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

This year, Paul Taylor turned eighty. I find myself constantly chasing after figures in the arts that are getting older. Paul Taylor is his company, and without him there will only be the dances he leaves behind. I missed his February season at the City Center, but caught a recent free performance at the outdoor bandshell at the Lincoln Center. Despite the fact that we were promised rain, it turned out to be a fantastically clear, though dreadfully humid, night. I am always curious of the crowds such “cultural” events draw, and because this show was free it seemed more varied than most gatherings for modern dance usually are. Though it still consisted largely of Lincoln Center regulars, that elderly generation who have grown old watching dance, opera, and theater, more youths than usual peppered the amphitheater. I’ve seen dance outdoors in the past, though the last time was in San Francisco while I was training there for the summer. While that show was more of a family oriented, picnic style atmosphere with fireworks at the end, this performance was taken very seriously. As people fought for viewing space between heads, a general frustration and discomfort at being outdoors seemed rampant. Being outside was an odd feeling, as small distractions intensified: the constant chatter of people, the shuffling seat changes, the traffic on 9th ave, a helicopter flying overhead, the sunset behind the stage. All this tore your attention away from the tiny dancers onstage. For me, however, it felt like a wonderful, guilty pleasure. I am convinced that if there is anything we are obligated to pay for, it is dance.

Paul Taylor Dance CompanyThe evening began with two pieces performed by the junior company, Taylor 2. Performing a famous piece of Taylor’s, Esplanade from 1975, restaged here for six dancers, I was impressed by both the dancers and the selection. Finally a piece that young dancers can do well, perhaps even better, than their elders, and they brought a kind of natural spryness to the music and steps. Set to Bach, the music reminded me of the old vinyl records I used to play on my parents turntable, carefully setting down the needle and waiting through the scratching for the bounding music. I’d fill the living room with my own whirling and leaping, and Esplanade seems to capture this kind of physical freedom. Because junior companies are often treated like lesser visions of the real company, I was happy to see them take a piece from the older dancers and make it completely their own.

COMPANY BThe entrance of the main company itself, as the sun set and the sky grew dark, was upstaged by the ending of Taylor 2, and the audiences overwhelming need for an intermission. The beginning of their first piece was lost in the general confusion of people who assumed there was an intermission when in fact there wasn’t. Airs is an odd piece for Taylor, so balletic that it seems to stretch the talents of the dancers. It was beautiful choreography, and though executed with a great deal of skill, it lacked a polished sense of movement. A few wobbly turns, some difficultly holding an arabesque or attitude, and you got the sense that you were watching a junior ballet company. Syzygy, sandwiched in the middle of the program, was the most impressive piece. The music, composed by Don York, was discordant sounding jazz, and the choreography was full of the Taylor athleticism and precision that makes the company’s dancers, the men in particular, so impressive to watch. There is nothing quite like the bounding leaps and casual rolls, or the split-second poses that catch your eye even as they morph into another movement, of a Taylor dancer. Like all great Taylor pieces, Syzygy leaves you feeling a little unsettled, but for somewhat ambiguous reasons. The last piece, Company B, was set to the various hit songs of the Andrews Sisters, reminding me of the tunes my grandpa used to hum, so full of second world war feelings. Though the songs are about romantic American sentiments from that era, the underlying theme of Company B is one of gender. As the men were pulled, poked, and prodded around the stage by women in Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny Oh!, and as insipid words belted from the speakers in Rum & Coca Cola, you could not help laughing and wondering who was getting the shortest end of the stick.


The evening concluded with an appearance by Taylor himself, towering onstage above his dancers, equipped with his gaping grin. As a delighted audience sang happy birthday, I thought, here really is a man who gets to stretch his birthday out for a whole year.

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