When Sean Patrick Mahoney was a kid in Philadelphia's northern suburbs, he couldn't do much that was fun.
"I was diagnosed with asthma," said Mahoney, a dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company, which performs at Centennial Hall Saturday night. "I couldn't have a paper route or cut the lawn. I tried baseball and soccer and had to quit. I even tried the violin, but I couldn't do it because of the resin."
An aunt who had performed with Pilobolus suggested dance. So Mahoney's mother shuttled Sean, then 12, and one of his sisters over to the Fred Knecht dance studio in a neighboring suburb.
"I hated it," he said by phone one afternoon last week from Long Island, where the Taylor troupe was to perform at Adelphi University. "I was the only guy. I wanted to quit halfway into the year."
Enter his father, a construction worker.
To encourage his son, Mahoney Sr. signed up for adult ballet. He did so well with his pliés and ports-de-bras that he won a part in The Nutcracker. Father and son started shopping for dance clothes together, and the dad would make predictions about Sean's dance future.
"One day, you'll appreciate the male/female ratio in dance," he would tell him. The dad's loving efforts to keep his son dancing worked, and his prognostications proved true.
Not only has his son, now 35, been a dancer almost ever since; the younger Mahoney is married to a dancer. He met his wife, Peggy Petteway, now with Lustig Dance Theatre, when the two of them were dancing with American Repertory Ballet in Princeton, N.J.
Mahoney has had extraordinary success ever since he got over being the only boy in dance class. While he was still in high school, he was offered a professional spot in the Princeton Ballet (now American Repertory Ballet).
Then one day, Patrick Corbin, a noted Paul Taylor dancer, came down to Princeton from New York to teach the dancers the 1975 Taylor masterwork "Esplanade."
Taylor is one of the greats of American modern dance, one of a handful of founders of the genre. In his youth, he danced with multiple eminences, from Martha Graham to George Balanchine. He went on to become a prolific choreographer—at the age of 80, last month, he debuted dance No. 133—and has traveled his company around the world.
Mahoney, still in high school, hadn't heard of any of this.
"I knew nothing about Paul Taylor and dance history," he recounted.
But when Corbin saw what young Sean could do in "Esplanade," he invited him to audition for a new Taylor enterprise just about to launch. The choreographer wanted to start a new, smaller troupe—Taylor 2—that would reprise his company's early days in the 1950s and play in small venues around the globe.
Mahoney auditioned, and the day after his 1993 high school graduation, he embarked on a worldwide Taylor 2 tour, learning the choreographer's signature dances along the way.
"I went on my first flight ever, to Germany," Mahoney said. "I went to Africa for a month. We were all young and fresh."
Since then, he's danced with Parsons Dance Company, with Alex Tressor and with Geoffrey Doig-Marx. He even performed in the famous Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Eventually, he found his way back to Princeton, and to the ballet he'd trained in as a teen. He danced with ARB—and met his wife—but after a while, he hankered for Taylor's classic modernism.
"I missed the broad sweeping strokes of modern," he said. "Ballet is lines and lengths and looks effortless. Modern is much more grounded and visceral. That kind of movement is much more natural for my body."
He went back to Taylor 2, and in January 2004, he won a place in the main company. Now he's a lead dancer in the New York troupe, which is using a publicity photo of his leaping body sailing through the air.
Saturday night's audience can see his jumps in the flesh. Mahoney will dance in two of the three dances on the Centennial Hall program. Now celebrating its 55th or 56th year, depending on who's counting, the troupe presents a trio of Taylor works from three different decades: "Arden Court" from 1981, "The Word" from 1998, and "Black Tuesday" from 2001.
"One of the greatest things about Paul is that his dances are not the same style over and over again," Mahoney said. "No two pieces are the same. That sets him apart from any other choreographer. He's so eclectic." Even now, in old age, "He's doing great. He's still pumping dances out."
"Arden Court," a work for nine dancers set to music by William Boyce, "showcases the company's men," Mahoney said. "It's a bunch of big guys on a stage. It's more structured and classic, with a series of trios and duets. It's pure dance movement, dancing for dancing's sake."
By contrast, "The Word," hints at a narrative. It has "many references to religion, with the dancers making the sign of the cross." Set to music composed by David Israel especially for the dance, "The Word" has a dozen dancers, most of them dressed in what look like Catholic-school uniforms.
Taylor is known for incorporating the gestures of everyday life into his work, most famously in "Esplanade." "The Word" falls into the category of ordinary movement made extraordinary. "They are movements that everyone can do," Mahoney said.
Mahoney is not in the final work, "Black Tuesday." Set to "songs from the Great Depression," he says, it has some inadvertent resonance with today's economic troubles, but the historic era it conjures up is immediately recognizable. Its 13 dancers are costumed in period styles, and they perform in vignettes suggesting 1930s characters—vaudeville dancers, for instance.
Today, Mahoney lives with his wife in New Jersey, a short distance from his parents in Bristol, Penn., home of the Bristol Stomp. All three Mahoney kids turned into dancers—one daughter dances with The Washington Ballet, the other performs on cruise ships. And whenever they can, Mahoney says, "Our parents still come to see us dance."