“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.”