Paul Taylor: A choreographer for all seasons

Paul Taylor

He has always considered himself a maverick and likes to refer to himself as ‘an American mongrel’. He even titled his first piece of student chorography ‘Hobo Ballet’. That was in 1952 and ever since Paul Taylor has been one of the trailblazers in modern dance, to say nothing of one of the dance world’s greatest entertainers.

In 1957, with 7 New Dances Taylor inaugurated the post-modern revolution several years before that avant-garde movement actually emerged at Judson Church in 1962 when the likes of Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Douglas Dunn, Lucinda Childs and David Gordon began creating the sort of radical experimentation which Taylor had explored in his 1957 performance.

Among those pared-down 7 New Dances was one where Taylor stood behind a woman sitting on the floor. Neither moved, nor even blinked, for the four-minute duration of the piece. In another dance, Taylor struck a series of unconnected poses, each based on everyday posture. The score for this 20-minute dance was an ongoing recording of the voice on the telephone which updates itself every ten seconds: ‘When you hear the tone, the time will be…’

Overnight, Taylor became notorious. 7 New Dances received what has become the most infamous dance review in history. Louis Horst, who was Martha Graham’s musical mentor, ‘wrote’ a review which consisted of nothing but the name and place of the performance followed by four inches of blank white space.

In 1962 the rigours of the Judson Church group (Judson was a deconsecrated venue in New York’s Greenwich Village) began to reshape the dance map with everyday movement. By then Taylor had gone off in yet another unexpected direction with Aureole. He set this plotless series of dances to a string of Handel melodies. This fluid outpouring of movement, with its surging momentum and open ebullience, would bring Taylor his first huge success with the public. The post-modern generation might have scoffed at Taylor’s new-found sense of lyricism, but audiences loved Aureole. They still do.

Today, no one would think twice about Taylor’s artistic stratagems. In fact in 1982, he went on to recycle parts of 7 New Dances in a piece he called Lost, Found and Lost. Now the performers were ironically garbed in swank black and white studded with rhinestones and danced to the sorts of swooning strings of Muzak as heard in louche cocktail lounges.

And, of course, today even the most forward-looking and radical choreographers don’t believe it is a betrayal of their avant-garde status to use baroque, or any other sort of music, which will suit their purpose. The strictures which the Judson group imposed on themselves now appear to have been more of an intellectual straightjacket than the ‘open door’ policy they were meant to be at the time. Major innovations and a stupendous amount of creativity happened during the Judson years, but many of the most significant pieces from the period now appear firmly frozen the 1960s, evocative of a very specific time and place. Aureole, like any true masterwork, continues to exude a sense of timeless simplicity.

This is because throughout his entire career Taylor has believed that he needed to stick to no rules other than the ones he invented himself. ‘I can’t worry about what other people think,’ Taylor said in an interview in 2000. ‘If I like the piece, that’s good enough for me. If somebody else doesn’t, that’s tough luck.’

We were talking at his house in Greenwich Village. There’s a room up at the top of the house where Taylor stashes all his awards and honourary doctorates. There are a lot of them and they illustrate that the ‘luck’ is ours. Over the past half century Taylor’s dances have managed to show us who and what we are — or want to be.

Another maverick move for Taylor occurred in 1959 when he crossed the ‘battle lines’ which then divided classical and modern dance like the Berlin Wall. Taylor accepted an invitation to work with George Balanchine who created a solo for him in Episodes. A two-part evening which New York City Ballet shared with the Martha Graham company, Episodes was performed to the complete works of the serial composer Anton Webern.

In truth this was little more than a publicity gimmick for both Balanchine and Graham, an opportunity for both groups of their highly-polarised fans to cheer on their champion while deriding the opposite camp. Graham’s contribution, a work about Mary Queen of Scots, soon disappeared. Balanchine’s half, a plotless response to the music, is still in the repertory, though when Taylor decided, after three seasons, that he no longer had the time to dance his solo, Balanchine eliminated it from the ballet. He felt no other dancer would be able to recreate Taylor’s highly individual and quirky movement style.

At the time of Episodes, Taylor was one of Graham’s leading male dancers ‘on loan’ to Balanchine. In fact, she had first spotted him when he was just a beginning student at the annual summer school of the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in 1952. According to legend, she took one look at his 6′ 3” brawny, broad-shouldered body and announced, ‘I want him’.

Taylor, who was in college on an athletics scholarship as a swimmer, was a novice. Graham the high priestess of modern dance. He would go on to perform with her company for seven seasons (1955-62).

Before joining Graham’s company Taylor was one of the five dancers who spent the summer of 1953 at Black Mountain, a short-lived artists’ colony in North Carolina, with Merce Cunningham, the composer John Cage and the artist Robert Rauschenberg. The outcome was not only the launch of the Cunningham company but the beginning of a long-term collaboration between Taylor and Rauschenberg. (With the exception of Graham, all these now-illustrious artists were then unknowns trying to make their mark.)

Taylor would move on found his own company in 1954, though still continuing to be a member of Graham’s troupe. 7 New Dances and Aureole are the most important works from the first years of his troupe. Aureole also has the distinction of being a pivot point in the rapprochement between ballet and modern dance.

Today few people question ballet companies performing works by modern dance choreographers. Aureole set this pattern in motion when it entered the Royal Danish Ballet’s repertory. A ballet company going barefoot and attempting to master a modern dance style was unheard of at the time and Taylor’s antipathy towards nineteenth-century ballet conventions is well known. However, since then dozens of companies have performed Aureole, including London Festival (now English National) Ballet. Along with other Taylor dances such as Airs, Company B and Black Tuesday, it proves that Taylor is a choreographer for all seasons.

We were talking at his house in Greenwich Village. There’s a room up at the top of the house where Taylor stashes all his awards and honourary doctorates. There are a lot of them and they illustrate that the ‘luck’ is ours. Over the past half century Taylor’s dances have managed to show us who and what we are — or want to be.

Another maverick move for Taylor occurred in 1959 when he crossed the ‘battle lines’ which then divided classical and modern dance like the Berlin Wall. Taylor accepted an invitation to work with George Balanchine who created a solo for him in Episodes. A two-part evening which New York City Ballet shared with the Martha Graham company, Episodes was performed to the complete works of the serial composer Anton Webern.

In truth this was little more than a publicity gimmick for both Balanchine and Graham, an opportunity for both groups of their highly-polarised fans to cheer on their champion while deriding the opposite camp. Graham’s contribution, a work about Mary Queen of Scots, soon disappeared. Balanchine’s half, a plotless response to the music, is still in the repertory, though when Taylor decided, after three seasons, that he no longer had the time to dance his solo, Balanchine eliminated it from the ballet. He felt no other dancer would be able to recreate Taylor’s highly individual and quirky movement style.

At the time of Episodes, Taylor was one of Graham’s leading male dancers ‘on loan’ to Balanchine. In fact, she had first spotted him when he was just a beginning student at the annual summer school of the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in 1952. According to legend, she took one look at his 6′ 3” brawny, broad-shouldered body and announced, ‘I want him’.

Taylor, who was in college on an athletics scholarship as a swimmer, was a novice. Graham the high priestess of modern dance. He would go on to perform with her company for seven seasons (1955-62).

Before joining Graham’s company Taylor was one of the five dancers who spent the summer of 1953 at Black Mountain, a short-lived artists’ colony in North Carolina, with Merce Cunningham, the composer John Cage and the artist Robert Rauschenberg. The outcome was not only the launch of the Cunningham company but the beginning of a long-term collaboration between Taylor and Rauschenberg. (With the exception of Graham, all these now-illustrious artists were then unknowns trying to make their mark.)

Taylor would move on found his own company in 1954, though still continuing to be a member of Graham’s troupe. 7 New Dances and Aureole are the most important works from the first years of his troupe. Aureole also has the distinction of being a pivot point in the rapprochement between ballet and modern dance.

Today few people question ballet companies performing works by modern dance choreographers. Aureole set this pattern in motion when it entered the Royal Danish Ballet’s repertory. A ballet company going barefoot and attempting to master a modern dance style was unheard of at the time and Taylor’s antipathy towards nineteenth-century ballet conventions is well known. However, since then dozens of companies have performed Aureole, including London Festival (now English National) Ballet. Along with other Taylor dances such as Airs, Company B and Black Tuesday, it proves that Taylor is a choreographer for all seasons.

See also:
Tour(s): Paul Taylor Dance Company - 2003