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

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
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
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

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
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


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