In Darkness and In Light

For Paul Taylor, Making Dance Is Second Nature

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

He is hailed as the greatest living choreographer, his 124 works representing the pinnacle of American modern dance. Paul Taylor is 76 years old this year, his company 52, and they continue to set the standard for what, with jazz, is considered America’s greatest indigenous art form. A student of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, Taylor departed from the rigid angularity and tension of Graham’s technique to create his signature style: vigorous and athletic, full of human emotion and gentle grace. Known for his keen musicality and a sly sense of humor, Taylor is prolific, generating two new works every year. He has been lavished with awards for his contributions to art and culture, from the National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in the United States to France’s prestigious Legion d’Honneur.

Last in Santa Barbara for two sold-out nights in 2002, the company returns this year with a new and varied program: the surreal gothic romance Nightshade from 1979; Promethean Fire, which debuted in 2002 shortly after the attacks of September 11; and this season’s Spring Rounds. While on tour with the company in Syracuse last week, Mr. Taylor spoke about the inspiration that drew him to dance and continues to fuel his work.

You were a swimmer and a painter in college and discovered dance when you partnered a classmate in a recital, is that right? What was it like when you discovered dance? Did you transfer allegiances right away? They didn’t really have modern dance at Syracuse University. I got interested in dance when I first saw photographs of Martha Graham, and then I read about dance history, about Diaghilev … rather than any particular person, it was the history that inspired me at first. But it was a kind of a flash, it hit me. I had to go to my swimming coach during my junior year when I made the decision to switch. I told him I wouldn’t be swimming anymore because I was going to New York. “Oh, you’re going to join another swim team,” he said. And I said, “No I’m going to be dancer.” “You’re crazy,” he said.

People have speculated about possible references to September 11 in the choreography of Promethean Fire. What is the piece about for you, and what do you hope others might see in it? I don’t mind that people want to make that connection, but it wasn’t on my mind at the time. I had a more universal image in mind. There’s a quote from Shakespeare that goes beneath the title in the program notes: “Fire that can thy light relume.” It’s about getting up after you fall down. Rebirth. Getting on your feet. It has a hopeful ending.

Critics have been calling this season’s Spring Rounds elegant, pastoral, light, charming, and graceful. How would you describe it? It’s unusually one-color — on the light side. It’s a happy, unclouded dance, a piece about young people coming together outdoors in the spring. At the opening there are no dance steps, just a gathering, and then they gradually begin to dance. That was fun. As always, you need balance, you need balanced programs. I had just done a very dark piece [Banquet of Vultures] before that, so it was time for something lighter. You’re probably familiar with the comment about you, made by Laura Shapiro in Newsweek when she talked about a brief history of modern dance: “. . . in the beginning there was Martha Graham, who changed the face of an art form and discovered a new world. Then there was Merce Cunningham, who stripped away the externals and showed us the heart of movement. And then there was Paul Taylor, who let the sun shine in.” Does Shapiro’s comment ring true to you — do you think you let the sun shine in? I like that. Yes, now that I hear you say it, it does sound familiar. I’ll have to thank her for that. I don’t know if it’s the whole story, of course you have to make things sound good. I think it was intended very kindly. I also have let the darkness drop in.

How might you rewrite it to tell the whole story? Maybe that I let the sun shine in and let it out again [laughs]. That I saw the other part of the world. People love darkness and the dancers love to do it. I mean, why do we adore Hitchcock? It’s not just that I want to give a rounded picture of the world, but it’s also good for the box office. Look at TV — all the blood, shoot ’em up and knock ’em down, it’s horrible. Personally I don’t like to watch it, but I don’t mind making it.

What’s the best part of what you do? Well, working with the dancers and then going home after rehearsal and feeling like, “Well, we got several minutes blocked in that might not need to be changed much,” that’s satisfying. And the people I work with — not just the dancers but staff and board members. It’s a very great pleasure. And I like being outdoors when the weather is good. I’m a bug addict: I have a huge insect collection. I like just watching birds and plants in the natural world. I think it affects my work indirectly: flocks of birds, the way the patterns change, or the way water moves, swirls, eddies. Waves. Even taking it into the stratosphere, the planets. All those natural movements. The way bamboo moves in the wind. All those things can inspire dance. Not that you want the dancer to look like bamboo. The sky, cloud formations. And then human activity, too. You just look, you have to look, and it’s fun, it’s educational. A lot of it can go right into something that you show people. And sometimes the ugliness too.

Will you be touring with the company to the West Coast? No, these days when the company tours I tend to stay home and sit in nature.

4•1•1 Paul Taylor Dance Company performs at Campbell Hall, UCSB, Wednesday, April 26 at 8pm, followed by a discussion. Tickets are $19 and $40. Call 893-3535. Company members will teach a community dance class at the Santa Barbara Ballet Center on Tuesday, April 25 at 7:30pm. $15 participants, $5 observers. To make a reservation to observe or participate, call 966-6950.

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