Dance: Moving Still, An Interview With Paul Taylor
Photos of dances by Paul B. Goode
by Scott Baldinger
“I like to move.” This was the only thing the now-legendary dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor could think of saying, during an audition for a place at the Juilliard School more than 60 years ago, upon having been asked why he wanted to dance. His only other previous experience “moving” was on the swim team at Syracuse University; soon to follow, after he had secured that spot at Juilliard, was a stint at Connecticut College’s summer dance program, where he met Martha Graham, who, after watching him for a few moments, said, “I want him.” (She got him; Taylor danced with her company for a number of years through the early to mid 1950s.) Although he was just stammering it out at the time, “I like to move” turns out to be a perfect summation of his life’s artistic work.
This Memorial Day Weekend, from Friday, May 24, through Sunday, May 26, local audiences can see a program that spans a big chunk of Taylor’s oeuvre (and perhaps life) at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, the company’s sixth year at the theater. The program includes two of Taylor’s most popular works that reach back through the decades—Offenbach Overtures and Casacades. It is also includes the New England premiere of Taylor’s Perpetual Dawn (2013), which depicts young people — mostly but not all heterosexual — experiencing their first romantic awakenings. The new work is set to concertos by Baroque composer Johann David Heinichen.
Taylor’s very beginnings are still relevant because, from the start, the simple joy and power of movement, often athletically, modernistically basic (walking, running, jumping, and hopping over each other), has been an essential element of both his dancing and then choreography for the last 60 years. Like his friend and contemporary Robert Rauschenberg, he took basic elements you could find on the street and alchemized them into something new and wonderful, all with such grace that they seem as balletic as the work of another of Taylor’s influences, George Balanchine. (Occasionally he went the other way: in 1957 he performed a solo, called Epic, where he simply sat and moved a little while a telephone operator read out the time. At the time it was so revolutionary that it inspired a dance critic to write a review that was completely blank, but for the byline.) Taylor’s straightforward interest in active, muscular movement is tempered by a visual acuity gained while the young artist struggled, financially and artistically, in the New York of the 1950s, in unheated lofts along with the likes of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, or dancing with Martha Graham and her company in gorgeous sets by Isamu Noguchi. Despite the brilliant and glamorous people — and things — he hung around with, his was an uncomfortable existence. Today, reflecting back on his “starving artist” days, Taylor, quite sensibly, says he “...doesn’t really miss any of it at all. It’s better now.”
Even at the age of 82, Taylor still keeps himself moving, but this year, like last, he won’t be in Great Barrington with the company; he has always found travel unpleasant, despite his having appeared in these parts since 1950, when he first performed at Jacob’s Pillow. “It’s a great audience up around there,” he says via phone from Manhattan, “especially at the Mahaiwe, which has a terrific stage and very good stage crew. All the people there treat us very nicely.” Taylor notes that he “…can do definitely do without traveling; I only do it if I need to for company reasons. I work in New York, and when I’m not there I’m in the North Fork of Long Island.”
Last year, Taylor’s new works, particularly Gossamer Gallants, were the latest expression of one of his great pet interests: insects. “Ever since I was child I’ve been interested in insects, read a lot about them and collected butterflies and things,” he replies. What it really comes down to is not only that “they have their own way of movement,” but that they have something Taylor himself is fascinated with, if not envious of: “Six legs.”
This year, the Mahaiwe program charts a whole range of moods through the last three decades. Lost, Found and Lost (1983), is a striking work as minimalist as this now maximalist choreographer could be during the heyday of Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, and Robert Wilson. Offenbach Overtures (1995), the dazzler of the evening, is processionally military yet playful, flirtatious, and sexy (lots of flexing and horse-like stomping between the sexes) and ingeniously comic at the same time (and no Can-Cans). Last Look (1985), is a sci-fi series of hysterical writhing and tumbles in a future dystopia to an excitingly lugubrious score by Donald York, as if the dancers were in the last throes of life on a lost ship (space or otherwise), fleeing from a destroyed civilization. Yup, the mid eighties in New York City did feel like that at times.
Taylor then asks me to ask him a question I hadn’t even thought of posing to him: “What keeps you going?” Which he answers slyly: “Cigaretttes and beer. No more than three beers at a time, and two packs a day. I encourage people to smoke; there’s so much publicity about how bad tobacco is. It’s really gotten out of hand. And you know what? For my age, I’m all right.”
Got a light?