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Drop a Fly in a Glass of Milk. What Do You Get? A Knotty Dance.

It was Paul Taylor’s last rehearsal with George Balanchine, and he was perplexed. What, if anything, was the subject of “Variations,” the solo Balanchine had created for him? Full of twisted, distorted shapes and set to discordant orchestral music by Webern, it was part of the 1959 ballet “Episodes.” In his autobiography, Taylor said he had asked Balanchine if there was any way it should be performed. His reply: “Is like fly in glass of milk, yes?”

The solo has not been seen at New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine formed with Lincoln Kirstein, since 1989. And beyond “Variations,” the ballet has an unusual back story: For its premiere, Martha Graham was invited to create a work with Balanchine; the choreographers worked independently, with Graham in charge of one half of the dance and Balanchine the other. Taylor, then a member of Graham’s company, performed the “Variations” solo as part of Balanchine’s ballet and continued dancing it until 1960.

Graham’s part of the dance fell out of repertory but Balanchine’s section continued to be shown, without the solo, until 1986, when Taylor taught it to the City Ballet dancer Peter Frame. After 1989, the solo disappeared again. This season it’s back with two dancers alternating the role: Michael Trusnovec, 45, until recently a leading member of Taylor’s modern dance company (Feb. 6 and 9); and Jovani Furlan, 26, a City Ballet soloist who learned it from Mr. Frame and danced it while at Miami City Ballet (Feb. 25 and 29).

The solo has three sections. The first two repeat, though with different music and a different intention: The second time around, the dancer becomes increasingly desperate to escape. In the third part, the dancer is overcome with exhaustion.

Mr. Frame committed suicide in 2018, a day after Taylor died. No original recording of the solo exists, but since Mr. Frame had taught it to Mr. Furlan he was, in turn, able to teach it to Mr. Trusnovec. During the process, they’ve come face to face with the dance’s mutability over time; along with studying photographs of Taylor, they watched two videos of Mr. Frame dancing it: one from 1986, one from 1989. Changes were made between those performances and Mr. Trusnovec is restoring some of the earlier movements.

But getting the right tone is just as important. At a recent rehearsal at City Ballet, Mr. Trusnovec performed the solo as the ballet master Glenn Keenan and Mr. Furlan looked on. Ms. Keenan told him to do less in the first section so the second section could build to something even more frantic.

“I just remember a lot of: ‘Nothing. Nothing. Do nothing,’” Mr. Furlan said, recalling Mr. Frame’s less-is-more instructions. “I have to pace myself so I’m really grateful for the nothing, nothing.”

Mr. Furlan laughed, but it’s true: The solo, which Taylor described as “densely packed with complicated moves — knotted arrangements that, spatially, all stay in one small spot,” requires stamina.

In advance of their performances and the newly complete “Episodes,” the dancers spoke about their experience of learning and dancing “Variations.”

Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What do you remember about learning the ballet from Peter Frame?

JOVANI FURLAN When he first walked in, he said “It’s barefoot.” It’s like, don’t fake it. He was very meticulous about the shapes and he didn’t let us watch videos of himself doing it. He did show us some pictures of the shapes of Paul in the photos.

Did that help?

FURLAN It did, but at the same time a lot of the images we see in the photos are not in the material.

MICHAEL TRUSNOVEC Paul took out the knee work because it was detrimental to Peter’s ballet body. So you see a photograph of Paul balanced on one knee. That’s not in the dance we’re doing.

Do you think Balanchine choreographed this? What did Taylor contribute?

TRUSNOVEC I think the original version Paul did was Balanchine. I feel like it was too early in Paul’s career for him to have taken the lead on it. If anything, it’s the reverse: That the experience of this actually informed a lot of Paul’s work.

FURLAN Now it might be more Paul because he taught it to Peter. I’m sure it really morphed into something else. We are doing what Peter taught, but we have two videos of Peter doing in, from 1986 and 1989, and the one he taught me is from ’89.

TRUSNOVEC But we saw ’86 and thought, that’s different.

FURLAN There are literally steps that are not there.

TRUSNOVEC We put some of them back in. I was like, why is this gone? Why would he have removed them? If Paul worked with him in ’86, this would be the version closer to his experience working with Paul. So wouldn’t this be the more valid one?

FURLAN And who changed it? Did Paul come back and say, Actually do it like this? Or did Peter just decide to change it?

TRUSNOVEC There’s a moment of a sort of tightrope-walking backward. It was not in the ’89 video, and I thought, that is so interesting — we should put it back in. Hopefully we’re not overstepping. It feels correct. If anything, that moment feels Balanchine.

How did you teach it?

FURLAN It was about getting the shapes and the intention and the buildup. The solo is so much about the buildup. You repeat the choreography, but in the third part you can let go a little more and use more of the contraction. The extremities of the movement.

TRUSNOVEC There are tricky balances. Big wide-open shapes, really small, grounded twisted shapes that are crawling on the floor, and you get through all of that. It swings, there’s a jump you land and you’re back at the beginning of the dance and you repeat that whole chunk of material again to completely different music with a different intention.

FURLAN You find yourself in a loop. You are trying to get out and you can’t get out. That’s the definition of insanity. Trying the same thing and expecting a different result.

TRUSNOVEC It really doesn’t have a happy ending, that’s for sure.

Does it ever get easy?

TRUSNOVEC No. A lot of times when I do a solo, I start to settle in. This one is hard every time.

FURLAN When I started doing it onstage, I felt it was even harder. You’re so alone out there. It’s weird.

TRUSNOVEC I also wonder, though, if each time I’m doing it I’m trying to personally push myself a little deeper and that’s why it never gets easier? You have to push.

What is the onstage experience?

TRUSNOVEC You can’t see much of anything. It’s solitary.

FURLAN Are you supposed to feel like you’re being watched while you’re struggling? Or that you’re going through that experience alone?

TRUSNOVEC I don’t think you’re alone. Who’s holding the magnifying glass trying to set you on fire? [Laughs] It is a little bit of that kid playing with a magnifying glass and a bug. The movement feels big, but you feel small.

Do you think this inspired Paul’s bug dances?

TRUSNOVEC I’m convinced this definitely sparked something in him — in the way that he could use that vocabulary or that idea of a bug in some way and transform it into work. He really ran with it and thank God he did: He made such brilliant dances using the natural world.

FURLAN With the bug thing, I wonder if that was something Balanchine had in his head from the beginning? He only said that to Paul once.

TRUSNOVEC There’s just something distorted and broken and challenged about all of the movement. You could strip away the insect idea and just have that.

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