Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to Vail International Dance Festival Thursday

Marina Harss
Special to the Daily
Bettie de Jong and Paul Taylor in Scudorama.
Jack Mitchell | Special to the Daily |

If you go ...

  • What: Paul Taylor Dance Company at Vail International Dance Festival
  • Where: Ford Amphitheater, Vail
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
  • Cost: $20/$60/$80 depending on seats
  • More information: Visit
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Editor’s note: This story first ran in Dance magazine.

Before he ever set foot in a dance studio, Paul Taylor was a champion swimmer. His specialty was freestyle (aka crawl), a stroke that requires big, sweeping arm movements, strong legs, powerful and flexible shoulders and the ability to coordinate the whole body to create momentum.

“I always loved the water,” Taylor said. “I loved to be in it and the way it felt, and the pressure you needed to use against it when you swam. When I danced, I imagined that the air was like water. It gave my movement a certain quality.”

“I always loved the water. I loved to be in it and the way it felt, and the pressure you needed to use against it when you swam. When I danced, I imagined that the air was like water. It gave my movement a certain quality.” — Paul Taylor

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It’s a quality you can see in grainy footage of Taylor, as well as in the members of his current company. They don’t simply traverse space or use their arms in aesthetically pleasing ways: Every step has weight, fluidity and a sense of connectedness — to the body’s core and to the air around it.

“It’s the idea of swimming through space,” said Michael Trusnovec, a company member who in many ways embodies the essential qualities of the Taylor dancer. “Carving, swimming, twisting. And then there are those classic pure shapes, curve, V, scoop. All the movements come from the back.”

How did Taylor, who was born in 1930 and grew up during the Depression and war years in hardscrabble circumstances — not much money, a distant father, few friends — go from being a shy, lonesome boy to becoming a collegiate swimmer, dancer and, eventually, one of America’s most respected and treasured modern-dance choreographers? As a kid he spent a lot of time on his own, time he filled by watching and interpreting the behavior of both animals and people. Then, as an adolescent, he began to seek out ways to express his view of what he saw around him, and to connect with others, if possible, without words. His first medium was painting, but, as he said, “it turned out to be so static and I got impatient.”

‘An effort to communicate’

Naturally athletic, broad-shouldered, and tall — six feet — he took up swimming. He discovered dance — an activity that embodied the perfect combination of physical exertion and wordless expression — in college.

“I make dances in an effort to communicate to people…because I don’t always trust my own words to matter,” he wrote recently. And, as he quickly discovered, he was quite good. Dancing brought him to New York, where he studied ballet with Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske as well as modern dance with Jose Limon and Martha Graham. He performed briefly with Merce Cunningham’s fledgling troupe and then joined the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he stayed for seven years, often playing bad guys, “which was,” he said, “a lot of fun.”

Then, in 1954, he started making his own dances. At first, as if rebelling against the ironclad structure and epic emotionality of Graham, he composed works that were almost perversely devoid of content. In “Resemblance” (1957) he walked around while David Tudor made noises with the piano; in “Duet” (also 1957) he and another dancer didn’t move at all. In “Three Epitaphs” (1956), which the company still performs, he and his dancers, covered in body stockings from head to toe, loped around and swung their arms like apes. (The body stockings were thought up by Robert Rauschenberg, an early collaborator.) Martha Graham called him a “naughty boy.” But in a way, this was only a phase. He was trying things out, figuring out what interested him, one dance at a time. In 1959, he collaborated with George Balanchine on a solo in “Episodes,” a work that combined the efforts of the New York City Ballet and Graham’s company. Though Taylor does not particularly admire ballet — too decorative for his taste — he was impressed by Balanchine’s straightforward, no-nonsense working method, which was in complete contrast with the priestly aura of Graham. Like Balanchine, he thought of himself more as a workman than as an artiste or a promoter of big ideas.

“He said he’s a very blue-collar craftsman,” John Tomlinson, the company’s executive director, said. “He doesn’t see himself as an elitist choreographer making erudite art…he sees his job as crafting these pieces for the company.” Now in his 80s, Taylor still creates two to three works per year for his company.

Heroic fluidity

In the early ’60s, Taylor began toying with using classical music in his dances. “Junction,” from 1961, was a turning point; in it, he used various movements of Bach cello suites. But from the beginning, he refused to follow the music blindly. Sometimes he fits the steps into the notes, sometimes he works across the surface of the score, and sometimes he goes against it, depending on his mood. If in “Junction” Taylor seems to almost resist Bach’s classical structure — responding to it with awkward flapping, extreme poses, and odd, animal-like imagery — “Aureole,” made the next year, represents yet another change of course. In this luminous, all-white dance, he wholeheartedly embraces the sunniness and formal structure of the score, a mash-up of movements from several pieces by the baroque composer Handel. (Taylor often mixes and matches music, even by different composers.) In “Aureole,” the dancers move with the life-affirming warmth and the buoyant, almost heroic fluidity that has come to define his style. Unsurprisingly, this work quickly became a favorite, the company’s first hit and for many years its calling card.

But Taylor didn’t stop there. In nearly 60 years of making dances, he has touched upon almost every human emotion and many of man’s foibles, from the trivial to the deeply disturbing: young love, mature love, lust, hatred, religious and political hypocrisy, loneliness, brutality, sexual violence, death. “The range of humanity,” as Taylor puts it. He has also indulged his madcap sense of humor, creating such wickedly funny pieces as “Le Sacre du Printemps” (“The Rehearsal”) and “Offenbach Overtures.” And yet, despite his range, one can always recognize a Taylor piece. It comes down to that fluid, muscular, full-bodied way of moving. His dancers never hold back. Consider “Esplanade,” from 1975. In a way it captures everything about being human: the glory of being alive, but also the pain of solitude, the struggle of muddling through, the support provided by mutual trust and the risk (and courage) involved in living life to the fullest. All this, Taylor accomplishes with just a few steps: running, walking, skipping, crawling, lifting, holding, leaping and falling. The momentum of the movement propels the dancers ever forward, suggesting, in a way, the effort and energy of life itself.

“You can’t fake it,” Trusnovec said. “You have to throw yourself into it, full-bodied, every single time.”

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