A Form of Order: On Paul Taylor
“I can sometimes sense certain things…it’s hard to explain. It started very early, when I was a child—I moved schools a lot and lived in a lot of places and learned very quickly how to sense who was the class bully.” So says Paul Taylor in a soft, languorous voice, after a pause. Any conversation with the 82-year-old choreographer—who lives in splendid isolation in an old house on the North Fork of Long Island for all but a few months of the year, when he is making new dances at the studios of the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—is a bit like a game of hide-and-seek. He is gentlemanly and friendly, but not easy to draw out.
Taylor has been involved in modern dance for six decades; he is frequently referred to, in portentous tones, as the last of the great choreographers. Sadly, that characterization is probably true: Martha Graham died in 1991, and Merce Cunningham in 2009. Who else is there? The dance world has moved on. Rare is the choreographer who builds a unique, personal vocabulary of movement, a signature style brought into play in piece after piece, or who can sustain a regular stable of dancers—at least in the United States, where funding for such enterprises is nearly nonexistent. (Mark Morris is the exception, but he is eclectic by nature.) Building upon the innovations of Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch and others, contemporary dance is awash in collaborative creation, improvisational techniques, and the blending of dance and theater, all of which bear little resemblance to modern dance. Taylor continues to work in what is now a bygone mode. His company boasts sixteen dancers, a building of its own, and a large and growing collection of props and costumes; it also provides health insurance for its dancers and has bookings for most of the year. As for the dances, except for the odd passage here and there, Taylor alone conceives the ideas and the steps, and he is wont to describe the culture of the company as a “benevolent dictatorship.” In other words, Paul Taylor Dance Company is an institution, and a successful one: in 2012, its fifty-eighth year of existence, it had its first season at Lincoln Center in New York and sold more tickets than ever before. By the end of the year, it will have visited forty-two cities across the country. Its dances are also performed by companies like American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Miami City Ballet, and its own junior troupe, composed of six dancers, tours even more widely.
Taylor’s teachers included Graham, José Limón and Antony Tudor. In 1959, George Balanchine, arguably the greatest ballet choreographer of the last century, created a solo for him in Episodes, for which he famously asked Taylor to move “like fly in glass of milk.” He also offered Taylor a place in his company, New York City Ballet, an invitation the dancer never considered. (For all ballet’s late-twentieth-century rapprochement with modern dance, it is highly unlikely that such an offer would be made today.) To the headstrong Taylor, ballet had no appeal: it was a creaky pile of “froufrou” and “stiff-necked pretensions” that relied on a finicky technique and groomed a dancer to look “decorative, like a hollow person.” Modern dance, in contrast, held out the promise of momentum, weighted gesture and some deeper form of relevance.
Taylor joined Graham’s company in 1955 and stayed for seven years, usually dancing the parts of ominous, villainous characters in works like Clytemnestra, Phaedra and Night Journey. Graham had a profound influence on Taylor’s style as a choreographer; like him, she believed that dance should communicate ideas and feelings, and his dances, like hers, are frank about sexual desire. On a more physical level, he uses contractions—roundings of the back initiated by the intake of breath, a basic staple of the Graham technique. As he likes to point out, he even lifted a step, a kind of gliding run with arms swinging, from one of the first Graham pieces he saw. “I still think of her often,” he told me. But the grandiosity of her dances and her persona eventually drove him away: too much melodrama, too many psychological hang-ups. And she talked too much in rehearsal: “we would sit and listen and get cold. I try not to do that.”
By all accounts Taylor, who is tall (six feet), was an extraordinary dancer. The critic Clive Barnes once described how he loped “his way through the undergrowths of theatricality like an indolent antelope, with a jump and a twist, a muscular awareness of kinetic fact so that one was never sure which came first, the impulse or the move.” He came to dancing at 20, impossibly late, while studying painting at Syracuse on a swimming scholarship. He swam freestyle, which explains some of the extreme range of motion in his shoulders and back, as well as the almost aquatic texture of his movements. Each dance technique has a certain feel. Ballet seeks an aerial quality; Graham sought movement that felt grounded and monumental; Cunningham wanted clarity and speed; Taylor’s style is muscular and fluid. “I always loved the water,” he told me, “to be in it and the pressure you needed to use against it when you swam. When I danced, I imagined that pressure, as if the air were like water.” Watching a Taylor dance, one can almost feel the resistance in one’s own body. Given his late start, one can only assume that Taylor’s extraordinary coordination was innate, not learned. He tells a story in his strange, captivating memoir, Private Domain, about auditioning for a role on Broadway shortly after moving to New York in 1952; the role called for back flips, which he’d never done. He went into the hallway, asked someone to show him a back flip, and figured out how to do it. He got the gig.
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Close, even obsessive observation is central to Taylor’s working method—he watches people, animals and nature like an entomologist. He has even made a dance about the act of watching (or, rather, voyeurism), also called Private Domain. His penchant for close observation is perhaps the residue of a rather lonesome childhood. As he recently wrote, “I make dances because crowds are kept at a safe distance. That’s what proscenium stages are good for.” In his private world onstage, the dancers behave in ways that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying and often a mixture of the two. Even in many of his most accessible works, like Esplanade, Aureole and Company B, an underlying ambivalence seeps through the warm, overtly hearty, pleasurable surface. (In Company B, set to Andrews Sisters songs, the over-arching cheerfulness of the dances is undercut by the presence of shadowy figures at the rear of the stage representing soldiers in combat. Death is omnipresent.) In Taylor’s more dramatic dances, like Speaking in Tongues, Last Look and Scudorama, the conflict is out in the open, sometimes emphatically so, a quality for which he has been criticized. He also creates zany, humorous pieces for comic relief, like the recent Gossamer Gallants and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). In these, he gleefully pokes fun at his own heart of darkness. Sometimes he can protest too much.
More often, his dances are startlingly clear. One such case is Big Bertha, performed during Paul Taylor’s recent season. Seldom, if ever, has such brutal, debauched behavior been portrayed in a dance or even onstage, Medea excepted. An all-American family, circa 1950, goes to the fair and stops to admire a carousel band organ that plays popular tunes like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Atop the organ, a jerky automaton—played by one of Taylor’s tallest dancers—clutches a baton, jabbing it in time to the music. The first thing one notices is the skillfulness of the choreography, the uncanny precision with which Taylor represents mechanical movement: the automaton’s walk, stiff-legged and turned out at the hips, punctuated by her red boots, is a marvel of small detail—and creepy. As the dance begins, the parents of a pigtailed girl watch cheerfully as their daughter does cute renditions of the latest popular dances (we hardly register the automaton’s ominous gestures in her direction). But there is something disagreeable about the girl: a kind of ostentatious enthusiasm, as well as a predilection for revealing her panties. You don’t like her, but you’re not sure why.
Then it’s the father’s turn to do a dance, as the organ plays “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” He starts harmlessly enough, snapping his fingers and swiveling his hips as the automaton marks time with her baton. He goes over to his wife and caresses her cheek, and then—crack!—he slaps her across the face, hard. He grabs his daughter and drags her off behind the automaton’s platform. When he reappears, he’s zipping up his pants. Has he just raped his daughter in the middle of a dance? By the end, he’s carting around her limp, bloodied body. She’s dead. The mother drags herself away; the father, now completely unhinged, joins the automaton in a jerky dance, sealed with an open-mouthed kiss. Who would make such a piece, about incest and murder, and fill it with perky dance hall numbers, and set it to this strange mechanical music? Only Taylor. We’re all monsters inside, he’s telling us; the pleasantness is a mirage.
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In Big Bertha, the choreographer’s scratching at the scabby excrescences of the human soul may come across as extreme, but the mood of conflict has deep roots. Taylor, who was born in 1930, had a difficult, hardscrabble childhood, marked by troubled relationships, feelings of isolation and sexual ambiguity. In his memoir, he delicately suggests that his father, who was his mother’s second husband, was overly attracted to his stepson, Taylor’s half-brother. The brother was sent away to military school and his parents divorced; his mother worked hard to survive, so Taylor spent a lot of time alone. Packed off to live on a farm with family friends, he eventually discovered that the family was being paid to keep him, another emotional knock. He began to struggle with a sense of isolation and despair that persisted into adulthood—his autobiography even hints at a suicide attempt in the early 1970s—as well as a certain confusion and anxiety about his sexual desires. Did he like women? Did he like men? Was he capable of intimacy? The answers are in the work, where he deals with his demons face on, without poeticizing or mythologizing his fears the way Graham did.
The mystery is how such a mind could also conceive the luminous Airs, Aureole, Roses and Esplanade, works of lyricism and irresistible warmth. Esplanade is an explosion of joy, playfulness and love set to movements from two of Bach’s violin concertos. After seeing it, one cannot leave the theater without feeling reassured that life is worth living, though it too alludes, in a shadowy section, to humankind’s often thwarted desire to connect. Created in 1975 (Big Bertha is from 1970), following Taylor’s abrupt retirement from the stage after collapsing during a performance, Esplanade is probably his most beloved work, and the one the company seems to perform most often. Aureole, his first hit (from 1962), is another life-affirming dance set to Baroque music (as is Airs); in it, Taylor performed a slow, stretchy, fluid sequence that he has described as an “earth father who goes round blessing things.”