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Home | Research Library | Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor

Why I make Dances, by Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor

No one has ever asked me why I make dances. But when flummoxed by the financial difficulties of keeping a dance company afloat, I sometimes ask it of myself. Dance-makers are most often quizzed this way: Which comes first, the dance or the music? This conundrum was answered most tellingly by the celebrated choreographer George Balanchine, who said: "The money." Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk has often been asked why he writes. The savvy answer in his "My Father's Suitcase" was so meaningful and struck such a chord of recognition in me -- his devotion, his steadfastness, his anger -- that it caused me to ponder my own reasons for doing what I do. Motivated by Balanchine's sensible quip and Pamuk's candid perceptiveness, this is how I might reply:

To put it simply, I make dances because I can't help it. Working on dances has become a way of life, an addiction that at times resembles a fatal disease. Even so, I've no intention of kicking the habit. I make dances because I believe in the power of contemporary dance, its immediacy, its potency, its universality. I make dances because that's what I've spent many years teaching myself to do and it's become what I'm best at. When the dances are good, nothing else brings me as much satisfaction. When they aren't, I've had the luxury, in the past at least, of being allowed to create others.

From childhood on, I've been a reticent guy who spends a lot of time alone. I make dances in an effort to communicate to people. A visual medium can be more effective than words. I make dances because I don't always trust my own words or, for that matter, those of quite a few others I've known. I make dances because working with my dancers and other cohorts allows me to spend time with trustworthy people I'm very fond of and who seldom give me trouble. Also because I'm not suited to do the jobs that regular folks do. There is no other way I could earn a living, especially not at work that involves dealing face-to-face with the public. I make dances because crowds are kept at a safe distance. That's what proscenium stages are good for.

Dance-making appeals to me because, although group projects and democratic systems are OK if they work, when on the job I find that a benevolent dictatorship is best. I don't make dances for the masses -- I make them for myself. That is, even though they are meant to be seen in public (otherwise, what's the point?), I make dances I think I'd like to see.

I'm not above filching steps from other dance-makers, but only from the best -- ones such as Martha Graham and Antony Tudor -- and only when I think I can make an improvement.

Although there are only two or three dances in me -- ones based on simple images imprinted at childhood -- I've gone to great lengths to make each repeat of them seem different. Because of the various disguises my dances wear, viewers sometimes mistake them for those made by other choreographers. My reaction to this depends on how talented I think that person is.

Imitating a chameleon has always come easy. Maybe it's genetic, or a protective artifice. The only identity that bugs me is that of the lauded personage. This is because the responsibilities demanded by fame are nuisances that I could easily do without. Ideally, my work would be anonymous.

Paul Taylor and Bettie de Jong in Scudorama, 1967
Paul Taylor and Bettie de Jong in Scudorama, 1967

Stylized lies (novelistic truths) for the stage are what the medium demands. I love tinkering with natural gesture and pedestrian movement to make them read from a distance and be recognizable as a revealing language that we all have in common. Of particular interest is the amorous coupling of men and women, as well as the other variations on this subject. In short, the remarkable range of our human condition.

Whenever a dance of mine is controversial it brings me much satisfaction. One of my aims is to present questions rather than answers. My passion for dance does not prevent me from being terrified to start each new piece, but I value these fears for the extra energy they bring.

Getting to know the music I use is a great pleasure even though toilsome. After making sure that the rights to use it are affordable, each piece needs to be scanned, counted out and memorized. Since I've not learned to read scores, this can take an awful long time.

I make dances because it briefly frees me from coping with the real world, because it's possible to build a whole new universe with steps, because I want people to know about themselves, and even because it's a thrilling relief to see how fast each of my risk-taking dancers can recover after a pratfall.

I make dances not to arrange decorative pictures for current dancers to perform, but to build a firm structure that can withstand future changes of cast. Quite possibly I make dances to be useful or to get rid of a chronic itch or to feel less alone. I make them for a bunch of reasons -- multiple motives rooted in the driving passion that infected me when I first discovered dance. The novelist Albert Camus said it best:

A man's work is nothing but this slow trek

to rediscover through the detours of art

those two or three great and simple images

in whose presence his heart first opened.

About Paul Taylor Dance Company

In the 1950s his work was so cutting edge that it was not uncommon to see confused audience members flocking to the exits, while Martha Graham dubbed him the "naughty boy" of dance. In the '60s he shocked the cognoscenti by setting his trailblazing movement to music composed two hundred years earlier, and inflamed the establishment by satirizing America's most treasured icons. In the '70s he put incest center stage and revealed the beast lurking just below man's sophisticated veneer. In the '80s he looked unflinchingly at intimacy among men at war and marital rape. In the '90s he warned against religious zealotry and blind conformity to authority. In the new millennium he has condemned American imperialism, lampooned feminism and looked death square in the face.

Spring Grounds

Few artists of our time have had the profound impact on their art form that Mr. Taylor has had on dance. People in cities and towns throughout the world have seen and enjoyed live modern dance performances due largely to the far-reaching tours he pioneered as a virtuoso dancer in the 1950s, and that his two companies have continued to this day. Fifty years after he made his first avant garde works, he has a collection of 127 dances performed by his own celebrated Company and Taylor 2 as well as renowned dance companies here and abroad. He has set movement to music so memorably that for millions it is impossible to hear certain orchestral works and popular songs and not think of his dances. He has influenced dozens of men and women who have gone on to create their own dances and/or establish their own troupes. As the subject of the widely seen documentary, Dancemaker, and author of a critically acclaimed autobiography, he has demystified his creative process as few artists ever have. At 77, Paul Taylor may be the most sought-after choreographer working today, commissioned by leading companies, theaters and presenting organizations the world over.

Paul Taylor grew up near Washington, DC. He was a swimmer and a student of art at Syracuse University in the late 1940s until he discovered dance, which he began studying at Juilliard. By 1954 he had assembled a small company of dancers. A commanding performer, he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1955 for the first of seven seasons as a soloist while continuing to make dances on his own troupe. In 1959 he danced with New York City Ballet as guest artist in George Balanchine's Episodes. Having created the slyly funny 3 Epitaphs in 1956, he captivated dancegoers in 1962 with his virile grace in the landmark Aureole. After retiring as a performer in 1975, Mr. Taylor devoted himself fully to choreography, and classics poured forth: Esplanade. Cloven Kingdom. Airs. Arden Court. Lost, Found and Lost. Last Look. Roses. Musical Offering. Company B. Piazzolla Caldera. Promethean Fire. and dozens more. Celebrated for uncommon musicality, he has set dances to Ragtime and reggae, tango and Tin Pan Alley, telephone time announcements and loon calls; turned elevator music and novelty tunes into high art; and found particularly cooperative collaborators in J.S. Bach, G. F. Handel and their Baroque brethren.

A scene from Paul Taylor's Troilus and Cressida (reduced)
A scene from Paul Taylor's "Troilus and Cressida (reduced)"
photo by: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

During the 1950s, the choreographer began to bring modern dance to America's college campuses and small towns as well as larger cultural centers, and in 1960 his Company made its first international tour. It has since performed in more than 500 cities in 62 countries, and has often served as the nation's official cultural ambassador overseas. In 1966 the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation was established to help bring Mr. Taylor's works to the largest possible audience, facilitate his ability to make new dances, and preserve his growing repertoire.

Mr. Taylor has received every important honor bestowed to artists by the United States and France. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1993. In 1992 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and received an Emmy Award for Speaking in Tongues, produced by WNET/New York the previous year. In 1995 he received the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, and was named one of 50 prominent Americans honored in recognition of their outstanding achievement by the Library of Congress's Office of Scholarly Programs. He was elected to knighthood by the French government as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1969 and has since been elevated to the ranks of Officier (1984) and Commandeur (1990). In January 2000 he was awarded France's highest honor, the Légion d'Honneur, for exceptional contributions to French culture.

Mr. Taylor is the recipient of three Guggenheim Fellowships and has received honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from California Institute of the Arts, Connecticut College, Duke University, Juilliard, Skidmore College, the State University of New York at Purchase, and Syracuse University. Awards for lifetime achievement include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship - often called the "genius award" - and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award. Other awards include the New York State Governor's Arts Award and the New York City Mayor's Award of Honor for Art and Culture. In 1989 he was elected one of ten honorary American members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Since 1968, when Aureole first entered the repertory of the Royal Danish Ballet, Mr. Taylor's works have been licensed for performance by more than 75 companies worldwide. In 1993 Mr. Taylor formed Taylor 2, which brings many of the choreographer's masterworks to smaller venues around the world. Taylor 2 also teaches the Taylor style in schools and workplaces and at community gatherings.

Paul Taylor's autobiography, Private Domain, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf and re-released by North Point Press and later by the University of Pittsburgh Press, was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle as the most distinguished biography of 1987. Mr. Taylor and his Company are the subject of Dancemaker, Matthew Diamond's award-winning, Oscar-nominated film, hailed by Time as "perhaps the best dance documentary ever."



Bolding added by BAILA Society

·  La Clave
·  Eddie Palmieri