Choreographer Paul Taylor leaves a repertory that sprawled from the outrageous to the sublime.
By Marcia B. Siegel
How to sum up a life that’s proceeded in a straight line, with squiggles, for a whole career, encompassing many honors and intersecting with many notables? I’ve known Paul Taylor since the early ’60s. It can’t be that he’s gone from my dance life, and the lives of us all. Taylor died in New York on August 29th at age 88. He leaves a repertory that sprawled from the outrageous to the sublime, a village that could be populated by anything from unicorns to psychopaths, gangsters to angels.
I’ve been watching Taylor’s dances for over 50 years and writing about them for almost as long as that. I came in on his career at a turning point. Up to then he’d been a young upstart, an alumnus of Martha Graham’s company who didn’t conceal a certain irreverence about the modern dance and its matriarchs. In 1962, in the steambath of modern dance that was the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College, Taylor produced Aureole, to music of Handel. Wearing practice clothes in immaculate white, the five dancers (Taylor, Dan Wagoner, Liz Walton, Sharon Kinney and Renee Kimball) strode in processionals and surged into ecstatic hops and broken shapes. Knowing nothing about dance at the time, I thought it was gorgeous. Only later did I understand that the modern dance establishment was scandalized. Not because of Taylor’s previous, avant garde-leaning efforts, but because of Aureole’s insistent derailment of classical music.
Unfazed, he went on after that, and the next year the Festival invited him back. He made what seemed to be the opposite piece, Scudorama: an essay in alienation danced in street clothes, with an atonal score barely completed in time for the premiere, by the dance accompanist Clarence Jackson. Bettie de Jong had joined the Taylor company, along with two extras, Geulah Abrahams and Twyla Tharp. The following winter, for performances in New York City, he added a program note, a quotation from Dante’s Inferno about the souls of the damned. What I remember about that dance was people flinging bath towels at the floor, and women glued to men’s backs, and a writhing pile of bodies.
For years I thought of Taylor’s work as exploring human dualities. Good/evil –beautiful/ugly — benign/dangerous. He seemed to be making one dance of each kind every year. They began to merge. In Orbs (1966) they did merge: the dancers played planets revolving around Taylor (the Sun), who wore a smooth and a crooked mask on the front and back of his head, and choreographed changing seasons. In the second half of the long dance, the cast wore street clothes and performed a deranged wedding.
Weddings were a trope he returned to several times, a sign of unity that always went wrong somehow. Just as the snaking piles of bodies signified a community mangled and dysfunctional but bonded together. He made many comic dances, and many dances that you couldn’t tell right away if they were funny or awful. In the ’60s, in the midst of the Vietnam war, he made From Sea to Shining Sea (1965), a satire on American holy symbols. There were tableaux: the Spirit of ’76, the Statue of Liberty, Betsy Ross sewing on the flag. Taylor in a leather jacket and cap, was a motorcycle tough. Dan Wagoner was a Pilgrim discovering Plymouth Rock. An Indian greeted him in vociferous sign language. Whatever they were arguing about, the Pilgrim won. He stepped over the rock and the Indian and into the New World.
Taylor skewered another all-American symbol, the drum majorette, in Big Bertha (1970). It opened on an amusement park slot machine with a buxom woman on the front (de Jong) who would lurchingly conduct an ensemble of mechanical instruments when fed a nickel by a passerby. The tourists were seduced by the wheezing melodies into a dance; Bertha’s dance seduced them into seducing each other. The daughter was played by African American Carolyn Adams; Dad was Taylor and Mom was Eileen Cropley, both white. Neither incest nor miscegenation were acceptable onstage in 1970. Not to mention lurid sex.
Taylor loved parades, pageants, and vaudevilleana. He could pull these rituals into bizarre shapes as well as celebrate them. With the three-act American Genesis he compiled a multi-layered treatise on the Old Testament, the American pioneers and their entertainments. The dance, made in three separate sections, premiered in its entirety at Boston’s John Hancock Hall in October 1973. Returning from the road, they took the piece to Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Taylor enacted what was to be virtually his final dance. As he explained in gripping if grisly detail in his autobiography, Private Domain, he was felled mid-performance by a combination of pills and hepatitis. He danced another time or two before being grounded for months. He kicked the drugs and also the performing habit. He grew to love choreographing when he wasn’t having to dance himself; in that way, he launched a bunch of terrific but different dances.
Esplanade (1975) was the first. As if he was teaching himself the craft from scratch, he started it with walking that propelled variations — running, turning, skipping — until finally the dancers are scramming, falling, sliding, flying into each other’s arms. The music is sections from Bach’s violin concertos, two of which accompany George Balanchine’s 1941 classic Concerto Barocco. It’s all formal and surprising and human, without recourse to ballet technique or any other codified movement. When dancers run or leap, they look almost like ordinary people running and leaping.
Esplanade has simple costumes by John Rawlings, short plain dresses for the women, pants and jerseys for the men. As the second movement began, Bettie de Jong stood still, wearing a man’s costume. I thought she represented a bisexual character –not a narrative character in this plotless dance, but a consoling, reconciling force. Taylor returned to a bisexual image in his next dance, the enigmatic Runes. “Secret writings for use in casting a spell,” said the program note, and in a series of scenes five women and four men perform mysterious conjurings. To an eerie piano score by Gerald Busby, they make arcane gestures over inert bodies, walk back and forth as if guarding a shrine, exchange places with the dead by magic. At one point, a man chases a woman until they merge suddenly, into the shape of a hermaphrodite.
By the end of the ’70s Taylor and company had created a steady stream of unheard-of dances. Cloven Kingdom (1976) was like a deranged college prom — the women in long evening gowns, the men in tuxedos. But all of a sudden the women are wearing large silver objects on their heads and the men are doing wacky but decorous gymnastics. The music switches between the American modernist Henry Cowell and the Baroque Italian Arcangelo Corelli. After that Taylor tapped into the avant-garde of the moment (Polaris, 1976), by having the dance performed twice and challenging the audience to see how it changed with different casts, music, and lighting. To Poulenc’s jolly Concert Champêtre on the harpsichord (Dust, 1977), the dancers had flowery wounds painted on their unitards and hurtled into one physical crisis after the other. Some viewers laughed.
Then, in 1980, he made his own Rite of Spring, when everyone was talking about the original Rite by Vaslav Nijinsky, and how it disappeared, and how it could never be retrieved, and how the American dance historian Millicent Hodson and her partner Kenneth Archer were digging it up and soon to set it on the Joffrey Ballet. Taylor replaced Stravinsky’s dense orchestral score with the composer’s two-piano version, and instead of a tribal Russian sacrificial rite, he overlapped two stories into one. There’s a modern dance company in rehearsal for some unseen dance with a stiff-necked lady leader. And there’s a gang of crooks and their cop pursuers. There’s a hero of sorts, and his girlfriend, and a baby. Well, it’s complicated, but there’s a video, Le Sacre du Printemps (the Rehearsal).
After that, there were more memorable dances, tortured ones (Last Look, 1985), pretty ones (Roses, 1985), sexy ones (Piazzolla Caldera, 1998), ones that threatened hellfire (Speaking in Tongues, 1988), and ones that reflected on the past and ended with redemption (Beloved Renegade, 2008).
Amongst all that, Taylor expanded the company to eighteen dancers, moved its New York performing base from Brooklyn Academy of Music to City Center and then to the grand David H. Koch theater at Lincoln Center. Taking over the home of the New York City Ballet for a month each year was an irony that must have pleased Taylor. In 1993 he formed a second company, Taylor 2 to tour in smaller venues and keep up the smaller, older works in the repertory. The Taylor company in its 50th year changed its name to Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, to incorporate the work of other modern dancers. But Taylor’s own dances anchored the repertory.
It’s a bitter coincidence to me that Taylor 2 was performing up the street from my house in Rockport at Windhover, just a few days before he died. Their program consisted of Aureole, Runes, Party Mix (1963), and the duet from Lento (1967). The six young dancers took these dances seriously, although they antedated the gross technical demands of contemporary fashion. I didn’t mind revisiting the dances in Windhover’s small outdoor theater on a warm breezy night, with a scene design consisting of tall shrubs, katydids, and a rising full moon. In fact, the spareness of the situation made the movement clearer than ever. I learned how important stillness was in these early dances, and how much it mattered where the dancers were looking, and how Taylor asked for dancers to go out of control in the midst of galloping, and how he figured out that a couple’s relationship is so much more intimate when one partner gives all his or her weight to the other.
In 1987 Taylor published his autobiography, Private Domain, possibly the
funniest, truest, most readable dance book ever. And he oversaw films and TV shows about his work, including two or three Great Performances: Dance in America shows and at least three documentaries. And submitted to innumerable interviews. In all these his personality came through, as it does in his choreography: a brainy but self-deprecating man, shy and outspoken and often raunchy. He could see what he was creating in his mind’s eye. It’s miraculous that so much of what he envisioned translated into something we could see too.
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 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.