛn Dance Company. The performance reunited him with the company in which he was a principal dancer for more than a decade in the 1970s and early 1980s. "I don't think there should be a cut-off time," Taliaferro says. "If you want to do it from your heart, you can do it."
The program opened with fourteen different dances set to music from Bach. The second piece, choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, was a gritty, new work about the Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday honoring the spirits of departed loved ones. The program concluded with "The Moor's Pavane" as a tribute to Taliaferro, says LimÛn's artistic director, Carla Maxwell.
Taliaferro's career has been entwined with groundbreaking modern-dance choreographer JosÈ LimÛn from the beginning. Taliaferro said he instantly felt called to dance after seeing LimÛn perform on television. But as a black teenager living in segregated Virginia in the 1950s, he had no options for dance training. He left for New York after high school and took acting lessons. A teacher recognized his talent for dance, and Taliaferro trained at the Boston Conservatory of Music before returning to New York.
"I'm the luckiest dancer in the world," he says. "I've never had to be a waiter."
One morning in 1972, Taliaferro says, LimÛn called him and said, "I understand you are a very fine dancer, and I need a very fine dancer for my company. Would you be interested?"
"I just about died on the spot," Taliaferro recalls. "I said, 'You haven't seen me dance.' And Jose said, 'I don't need to.' "
LimÛn died later that year, but Taliaferro remained with the company. One of the pieces Taliaferro performed was "The Moor's Pavane," which is considered a modern dance classic. It tells the story of Shakespeare's Othello using four dancers, no scenery, and a score by Henry Purcell. The name refers to a stately court dance common in Europe in the sixteenth century. The piece premiered in 1949, three years after the Mexican-born LimÛn formed his modern- dance repertory company in New York.
Ever since Taliaferro began teaching at Duke in 1987, he has continued his affiliation with the LimÛn Company as a guest performer. Last month he traveled to New York to begin rehearsals with dancers half his age.
"I felt it was necessary to feel the energy of these people with whom I will dance," he says. Taliaferro is on sabbatical from Duke this year and will return to teach during the spring 2007 semester before retiring.
"I came to Duke as a performer," he says. "I hope that will be my legacy. ... I love to teach, and I love being at Duke. But ten years from now, rather than have someone say, 'Remember that guy who was a professor?' I'd like somebody to say, 'Remember that guy who danced?' "
Dance Company Honors Taliaferro
March 31, 2006