The Dancemaker Turns Eighty

August 13th, 2010 § 0 comments

If you’ve never seen Paul Taylor himself dance, you’re missing something amazing. He’s tall and imposing, graceful and yet full of an athletic, masculine power. Watching clips from the beginning of his career in the 1960s, he fills the stage, literally and metaphorically, with a presence so captivating you can’t look away. In Taylor’s heyday as a dancer, which he spent growing away from the long shadow cast by Martha Graham, modern dance was not about storytelling like the classic fairy tales retold in timeless succession by ballet companies. Modern dance seemed more interested in experimenting with what else dance could communicate. Beginning with difficult choreography that confused and upset critics and viewers alike—such as his five minute dance in which no one moved—Taylor somehow found a way through abstraction to a kind of conceptual dance that, unlike Merce Cunningham, feels as natural as social dancing, street dancing, or our predilection for drunken capering. His choreography doesn’t look as though it should feel so accessible, we should struggle harder to watch his dances, but the way he understands our everyday movements makes his choreography uniquely enjoyable. Watching Taylor you get the sense that something important is being expressed, but exactly what remains something of a mystery.

young paul taylor

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Pilobolus — Varying Degrees of Dance

August 28th, 2009 § 0 comments

I recently saw Pilobolus at the Joyce Theater for the first time since watching vhs tapes at a summer dance camp when I was perhaps ten. The athletic dance troupe reminded me of a quote by photographer Sally Mann, “art for fun, if you can imagine that!” as the night’s performance shifted between being fun, funny, and fantastic. Substituting the word dance for art in Mann’s statement, seems to question dancegoer’s expectations and how they are denied or satisfied by what they see—questions that are relevant to this particular dance company as they constantly question the boundaries of dance itself. The company’s great strengths and the inherent weaknesses lie entangled, like the bodies onstage, within issues of expectation. The great thing about being able to see all of these different companies I know too much about through hearsay and too little through actual experience, is that I have been surprised every time and by every company. Seeing a verity of dance that all fits within the genre of modern dance, helps to define what the range of modern dance can be. Learning dance groups, and their devoted audiences, is like learning movie genres. If you like horror films and are used to that set of cinematic conventions, you might not enjoy a romantic comedy designed to melt the hearts of easily entertained women. I began wondering about this after the opening number, the premier of the Pilobolus’s latest choreography utilizing shadows, when the couple sitting next to us exchanged an ugly look and the words, “well, it’s not Swan Lake.”


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A Young Company

April 23rd, 2009 § 0 comments

I vividly remember the first time I saw Netherlands Dance Theater perform, a truly amazing European dance company that travels too little in the U.S. The experience eviscerated my then teenage conception of “proper” dance, believing that traditional dance, or even worse that traditional ballet, was the apex we were universally training toward. Ballet teachers encourage their students to believe that those who choose companies outside the realm of ballet are settling due to a lack of talent. It always seemed odd that the dancers talented enough to learn the movements while granting them a unique life and character, were drawn toward “modern” companies. NDT dancers are not simply good dancers, they are the very best kind of dancers; precise artists who happen to use their bodies to express conceptual ideas. The style of the company is more lyrical and conceptual than Taylor’s, the choreography tends to be balletic rather than athletic, and the stories are conceptual rather than narrative.

All forms of dance consume (destroy) the body long before you would like, aging normally seems traumatic enough, and another interesting aspect of NDT is that they house not one company but three—NDT is the original, NDT II is for the young, and NDT III for the elderly—and each company serves different functions. Looked at cynically or practically, young companies usually exist to feed preferred dancers into the main group, and an elderly troupe is perhaps like Las Vegas is to singers; where dancers go to die. Thought about a little more creatively, however, three companies pulled from three different age brackets parallels people themselves at different ages; everyone has something a little different to offer. Thinking specifically of performers, the young can offer an energy and exuberance that age tempers, those in their absolute prime can offer a kind of athletic human perfection, and older performers are seasoned and experienced; they don’t make the mistakes you predict in others.

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Tangy Laughter & Taylor’s Lyricism

March 21st, 2009 § 0 comments

Paul Taylor almost seems too fun. Listening to NPR last week my interested was aroused by an interview conducted with the choreographer, discussing Taylor’s new pieces that premiered last weekend. I knew of his company, but didn’t remember if I had ever seen them dance. Each performance night at the City Center showed a different combination of pieces, mixing the new work with the old, and it took me the rest of the working day to decide which combination I wanted to see most. I picked well, after consulting the Fossil, although the Saturday night performance simply caused me to want to see the Sunday afternoon show. Dragging the Fossil along he asked warily if this was a, “ballet company?” Paul Taylor’s dance company is not a ballet company, but they use ballet as much as all dances and dancers must. The final piece of the show, Offenbach Overtures, was dedicated to poking fun at the traditional form all ballets take. Listening to an interview with Paul Taylor, he states of his working method:

…and I don’t really have a message as such, but I am aware of the world we live in, and I watch people, I’m a watcher. I’m a terrible spy. I watch people move in their everyday lives, and their gestures that are so communicative. And those are so useable in a dance.

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A Forgotten Vocabulary

February 13th, 2009 § 0 comments

“What kind of class do you want to take? Anything but ballet.”

paloma herrera

When I think of the ideal dance class I remember a particular night in San Francisco, a night class that took place while I was studying at a school there. After our “required” classes that lasted all day long, we used to crash the beginning adult classes at night. The teachers were two Russian twins, dancers for SFB, who had enough energy and charisma to bring the best out of weary feet and legs. Male ballet teachers are by far the most “fun,” they indulge in the steps they know best, jumps, turns, and fast (loose) footwork. Women are constrained by being ever attentive to perfect technique and impeccable execution. Without the pressure of our daytime teachers, without the nitpicking of our artistic director, it was the perfect time to experiment. We were brats, flaunting our training for the benefit of the beginners, but we were humbled by the local professionals who came to dance with our twins. It was as democratic as I remember ballet ever being, it was ballet without pretensions, and we were always at our best. It is that kind of class I want to find again.


(a very young Suzanne Farrell with a less youthful Balanchine)

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