EDGE Philadelphia sits down with Paul Taylor

October 21, 2010

Choreographer Paul Taylor :: At 80, still blazing new trails

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Contributor
Thursday Oct 21, 2010

Choreographer Paul Taylor, one of the architects of contemporary American dance, turned 80 this year; yet even with celebrations of his work (at the American Dance Festival and New York City Center), he isn’t that interested in resting on his laurels. Aside from chain smoking and creating two new works a year, he is anything but set in his ways. He remains artistically adventurous, curious and experimental.

Taylor’s company is opening the Dance Celebration series at the Annenberg Center, where his troupe will perform his most recent work Phantasmagoria, along with company classics Arden Court and Cloven Kingdom. Taylor, who was born in Pennsylvania, has a loyal fan base in Philly and they have grown to expect new material from a master.

Even within classic Taylor’s vernacular - lateral piques, prancy jetes, twirly skips, physical humor and cascading bodies - everything evolves differently. Content-wise nothing is off limits - from sexuality, to slapstick, to war. The only thing he seems to avoid is autobiographical dance. "That isn’t my thing," he has said.

All about Phantasmagoria

He continues to push the envelope. For instance his recent dark piece Banquet of Vultures was meant as a commentary on the War in Iraq. It was called by San Francisco Chronicle as reaching "a new level of intensity. More broadly, not since Last Look (1985) has Taylor been so uncompromisingly bleak. Never has he been more eloquent... It’s an anti-war piece in the grand tradition of Kurt Jooss’ 1932 classic The Green Table."

"I do think that was one of my best titles," he said. The ballet is politically raw "and unpleasant," he added with a laugh.

Highlighting the Philly program is one of Taylor’s latest works. Phantasmagoria, inspired by Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel’s Wedding Dance in the Open Air that depicts a rustic bacchanalia. Annmaria Mazzini, a longtime Taylor dancer, described working on the piece to PBS radio, "You never know with Paul where it’s going to go from one day to the next: You leave off one day and you think you might know... then he will take a turn to a completely different place." At this point fellow company member Robert Kleinendorst, chimed in, "You just go with it. It’s non sequitur and dreamlike."

Taylor, who spoke by phone from New York this week from his studios in New York, dismissed talking about the two new biographies being written about him and concentrated more on discussing the company’s current tour and working with his dancers.

For the Philly program Taylor is presenting something for everyone. "We try to make a varied program so there is not a lot of repetition." Never an elitist, Taylor just wants to fill seats.

It is also very important for him to challenge the dancers and keep them artistically connected. " I try to give them things that they haven’t done before. Cast them in a way that will be a challenge and increase their abilities."

Today many of Taylor’s modernist works are performed by classical ballet companies throughout the world. Asked about this, he commented: "It’s very heartening that ballet companies are trying other things. The two forms (classical and modern dance) have not merged, but approach each other... and they (the companies) are broadening their scope."

Aside from unlikely subject matter on the dance stage, Taylor dancers are known for their athleticism and technique. "Dancers now are stronger, you can ask them to do riskier things, they are so game to try anything and it’s been a big help. I try come up with stuff we haven’t tried. It doesn’t change the content, but the steps themselves."

Taylor wishes he could choreograph more than two works a year. And when asked if he is ever blank on ideas for dance, he answered with what sounded like a smoky exhale: "Not so far."