Taylor Turns 50by Vanessa Manko, Lester Tome, and Claudia La Rocco
During the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s 50th anniversary season, celebrated in a three-week engagement at City Center, I delighted in hearing the “ohs” and “ahs” during Esplanade (1975). A splendid romp with dancers sprinting diagonals across the stage, arms pumping, Esplanade, in all its gleeful abandon and racing-hearts-of-first-love ebullience, manages to make the simplest of movements—running, skipping, walking, jumping—virtuosic modern dance, seminal in its declaration that yes, all this too can be dance.
Taylor began choreographing in the 1950s while also dancing for Martha Graham. But while Graham’s works were steeped in angst and drama, Taylor sought movement devoid of histrionics and so incorporated everyday movement into his choreographic vocabulary. After 50 years as a “dancemaker” (see the 1999 documentary of the same name about Taylor), today he is lauded as one of the most prolific choreographers of our time, creating pieces that bespeak the essence of America. Full disclosure: Esplanade aside, Taylor, for me, has always been in the shadow of Graham and Cunningham, perched precariously between these two modern dance visionaries, akin to the younger brother who could never measure up. But the success of his company—it is no small accomplishment for a dance company in America to reach 50—and masterpieces like Esplanade are reasons enough to pause and examine these initial summations of his work. Part of Taylor’s appeal lies in his accessible choreography and his works’ equally understandable narratives and themes—love, loss, World War II, Depression-era America. While his choreography can be complex and quite lovely, some of his works verge on the simplistic and, for lack of a better word, corny. Maybe it’s a generational gap, but I feel as though Taylor’s choreography is stuck in the dance boom of the 1970s and 80s, frozen in the comforts of recognizable and charming dance prototypes and ideals. Still, for many Taylor continues as the granddaddy of modern dance, and so here we offer varied views on the man and his work, impressions that range from the pro-Taylor to the nonplussed. These musings on the company’s 50th anniversary question Taylor’s status as the “best,” aim to complicate the idea that his works are infused with the “American spirit” and, perhaps most interesting, raise larger questions about the role of beauty and accessibility in dance.
Paul Taylor has a gift for humor and an extraordinary musicality. Usually his most lively dances, the ones that seem most well-watered creatively, are also funny; even more traditional, classical dances like Esplanade and Aureole (1962) make the audience titter a little. In 3 Epitaphs (1956) New Orleans dirges lend themselves to a bizarre, simian, mud-creature slink. Costumed by Robert Rauschenberg, the dancers are faceless, covered in dark fabric from head to toe and crowned with goggle-like reflectors that send rainbows darting across an otherwise dim stage. Creatures slump onto stage, fall into place to wiggle, boogie, and swish, and then slump off. At one point a dancer misses the spotlight and adjusts. Percussive and very funny, the effect is part insect and part ape, part commentary on performance and part bemused recollection that this is funeral music. Even the infamous Big Bertha (1970), striking in its remarkable derangement, is so over the top as to risk silliness. Set to demented carnival music, the main character is a coin-operated musical machine (played most recently by Patrick Corbin, outfitted with fake hips and red thigh-high boots) whose diabolical influence exposes the frailty of American values, as a wholesome family devolves into wanton sexuality, including incestuous rape.
Taylor thrives in artificial settings like the circus or theater. The wonderfully layered Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) (1980) is a kind of historical update of a dance story. In 1913 a Paris audience rioted when Nijinksy premiered The Rite of Spring; 60-odd years later, Taylor’s parenthetically titled Rehearsal alternates gangster shenanigans with a critique of modernism. He opens on dancers rehearsing at a bar; a spotlighted figure in the foreground suggests Taylor himself. (The choreographer’s own Parisian riot story came in May 1968, when the company had to flee student unrest.)
Taylor seems playful by nature, so it is perhaps not surprising that his most disappointing dances are often overly serious: the new Dante Variations, for example, with its labored and gimmicky depictions of frustration and angst, or the attempt in 1987’s Syzygy to use dancers to illustrate the principle of three or more bodies lining up in space. Dante Variations is introduced in the program by this line from the Inferno: “These are the nearly soulless, whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.” (Other Taylor pieces have epigraphs by Neruda and Spinoza.) In this case the quote sets the bar too high. In 3 Epitaphs and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) Taylor seems to have taken his lead from the music—rich soil, and perhaps easier to work with than a single self-contained line of poetry.
While Paul Taylor might downplay such overwrought labels as “the greatest choreographer in the world” (a title given to the artist by Vanity Fair, hardly a bible of dance criticism), his skills are formidable. The choreographer’s masterful command of craft is balanced by his ability to capture the full range of the human experience. Working with archetypes, he reminds us of our idealist dreams in dances such as Arden Court, Aureole, and Airs, and makes us face darkness and nightmares in works like Last Look and Big Bertha. Esplanade and Promethean Fire, among others, underscore his mathematical intelligence. Floor patterns unfold in escalating geometrical progressions. Dancers gather and disband, illustrating set theory. Movements and sounds sustain a complex counterpoint with the unexpected surprises and revelations of numerical series. Taylor is one of the few choreographers who believe that beauty has an aesthetic value. This is something to thank him for, as the prevalent tone in contemporary dance is cerebral, political, or psychotic; many choreographers view beauty as taboo and are pitiless with their audiences. In Taylor’s work beauty is moving or, more exactly, the human capacity to create beauty reveals a moving longing for harmony and perfection.
His work also embodies American style, with incisive rhythms and athletic movements that are airy but grounded. The dancers perform with coolness, avoiding sentimentalism, and the choreography does not forget that dance is art but also entertainment. Moreover, his pieces often comment on American life. With irony and rawness, he has targeted religious bigotry and small-town hypocrisy in Speaking in Tongues and choreographed snapshots of the Depression Era in Black Tuesday and the 1940s in Company B. In 1957, several years before the emergence of the Judson Dance Theater, Taylor was already experimenting with pedestrian movement in his 7 New Dances. In 1980, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) introduced postmodern narrative in modern dance. In a way, he has been a visionary.
Still, Taylor is human. The choreographer of 121 dances, he has delivered works that are not quite extraordinary. One of the season’s two premieres, Klezmerbluegrass is a mere pièce d’occasion, cute but perishable. On the other hand, the tragic and humorous Dante Variations is Taylor at his best: commenting on humanity, looking at purgatory as a place and a metaphor, pushing his dancers to risky edges, bringing a monumental score by Georgi Ligeti into inventive and elaborate movement.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company wants us to know two things about its choreographer: His essential “American-ness” and his status, seemingly enshrined, as the best dance maker around—a genius, a living legend, a national treasure. While there are plenty of works to admire in Taylor’s repertory of 121 dances (particularly when interpreted by Michael Trusnovec or the justly feted Lisa Viola, a fierce, efficient wonder of a dancer), these summations confound. “The American spirit soars whenever Taylor’s dancers dance,” the San Francisco Chronicle excerpt swoons. Just whose America are we talking about here? I recognize more of mine in more ambiguous works, like Bill T. Jones’s take on Flannery O’Connor or Savion Glover’s tribute to John Coltrane or, for that matter, British-born Keely Garfield’s recent exploration of sexual politics, Disturbulance, than in the slapstick Americana of Dream Girls or the magisterial patterns of Promethean Fire, which many see as a response, in part, to the September 11 attacks. The joyous purity of two of Taylor’s great works, Aureole and Esplanade, could argue for certain American ideas about freedom, naturalism, and youth—and Taylor is at his best (which is quite excellent) when letting the out-flung arms and buoyant yet weighted leaps of his dancers speak to these ideals. But in Klezmerbluegrass, his ode to Jewish culture in America, Taylor works with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, setting Old and New World stereotypes against each other in a carefree whirl. Too often in concept dances such as this, he settles for caricature instead of characterization, substituting laugh-track comedy for real humor. A half-simian dancer missing his spotlight and self-importantly shifting into its glare in 3 Epitaphs, or a pesky strip of white fabric stuck like toilet paper to a foot in Dante Variations—these are lazy tricks, and oddly old-fashioned, as if coming from a time when it was always more important to be comforted than challenged in the theater.
Paul Taylor deserves his status as one of the last modern heavyweights, a one-time experimenter turned maker of finely crafted, musical works that seek to conjure the grandness of human drama. But “the best” is always a silly claim in the artistic arena, as if we could rank choreographers as if they were athletes. Critics want to imbue their pronouncements with authority, but there is no accounting for taste. While the establishment gushes about the autumnal emotionalism of young lovers parting in Eventide, many younger watchers find an Upper East Side state of mind, stuffy and cloying.
—Claudia La Rocco
Emily LaRocque works at the Poetry Society of America and freelances as a dance writer.
Lester Tome is a dance historian and critic teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.