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Why Is Paul Taylor Revisiting Martha Graham?

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Mar 10, 2016


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The past, present, and future are in the new Paul Taylor Season


In 1955 the 25-year-old Paul Taylor joined the company of Martha Graham, by then the influential matriarch of American modern dance. One of the first works he performed was Diversion of Angels, an unusually lyrical piece that celebrated youthful vigor and romantic ardor.

Soon enough, the robust young Taylor launched his own company, which today stands alongside Graham's as an enduring modern dance institution. It's especially resonant, then, that Taylor's own dancers will take on the challenges of that 1948 Graham classic as part of their three-week season at Lincoln Center, which runs March 15 – April 3.

This marks an intriguing moment for the company – dancers bred on Taylor's athletic and often unpredictable choreography interpreting a work that he encountered at a pivotal early phase of his career. It confirms the company's expanded artistic focus, which was indicated in 2014 when it was renamed Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance.

"It's a different dialect, a different way of speaking the language that we already speak," says Michael Tursnovec, the Taylor company's senior dancer, about learning Diversion. "So much of the movement vocabulary – and where the movement initiates – is similar between Graham and Taylor. It starts at the center and radiates out."

Parisa Khobdeh, who's danced for Taylor since 2003, adds, "The poetry of the Graham technique has been illuminated in this dance for me. It's so visceral, but so deceiving. This dance is very subtle, but it's just dripping with sexuality and musicality – rising up and out of the pelvis. It's delicious!"

While the company has always been – and remains – the repository of Taylor's extensive and exceptionally diverse repertory of dances (this season's premieres are #143 and 144 in his catalogue), the name change accompanied his decision to expand his programming to include modern dance masterworks from earlier eras. (This recalls Stephen Petronio's Bloodlines series, which also finds an established choreographer revisiting dances that shaped him.)

Meanwhile, Taylor is commissioning new works. This season launches dances by two highly individual choreographers: Larry Keigwin's Rush Hour and Doug Elkins' The Weight of Smoke, each danced by the full 16-member troupe.

Diversion of Angels, which comes from Graham's most fertile creative era, stands out in her repertory because it's a buoyant abstraction created amid a series of intense, dramatic works inspired by Greek mythology – and also because it was the first time she created an important work in which she didn't appear.

Perhaps Graham was able to put aside her ego at that moment because she was distracted by romance; she was at the height of her love affair with Erick Hawkins, her leading male dancer (who also became a major choreographer).


"That was probably Martha's happiest time, because she was in love with Erick," says Linda Hodes, who was in the Graham company alongside Taylor and oversaw the rehearsals for this production. "They left to get married right after the premiere of Diversion. I always thought it was a love letter to Erick, in a way." The marriage didn't last long, but the dance became a mainstay.

It is generally seen as celebrating multiple aspects of love, as embodied by three iconic female figures – a tall, serene woman in white; a bold, energetic woman in red; and an exuberant, frisky woman in yellow.

Hodes was a student at the inaugural 1948 session of the Connecticut College School of Dance, where Diversion premiered. She recalls that the woman now in white then wore blue, and that there was a set designed by Isamu Noguchi. (That was quickly abandoned; the dance is performed on an unadorned stage.)

Hodes and Taylor don't only have history as fellow Graham dancers in the 1950s and early 60s (Taylor struck out on his own in 1962). She also danced in his company (1959-61), and he turned to her in 1993 to lead his new junior company, Taylor 2.

Hodes and Taylor danced in Diversion together for years, but not as partners. She performed as both the white and red roles, while he partnered the yellow woman. "Even when Paul was in the Graham company, he was his own person – and Martha loved that about him," Hodes recalls, adding that Graham incorporated Taylor's idiosyncratic qualities in roles she created for him.


Two current leading Graham dancers, Blakeley White-McGuire and Tadej Brdnik, taught the choreography to the Taylor cast, with Hodes overseeing all rehearsals and joining them to dig deeper and refine the piece once the basic steps had been learned.

"The Taylor dancers were open and ripe for spontaneity and joy and all those great things that Diversion has the potential to draw out," says White-McGuire, who has put her own memorable stamp on the role of the woman in red. "They really took to it. It was fun for them to step into Graham's slightly more formalized language. Of course the quality is very different in Taylor's work than in Graham's – but a lot of the mechanics are very similar."

Khobdeh reveled in the process of digging deeper into the dance once they'd mastered the steps. "The second week of rehearsals was like peeling back an onion, delving into the intricacies. To be challenged in this way at this point in my career is quite extraordinary."

Trusnovec, who partners Laura Halzack as the woman in white, discovered his own distinctions between the lead couples. "I feel there are different levels of energy within the work. Yellow is the high level of energy, excitable. Red is this passionate, sexual energy. White has a serenity and peacefulness. There's a protective coexistence these two people have – which is found in a lot of the repertory that Laura and I do together. It was really easy for us to go into that and try to find something different in it."

When the dancers gave a studio showing of Diversion in front of Paul Taylor for the first time, they noticed his strong reaction. "There was something so authentic about his smile and his eyes. I've never seen quite that expression in my time working with him," Khobdeh says. Tursnovec took note as well: "He smiled the whole time, so I'm assuming he enjoyed seeing us do the work. It's a work he must love and respect, or he wouldn't want us to do it."


TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for the Paul Taylor 2016 Season at Lincoln Center. Go here to browse our current offers.

Susan Reiter is a New York-based reporter who frequently contributes to TDF Stages.

Photos by Whitney Browne. Top photo, L to R: Michael Trusnovec, Eran Bugge, George Smallwood, and Laura Halzack in Diversion of Angels.

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.