A fascinating documentary in which you get both a Paul Taylor dance and the making of the dance.
Paul Taylor: Creative Domain edited by Kate Geis, filmed by Tom Hurwitz. At the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA, September 23 through October 1.
By Marcia B. Siegel
It’s the end of the summer of 2010 in New York and Paul Taylor is about to start making a new dance. He tells the dancers who’ve assembled after a break that he has an idea, but it could be re-routed. He thinks the dance will have something to do with memory. “We all remember certain things differently. It’s like Rashomon: you never knew what really happened.”
Later on in the extraordinary film that records the rehearsal process, Taylor talks about his relationship with his dancers: “It’s like life. We don’t really know each other.” He does know them pretty well, as some of them tell an interviewer on camera. Taylor doesn’t get all chummy with his dancers; he doesn’t even go on tour with them except for special occasions. But he has good eyes and good intuition.
Creative Domain, the film, tracked the making of a still-nameless Three Dubious Memories. The dance premiered in October 2010 at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson TX, and in New York early the following year. The film has had several showings since its New York debut at the Dance Film Festival in early 2014. Its Boston debut at the Museum of Fine Arts next week is part of a national release. The 90-minute documentary first takes you through Taylor’s choreographing process, then records the dance’s Texas debut performance, so you get both the dance and the making of the dance in one fascinating movie.
Three Dubious Memories is a dance with two components: the two men and one woman who form a triangle (Sean Mahoney, Robert Kleinendorst, and Amy Young), and a chorus with its leader (James Sansom). In three initial sections, the characters enact their relationship from each one’s point of view. Then there’s a sort of recapitulation, overseen by the chorus, a parody of the grandiose Greek choruses of Taylor’s first mentor and still bête noir, Martha Graham. The Memory scenes all culminate in jealousy and violence, but there’s no resolution. The dancers learn their moves without knowing the big picture, which emerges only when the dance reaches the stage.
Taylor begins the choreographing process with some uncertainty about whether his notion can be realized. But it’s clear that he does his preparation carefully. We see him studying tapes from the composer, Peter Elyakim Taussig, who lives in the Berkshires. Taylor says he picked out Taussig’s music from scads of unsolicited scores that arrive in the mail. They won’t meet until the last rehearsal. He checks counts to Taussig’s electronic music; the camera scans pages of notes.
As he gathers with the dancers, he begins to sort them out, the principals in one room and the “choirs” in another. Chewing a wad of gum, he sits between two tables, notebooks on one side, a small fridge, coffee maker, ash tray, and tape recorder on the other. Next to him sits former company dancer now assistant rehearsal director Andy LeBeau, who writes down everything and watches the dancers with gimlet eyes. Instead of a wall of mirrors, the dancers face a curving wall of windows looking out on a leafy courtyard. The white studio space prickles with intense concentration as Taylor and the dancers make this dance together.
Without telling them what he has in mind besides the Rashomon analogy, Taylor looks at group formations, directing pathways and spacing. “How the space is used, the placement of the figures, is very important to me. And I’m very picky about it.” He gives the solo dancers instructions, demonstrates slight adjustments, talks them through moves he can’t do himself. (Taylor was 80 when the film was made.)
At one point, he’s teaching a lift to Young and Kleinendorst. She’s to bend back over him, lying over his shoulder as he rises from one knee. Taylor wants him to pivot and push her whole body above his head at the same time. Clearly a job for a Tarzan. They try it as Taylor watches, shadowed by LeBeau. Kleinendorst wobbles with the effort. Taylor gets Young to shift her weight on his shoulder a little. They try it again. Kleinendorst is still having a hard time. They all stop for a moment, break into nervous giggles. Taylor thinks, then quietly suggests, “Well then. Stay down. And pivot.” Kleinendorst hefts her while pivoting on one knee and that seems to work.
The talking is minimal. Though they don’t use the set vocabulary of ballet, they have a history of doing Taylor’s dances in their collective memory. They can draw on certain precedents to use again. The flat, “Egyptian” poses he wants were basic to several of his prior dances. Hitch-step lines thread through many others. The new dance will end with the three principals snaking through and on top of each other in a pileup, yet another familiar Taylor device. But in each case, he re-invents the trope, sometimes asking for dramatic motivation.
The film intercuts studio scenes with remarks from the dancers and from the support staff: Bettie de Jong, one of Taylor’s earliest dancers, who’s now his rehearsal director; John Tomlinson, Taylor company executive director; Jennifer Tipton, lighting designer; Santo Loquasto, designer of the costumes.
De Jong, who’s been with Taylor since 1962, says, “I only heard him once, in all those years, say ‘now that’s a dance that I wanted to choreograph.’ Then he’ll go on to the next thing.” After the dress rehearsal in Texas, Taylor is chatting in the dark theater with Loquasto, who’s reassuring him that it’s okay when he feels he hasn’t gotten it exactly right. Taylor exclaims with a smile in his voice: “I know if I ever make a perfect dance, that’ll be it.”
At the end of the film the dancers have returned to their New York studio. The tape recorder is playing something from Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. Taylor has confided to LeBeau that he has only a mood to go on, and the dancers are ready to begin the dance that will become The Uncommitted.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a Contributing Editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims–The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983-1996 Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.