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Dreams of Taylor

Date: Feb 26, 2007


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Paul Taylor"I look at people when they don't know I'm watching," says Paul Taylor, sounding more like a documentarian or a private detective than like the nation's preeminent living choreographer. In fact, though, an observational stance has always been Taylor's trademark. "I like to see people's gestures," he elaborates. "A lot of those gestural things that I've seen around me--the way people use their hands when they're speaking--are grist for the mill. They get into the dances."

We now take for granted that modern dance integrates and reinterprets everyday gestures, movements, and situations, reflecting our own humanity back at us in a disarmingly universal language. But this now-standard dance vernacular was almost entirely the innovation of Taylor, now 76, who began creating dances in 1954 after dancing in the companies of Martha Grahame, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham.

Now 77, the soft-spoken but resolute Taylor still creates around two or three new pieces a year, adding to a body of work that includes more than 127 dance works. That gives him a large palette to choose from in programming a season for his acclaimed Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the company's next "
"Dream Season"--its 54rd--kicks off with a 19-piece compilation, Thurs. Feb. 28 through Sun., Mar. 16 at City Center.

The repertoire includes two new dances: De Sueños (of dreams) and De Sueños que se Repiten (of recurring dreams). surrealistic dreamscapes -- set to music by several contemporary Mexican composers and Osvaldo Golijov -- that refer to such aspects of Mexican culture and folklore as the Day of the Dead, Virgin of Guadalupe, Deer Dance and Hat Dance. The dances may be seen separately or together, and either one can be enjoyed first.

New in 2008 is the Family Matinee on Saturday, March 1 at 2pm -- a 60-minute program that will include a discussion about the dances. Also new are pre-performance discussions -- Speaking of Taylor -- each Sunday of the run at 1:30pm at the theater, and open to that afternoon's ticketholders without charge. On March 2, Clive Barnes will discuss Mr. Taylor's works with Taylor Historian Dr. Angela Kane, Professor and Chair of Dance in the School of Music, Theater & Dance at the University of Michigan and author of a forthcoming Taylor book. On March 9, Anna Kisselgoff, Chief Dance Critic, The New York Times, 1977-2005, will be interviewed by Suzanne Carbonneau, author of a forthcoming biography of Mr. Taylor. On March 16, Peter Schickele (alter ego of famed composer P.D.Q. Bach) will discuss Mr. Taylor's scores.Mar. 2-18 at City Center.

There's the 1962 classic Aureole, which pioneered one of Taylor's signature contrasts: rough-and-tumble modern dance with prim baroque music. There's the mid-period experimental work Polaris, in which two sets of dancers perform the same choreography, step for step, to different pieces of music, with illuminating results. There are two debuts: The world premiere of Lines of Loss, a somber reflection set to music recorded by the Kronos Quartet, and the stateside premiere of Troilus and Cressida (reduced), which turns Shakespeare's bloody history play into a lively slapstick romp.

Banquet of Vultures 2005And there is the unavoidably relevant return of 2005's Banquet of Vultures, a chilling indictment of war featuring a suit-clad death figure and a troupe of soldiers, enacting agonizing mortal struggles to dissonant music by Morton Feldman. The resemblance to a certain conflict and a particular leader of the free world are not purely coincidental.

"I have no moral attitude, really--I'm a reporter," Taylor said in the riveting 1998 documentary Dancemaker. Reminded of the quote today, Taylor qualifies that stark statement. "Well, I lie a little sometimes," he says with a chuckle. "I like to think of myself that way. I like to pose questions more than answers. It's reportage rather than journalism. But I can't help but having opinions of my own, and these slip into the pieces."

Indeed, even in apparently "abstract" pieces, like 1980's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), a moral dimension emerges: The New York Times even called it "one of his most essential evocations of evil." Profiles, a 1979 movement study toward Le Sacre, is among the featured works this season.

Make no mistake, Taylor's work is not generally so severe. In fact, even in his boundary-breaking avant-garde period, he was perhaps best known for his wit and unpretentiousness. The sunny side of Taylor has produced a body of extremely popular "light" works with baroque accompaniment, whihc are all included in the upcoming season: the Bach-backed Esplanade, the Handel-inspired Airs and Aureole, and Arden Court, danced to music by Boyce.

For his part, though, Taylor doesn't distinguish so sharply between his works, or look for its larger trends and themes. He's particularly puzzled by the oft-repeated notion that his work is somehow bipolar: playful romps on one side and harsh, sobering dirges on the other.

"That's what's been going around, but I think my pieces have a lot of variety within them-there's a lot of grey in there, not just black or white," Taylor says. As for the larger shape of his oeuvre, he's too much in the present tense for that consideration: "You know, I don't really think about that very much. I make one piece and then go on to the next one. I'm a one-day-at-a-time guy."

Still, a packed season like the company's 53rd unavoidably confronts him and his seasoned company with a living scrapbook of past glories alongside the newer pieces. When he revisits the older pieces, Taylor confesses, "I look at them again and I think, 'Gosh, who made that?' And I wonder how it was done."

The Paul Taylor Dance Company's 53rd season runs Mar. 2-18 at City Center, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Tickets available at (212) 581.1212 and at

photo credits: Top banner-Tom Caravaglia; Paul Taylor Portrait: Paul Palmero;  Center: Banquet of Vultures: Tom Caravaglia;  Bottom: Esplanade: Lois Greenfield.