Monday, March 2, 2009
One never knows quite what to expect of Paul Taylor. His choreography keeps slipping unpredictably from style to style and theme to theme.
His father was a physicist; his mother managed a dining room in a Washington, D.C. hotel, and they divorced when he was young. Taylor, who was born in 1930, was attracted to both art and athletics. As a student at the University of Syracuse, he was asked to serve as partner in a program by the campus modern dance club. That so whetted his interest in dance that he finally summoned the courage to tell his athletic coach that he wished to become a professional dancer. The coach proved more sympathetic to dance than Ted Shawn's fraternity brothers had been. "Kiddo," he said, "you sound like you've gone bonkers, but I guess there's no stopping you."
Taylor studied dance at Juilliard and performed with the companies of Cunningham and Graham. When Graham and George Balanchine collaborated on Episodes in 1958, Balanchine created a solo especially for Taylor. In the mid-1950S, Taylor began offering his own programs. Much of his early choreography was whimsical or eccentric. Typically, Three Epitaphs (a 1960 revision of a 1956 piece called Four Epitaphs) depicted bizarre creatures totally encased in black costumes designed by Robert Rauschenberg who slouched and loped to recordings of old New Orleans funeral music in a manner that was simultaneously funny, grotesque, and endearing.
A 1957 concert by Taylor left one distinguished dance critic totally speechless. The entire program was based on walking and running steps and simple, but significant, changes of position. In Epic, Taylor, neatly attired in a business suit, slowly moved and paused and resumed his steps to recorded time signals. Duet, for Taylor and Toby Glanternik, involved held positions: Taylor remained standing and Glanternik remained sitting throughout the piece-and that was the entire dance. The uncompromising simplicity of these works so befuddled Louis Horst that his review for Dance Observer consisted of nothing but a blank space with his initials at the bottom of it.
Although Taylor reveled in absurdity, he soon demonstrated that his choreographic personality was split in several ways. His Aureole (1962) surprised dancegoers not with its oddity, but with its lyricism, and this dance to the music of Handel became one of Taylor's most popular creations. Its serene joy has even struck some audiences as balletic. However, its resemblance to ballet is superficial, and when Taylor stages Aureole for ballet companies, he finds that members of these troupes often find it difficult, for the choreography abounds with "unclassical" swings of the arms and jutting hips; moreover, whereas many ballets require their dancers to take lightness for granted, the dancers in Aureole are made to appear weighted bodies which achieve lightness.
Because of its sheer diversity, Taylor's work has come to epitomize the pluralism of modern dance since the 1960S. Taylor himself ignores all restrictive compositional theories. For him, as he put it, "There are no rules, just decisions."
Of all the American modern choreographers since Graham, it is Taylor who has developed the most diverse repertoire for his company. He tries to make each new work have a form, a style, and what could be called a movement palette uniquely its own.
Many of his most popular creations-among them, Airs (1978) and Arden Court (1981)-are genial. Pleasant to behold, they can at the same time be stimulating to think about because of the compositional principles on which they are built. Thus Arden Court is undeniably lyrical. But Taylor achieves lyricism not by emphasizing graceful steps for women, as some choreographers might do, but by stressing the male dancers in the cast. Taylor makes the men move with great speed, but the overall effect is idyllic, rather than purely athletic.
Taylor is a moralist as well as an entertainer. In serious and humorous works alike, he grapples with the problem of how to achieve a golden mean in life, and he deplores extreme behavior of any kind, be it puritanical or licentious. In Big Bertha (1971), members of a seemingly ordinary family are driven to violence and sexual depravity by an alluring, yet menacing, automaton. The apparently elegant people of Cloven Kingdom (1976) shed their fine manners and behave like beasts. Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal )- Taylor's disquieting interpretation of Stravinsky- is simultaneously a detective story about gangsters and a kidnapped baby and a peek into the backstage life of a dance company rehearsing a detective-story ballet. Because Taylor deliberately fails to supply motivation for many of the startling events in his Sacre, this work of 1980 can be viewed as a choreographic depiction of life at its most irrational and inexplicable.
Taylor remains fascinated by the ambiguities of movement. Esplanade (1975) is made up of nothing but such ordinary actions as walking, running, sliding, falling, and jumping. But these commonplace steps are taken to virtuoso extremes: only trained dancers can walk and run with such ease and abandon. In Polaris (1976), Taylor offers the same dance twice with no choreographic changes whatsoever. Yet each presentation of this basic dance has different lighting designs and is performed by a different cast to different music by Donald York-and the effect each time is totally dissimilar. Taylor knows how to please the eye and how to test his audience's powers of perception.