Arts Review

Tricks and Troupers

Michelle Fleet with (L-R) Lee Duveneck, Madelyn Ho, Michael Apuzzo, Parisa Khobdeh, Robert Kleinendorst and Jamie Rae Walker in Esplanade. Paul Taylor Dance Company. Photo by Paul B. Goode

In his remarkable 1987 autobiography Private Domain, Paul Taylor devoted a small chapter to his dance company’s decrepit early studio on Sixth Avenue. Instead of dancers, the inhabitants of the space he describes are Taylor’s semi-roommate Babe, a cat named Tabby, and Taylor’s alter ego George Tacet. After a wildly exaggerated account of the way these characters would have liked to redecorate the loft, Taylor imagines moving to a classier home when the company’s fortunes will have improved. Going back to the Sixth Avenue space then would bring up too many memories of “time’s tricks and dear troupers come and gone.” Despite its “skeletal, subway-shaken bones, its lamebrain of a boiler in the basement . . . ,” Taylor really loved the place.

This gem of literary distancing is typical of the whole book and much of Taylor’s choreography. Taylor died on August 29th in New York at age 88. He made over 100 dances, some of them formal, some sentimental, some satirical, some cartoonish. The romantic dances were very popular, probably more popular than the biting ones, and the formal ones were praised for their Higher Meanings. They were all interesting, sometimes baffling at first look but later satisfying. I related to Taylor’s deep-dyed skepticism, so I liked the snarky ones best. You could count on the snarkiness to conceal a softer counterplot.

Throughout his book, Taylor speaks of the dancers with affectionate irreverence. He calls Twyla Tharp, a new Barnard graduate who spent a year or so with the company before moving out, “a brash but lovable Munchkin.” (“I’m big,” she retorts.) He misses Dan Wagoner’s “forked jokes” after he too has left the company. Eileen Cropley as the virgin in Agathe’s Tale is “both inhibited and wanton.” That dance, he confesses, “mirrors the personalities of its performers.” I bet many of his other dances do too.

As a writer, he deploys near-flagrant hyperbole to relate the story of his company’s early years. In the beginning it wasn’t even a company. After his first, outrageous concerts with friends, people started hearing about him and turned up at the door. The few initial recruits were joined by others; things became more complicated; paychecks had to be provided. Life became a business of relentless touring, interspersed with too-short bouts of making new dances in the studio. At some point he notices that the dancers keep growing younger while he gets older. The book’s touring stories are hilarious and heartbreaking. After a visit to a diplomat’s residence during a South American tour, he remarks that the lavish swimming pool probably cost the U.S. taxpayers enough to support several modern dance companies. In between nerve-wracking airplane and bus trips, they overcome worse-than-inconvenient performing facilities. Their makeshift dressing room gets swept away in a mudslide in Peru, along with an audience of laughing Incas. Fending off injuries and loneliness, Taylor and the dancers carry on.

More than 200 pages in, they’re on a long European tour. It’s the fateful year of 1968 and they’re in Paris when the company gets caught in citywide insurgent riots. The theater is occupied and wrecked by students. Taylor, encumbered by a leg cast because he’s smashed an ankle while rehearsing what would have been a spectacular jump, goes onstage in a fruitless effort to convince the zealous revolutionaries that back in its home country this modern dance company is an outsider just as these protesters are. The Paris season is lost, but the finances are partially restored through the generosity of theater director Jean-Louis Barrault. They go on to Sweden, Denmark and primitive Eastern Europe before their last stop in Britain. There, Taylor pitches into a dramatic weeklong sex-and-booze bender.

In what’s not really an anti-climax but a gruesome coda with a hopeful ending, he explains how, five years later, he cooked up one of his most intricate and revealing scenarios: American Genesis, an epic in three acts layering Old Testament characters underneath two centuries of American history. Playing Noah, he breaks down again, this time in performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music, where a house full of audience and critics has gathered for the New York premiere. Attacked by old injuries, pills, ulcers, anxiety, and an undiagnosed case of hepatitis, Taylor knows he’s sick but struggles to get through his part. He describes his collapse at the end of Act 3 in chilling detail, stretching out the time as he tells it so it seems an eternity before the curtain comes down, just before the dance’s ending. Despite his poor condition, he limps through the remaining performances of the week, averting the disastrous financial consequences of cancelling. Immedi­ately, during a short residency at Lake Placid, he has to create additions to the repertory to fill out the next touring commitments. He recycles the 1961 Fibers into a quartet with Stravinsky music. Then comes Sports and Follies to Erik Satie, which at the time seemed to me a half-hearted stab at fun. Finally the doctors catch up with the hepatitis, and Taylor is hospitalized for several weeks.

When he gets out, his dancing career is over. He’s 44, and now he has to choreograph from the sidelines instead of being in the dance. He’s had time to imagine how this drastic identity-change could work, and he doesn’t feel so bad about it. He starts again with the basics: walking, running, and movements that will suit the nine individual dancers. The first attempt produces Esplanade, which will turn out to be a classic. The book ends in a rehearsal; with the dance as yet unnamed, he calls for attention: “Ready, set, and . . .”

At the end of the book, author-Taylor doesn’t realize how many more fine works he’s yet to create, but of course by the time he was writing it, he’d done a bunch. Back in Lake Placid after premiering Esplanade, he came up with Runes (1975), a mysterious work about conjuring and maybe reincarnation. I saw it last summer performed by the chamber-sized Taylor 2, a company created in 1993 and now under the direction of former company dancer Ruth Andrien. The program at Windhover in Rockport, Massachusetts, offered a collection of early works on an outdoor stage. By the time Runes was made, the Taylor company had expanded to 11 dancers, so it took a little downsizing to fit the six stalwarts of Taylor 2. But it looked as enigmatic there in the woods as it does onstage with electric moonlight.

The rest of the program included Party Mix (1963), the first of several Taylor explorations into the pleasures and perils of the ordinary social occasion. Lento (1964) once was part of a longer dance, but as a romantic duet it made a popular addition to the touring roster. It grew a long life of its own and shed the rest of the dance. Aureole (1962) became a worldwide classic and certified Taylor’s place as a genuine albeit unpredictable choreographer. For a cast of only five, it showed how modern dancers could translate classical music (Handel) into a forthright and untroubled display of dancing—-how they could be both serene and frangible. As time went on, the Taylor company grew; the dances got bigger. By this year there were just under 20 dancers, and most of the new works encompassed the whole ensemble. Taylor 2 showed us how impressive he’d been when he worked on an intimate scale.


Johnny Vorsteg and Rei Akazawa in Paul Taylor’s Runes. Taylor 2 company. Photo by Whitney Browne.

Ruth Andrien joined the Taylor company in 1974. She was in the original casts of Runes and Esplanade but wasn’t around for the earlier works. I don’t know how these specific dances were revived, but the Taylor company relies on the standard practice of transferring dances by word of mouth from one cast to the next. Former dancers are called in to teach dances that haven’t been in active repertory. A large number of Taylor’s works have been recorded in Labanotation, including Aureole, but I don’t know whether anyone in the Taylor organization can read and teach from a Labanotation score.

Ruth Andrien stayed in the Taylor company till 1983, her strong musical presence a mainstay of great dances Taylor made in that period. After Runes he was off on a streak of terrific works in different flavors. First came Cloven Kingdom (1976), another “social animal” piece, where the women in evening gowns and the men in tuxedos begin with neat patterns like the proper beginnings of a college prom. With no warning, the women acquire large silvery objects on their heads and the men launch into goofy gymnastics. They don’t acknowledge anything amiss about these events or about the fact that two entirely different pieces of music (by Arcangelo Corelli and Henry Cowell) are alternating and overlapping each other.

Alex Katz’s tubular metal cube provided the setting for Polaris (1976), an experiment in perception. Two different casts consecutively dance the same choreography but with different lighting schemes (by Jennifer Tipton) and Donald York’s two-pronged score. After that, Taylor made Images (1977), to piano selections by Claude Debussy, a quasi-Minoan piece in which the dancers seemed like pieces of ancient art in a museum. Continuing his contrary course, Taylor’s next dance was Dust (1977), a gruesome frolic about contagion, with misshapen behaviorisms that spread from one dancer to another while a harpsichord played Poulenc’s jolly “Concert Champêtre.”

Within a year he veered back into the classical with Airs (1978) to the Baroque music of Handel. He originally tried to make this dance for American Ballet Theatre dancers but felt they didn’t have a sufficient grasp of his idiom, so he set the swirling, tilting movement on his own company. Three couples and another woman dance a sort of consecutive farandole, each borrowing step ideas from the previous couple, and then small groups follow each other in canon. The odd woman begins and ends the dance alone, injecting a personal meditativeness to the otherwise upbeat classicism of the rest. A couple of years later, ABT incorporated Airs into its repertory.

A quasi-sibling, Arden Court, followed Airs in 1981. Set to music by the English Baroque composer William Boyce, the dance was also classical, but with zany surprises within Taylor’s now-familiar vocabulary. Arden Court featured six muscular men of the company, who could do gymnastics and lyrical ensemble work equally well. Early in the piece, three of them acquire female partners. In a film made at the American Dance Festival in 1982, Elie Chaib slowly revolves and unfolds his limbs in an echo of Taylor’s solo adagio in Aureole, as Carolyn Adams scoots around him and under his lifted leg. David Parsons channels Aureole again in an elaborate variation on Dan Wagoner’s jumping dances. There are other quotes from the 1962 classic as well. Arden Court has been performed by ballet and modern dance companies around the world.

Perhaps only critics and fans can recognize specifically where Taylor was quoting himself, but it must have been evident to anyone by this time that he’d created a vocabulary for himself. The dancers shared ways of moving, a lexicon of phrases and body mechanics that could be elaborated spatially, musically and temperamentally, to suit different dance objectives. The expansive, bilateral arm swings with the torso twisting as the dancer traveled in stretched-out, grounded runs. The facile use of the plié that could send a dancer dipping to the floor suddenly or scurrying like a large animal wishing it were small. The lift of the woman to the man’s hip, where he could carry her as she spread out or curved her arms for maximum display.

At the end of the 1970s, Taylor was once again recycling his own material. Profiles (1979) was a plotless dance based on movements that he created for another, entirely different dance, his storyless story-ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). With a modern score by Jan Radzynski, Andrien, Chaib, Monica Morris and Christopher Gillis animated the purposely two-dimensional shapes that Taylor devised as a vocabulary for his take on the famous 1913 Nijinsky/Stravinsky ballet. Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) (1980) had Stravinsky’s own score for two pianos instead of the big orchestra of the original scandalous Rite of Spring, and almost nothing to do with its plot. In Taylor’s version, there were two interwoven themes, concerning a dance company (led by an imperious Bettie de Jong) and a bunch of crooks.

As if to contradict the circular, flowing style of his earlier dances, Taylor flattened out the bodies and stopped the moves suddenly and without transitions: a dance equivalent of pop art or comic strips. Christopher Gillis played a detective who somehow gets thrown in jail, and Ruth Andrien was his girlfriend. There’s a baby involved, and when the baby gets stabbed in a gang fight, Andrien dances a frenzied solo to the sacrificial music of the Chosen Maiden.

Many dances later, Taylor had a two-hit year in 1985 with the polar opposites Roses and Last Look. Expanded so it could muster six couples, the company now took on Richard Wagner’s mega-romantic “Siegfried Idyll” and a lesser known piece by Herinrich Baermann for Roses. The couples dance smooth, lovely duets. Most of the same dancers were tearing themselves apart a few days later when Last Look premiered in the company’s City Center season. Nine dancers are caught in a hellish space with mirrors for walls. Alex Katz’s prismatic set and Jennifer Tipton’s glarish lighting forced the people to confront the worst aspects of themselves. Taylor came up with the most extreme distortions of his movement for this, as the tormented dancers clawed at their reflections and grappled with each other. As in Scudorama, the 1963 anti-Aureole, Last Look culminates in a doomed pile of bodies. These unidentical-twin dances were featured on a 1987 Dance in America telecast.

Pushed by the relentless performance schedule, Taylor kept making one or two new dances a year, some of them trifles, but even the trifles were well-made and beautifully danced. He worked on Speaking in Tongues (1988–91) for a long time, reshuffling its many roles and time frames. What may have been the final version was filmed for public television’s Dance in America. This foreboding piece about the dangers of religious fanaticism had layers of family interactions and went back and forth in time, with some characters doubled and others changing identities. It’s possible he was thinking of Martha Graham’s epic renditions of Greek tragedy. In fact, when Taylor did the television version he added a barnyard duet for Gillis, a Hayseed, and Denise Roberts as a Woman with Airs. This looked like a not very subtle parody of the duet between Bertram Ross as Oedipus and Graham as Jocasta in Night Journey, a performance immortalized on a famous 1958 film that also featured Paul Taylor as the blind prophet Tiresias.
I won’t say that Taylor’s last decades were unproductive. He made several excellent if not groundbreaking dances, extending his studies of the animal world, comic strips, vaudeville and low theater forms, dysfunctional families, and the joy of dancing to music. But he was also reluctantly playing the role of a famous artist. There was the Taylor school to supervise, a large administrative and artistic staff to oversee. The company was sought after; he instituted Taylor 2 to fulfill some of the worldwide touring engagements. The repertory works had to be licensed to other companies that wanted to stage them. Besides their television work, the company made at least two documentary films, Dancemaker (1998), which focused on the creation of his tango dance, Piazzolla Caldera, and Creative Domain (2015), about the making of a Rashomon-type dance, Three Dubious Memories.

The company moved its annual New York season in 2012 from City Center to the fancier, more prestigious David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. In 2014 the company spawned a new entity, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, an effort to promote the modern dance’s past and future by showing historic works and commissioning new ones. Last spring, Taylor named dancer Michael Novak as his successor to lead the company and take over all his jobs. Novak was installed by the board of directors days after Taylor’s death.

Paul Taylor didn’t write a sequel to Private Domain, which I hoped he’d do, but in 2013 he published a collection of small pieces, Facts and Fancies. In the same bashful but outspoken voice, he makes up plausible stories about life in New York and Long Island. He denigrates himself so loudly he might be boasting. He ruthlessly punctures alien species of dance and their clueless choreographers. He reprints entertaining letters he wrote to an old friend and exposes George Tacet’s unpub­lished introduction to Private Domain. He gives quasi-fictitious accounts of performing mishaps in which he may have participated. He parodies a hapless interview. He starts writing a murder mystery. And he discusses Art, bees, dogs, critics. Alongside poetic tributes to his colleagues, he delivers pompous but poorly disguised reflections on the Meaning of Life.

I didn’t know Paul Taylor well, but once in a while there’d come a note from him about something I’d written. They were always complimentary and encouraging in an understated way. One was written on the back of a page of beetles reprinted from a nineteenth-century guidebook. On another card he added a diffident postscript: “Thanking critics not usually my style.” Another was accompanied by a butterfly he’d captured and framed, with a tiny typewritten caption pasted to the back: “Danaus plexippus (Monarch) Mattiuck, NY, Aug 94.” The monarch’s wings are faded now, and the glass has gotten cracked, but the piece is still on the cupboard by my front door.
*I would like to acknowledge Angela Kane for her invaluable chronology of Taylor’s dances from 1954 to 1997 (published in the Winter 1996 edition of the journal Dance Research, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Oxford University Press).