Vail dance: The Taylor technique
August 7, 2010
VAIL, Colorado – When asked how he planned to spend his 80th birthday, Paul Taylor said he hoped to spend it alone.
“Well, I’ve had a lot of people around lately and it would be nice to be by myself,” he said in a phone interview last week before his birthday. “I’m out in the country in my hideaway. Sometimes there are surprises on birthdays, but I hope to spend it by myself. There have been several companies advertising stuff about it like a gimmick. I just don’t know. Our company manager is coming out to help me with stuff that’s broken, which is convenient because his birthday is also coming up.”
Forever soft-spoken and humble – wanting to mention other people’s birthdays above his own – Taylor is often heralded as the founder of modern dance. With the Paul Taylor Dance Company he has been choreographing performances for nearly 60 years, but somehow does not view himself as a pioneer.
“Being the oldest doesn’t make you the leader,” he says. “The young people have their own aims and hopes. They have to do something different than the so-called leader does. That’s how modern dance works. Each generation finds their own way.”
Taylor’s way has snaked through decades with a variety of effects on audiences. Depending on the era, it has taken a larger bite out of some than others. In the 1950s, for instance, when themes of sexuality, spirituality and war first seeped into his performances, audiences – who until then were totally unversed in such untraditional expression – did not always take kindly to what they were witnessing.
“In that early concert when the audience left in droves, I learned that I should be a little more communicative in the ideas that I have,” Taylor said. “Bad reviews haven’t ceased, that’s true, but I’ve learned not to get upset and try to find something in whatever a reviewer says that I can learn from. I still want to take risks, whether it be with some kind of music or the idea for the dance. Shock is good.”
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Though the world is much more familiar with Taylor’s concepts and modern dance as a whole, Taylor says there are still elements in his new work – such as the trio he will be performing in Vail tonight: Promethean Fire, Company B and Piazzolla Caldera – that give viewers a jolt.
“Let me see …” Taylor said when asked what in these performances might be construed as shocking. “Promethean Fire has a heap of dead bodies, which might not be so pleasant to look at. Company B has a bugle boy that dances very happily and freely and then gets shot. Piazzolla Caldera has two men dancing almost like they’re lovers …”
Though he might not admit it himself, the modern dance world views Taylor as something of an effigy and his ever-increasing list of works as continuously groundbreaking.
“As an iconic figure in dance, he has been in it so long, we put a timeline on it – his 80 birthday, 60 years he’s been such an important figure – but it continues up to the minute with the masterpieces he’s made and still makes,” said Vail Dance Festival director Damian Woetzel. “The work itself has evolved in so many ways it defies categorization. The musical range is enormous, from his earlier pieces – a famous one was done to the sound of a clock – to using everything from The Andrews Sisters to Bach in these [dance festival] pieces. He’s connected dance to the world. Whether literature, music or dance – for any artist to continue to produce in the way he has is remarkable.”
Taylor, however, is reluctant to describe himself as “inspired” or “inspiring.” As far as what motivates him to keep creating, he says the basic elements of the art make it happen. There is not a single word about muses or epiphanies.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t believe in inspiration,” he says. “I just need time and a studio and bodies … a budget that allows me to work. I guess I have a fetish or something that I can’t resist making dances. It’s been that way for a long time. That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve taught myself how to do. It’s really the main part of my life. As far as what inspires me, music has always been a great inspiration, the dancers are wonderful, the clock – we always have a limited time to get pieces finished – and the urge to make something. My main joy is in actually working with the dancers.”
Several emotional and social themes have been spotted in Taylor’s work, but not all of them have been his intention. For the new performances lined up for his company’s second appearance in Vail, Taylor says, “like most of ours, this program has a good deal of variety.”
“Piazzolla Caldera is a sort of tango,” he says. “Company B is about the second World War when men were going off in the service. I read something about how Promethean Fire was about 9/11 when the trade buildings came down, but I really didn’t have that in mind. I had more of a universal idea behind it – about people recovering from a disaster.”
But as long as people are gleaning something from what they see in the dance, Taylor says he doesn’t mind if interpretations are off the mark from what he originally had in mind.
“People see what they can see. If they see something in a piece that isn’t quite what I intended … at least they saw something,” he says.
Taylor says he prefers leaving the descriptions of the movements in his pieces to “serious dance reviewers.” Woetzel [who would certainly qualify under said category] says the art of motion that comes out of Paul Taylor Dance Company is a form entirely unto itself.
“I understand the structure from a dance point of view, but I marvel at how he spins a yarn,” Woetzel says. “He’s our fiddler. He’s making us move to his beat. Our dancers are experts to his vernacular and it is a unique vernacular. It is staggering. He has a base of movement that is specific to Taylor technique. To me as a dancer – as a ballet dancer – I look at it and marvel at the invention.”
At 80, Taylor is likely the oldest person in the world who does what he does. But will he still be choreographing modern dance when he’s 90?
“I certainly hope so,” he says. ” … If they let me.”
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer based in Vail. E-mail comments about this story to email@example.com.