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Paul Taylor Forever

Paul Taylor’s early dances—confined to a handful of players whom he still couldn’t afford to pay—fit comfortably on the Joyce stage this June in the troupe’s first independent outing since the pandemic. (In March, the company appeared under the auspices of the City Center Dance Festival.) “Events II” (1957), three solos from “Images and Reflections” (1958), “Fibers” (1961), and “Tracer” (1962) also fit their long-ago moment and its strict avant-garde. But what they didn’t fit was the oft-told tale of how Taylor got from obscure beginnings to popular success.

Maria Ambrose and Devon Louis in “Aureole” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Ron Thiele

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Everyone, including the choreographer, has set the dividing line at his first hit, “Aureole,” premiering in 1962. Nearly everyone has deemed unbridgeable the gulf between this “fluid, expansive, athletic and lyrical . . . new beginning,” as Fjord contributor Marina Harss aptly described it for the New York Times, and the “spiky and enigmatic” old beginning. So people have taken sides. The prevailing view is that the pre-“Aureole” pieces amount to juvenilia. Until recently, Taylor reenforced this position by keeping the work out of sight. For his onetime friends, by contrast, only the early dances mattered, after which Taylor sold out. Artistic director Michael Novak—whom the choreographer, who died in 2018, chose to succeed him in running the company—seems to be taking a third, less contentious side. Smart man.

Taylor started choreographing when the avant-garde was bursting with outsized confidence and daring. They felt no compunction about rejecting harmony, story, intention—a whole roster of vintage verities. Taylor too pushed against things—ballet’s mannerisms and escapism, Graham’s Freudian tendencies, meaning—but more as ballast than boundary not to transgress. Soon enough, his peers suspected him of classical values and “dropped him,” as Novak bluntly put it at the Joyce’s after-show Q&A. But as if out of habit, strict polarities still dominate how Taylor is talked about, which is often how he talked about himself. And they still do him no favors.

A company’s chances at funding and gigs depend on new work. It’s why Taylor churned out dances till he dropped, at age 88, why Merce Cunningham chose to have his company die with him, why Mark Morris is making dances for cold storage, and why the Martha Graham organization—and now the Taylor people—risk incoherence to present contemporary works. Yet at a certain point, observed dance professor Ann Dils at the resuscitation of “Tracer” in 2016, the old ends up looking new again: “Things that are 50 to 100 years old are new and surprising for contemporary audiences.” Maybe not all things, but certainly great dances. We love a glorious old work not despite its age but because of it. The masterpiece attunes us so acutely to its moment that we brighten to our own. All the history between then and now begins to make sense, literally—to pervade the senses. Time becomes tangible. The old dance retains its strangeness but is no longer abstract.

A few years ago at the New York Library of the Performing Arts, I got hooked on an old film of a youngish Martha Graham doing her 1935 solo “Frontier.” Louis Horst’s Yankee Doodle Dandy of a score might have led me to expect a patriotic piece on pioneer spirit; after all, Americans being walloped by the Depression needed to be reminded that they had somewhere to go, besides under. And Graham does set a vision of open vistas before us. She follows Isamu Noguchi’s elegant wire perspective lines with her gaze and arcing limbs so the horizon stretches far beyond the stage. Plus, her strenuous travelling pattern of jumps and swivels inevitably makes you think perseverance. But then she repeats the pattern over and over, doggedly and implacably. Eventually the movement sheds its inflections. It stops representing anything. It is solely effort and act. There at the library, the mother of modern dance took her place beside Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs. For a discombobulating instant, she became another postmodernist intent on her tasks.

Martha the pomo taskmaster is no truer a label than Martha inventor of modernist America, but it’s no less true, either. Indeed, the miracle of “Frontier” is that the two designations merge: American pioneer spirit distilled to its modernist outline is effort and act. And as a synonym for “do,” rather than “perform” or “make up,” “act” also fits right in to the postmodern. (Martha is jumping, Yvonne is rolling.) The extent to which a work is worth remembering decades later depends on its communing not only with ghosts but with a gestating future. For us to discern its precocity, however, it must be wrenched free of categorical pigeonholes, which always only look backwards.

To that liberatory end, this rather long essay, in which I take up Taylor’s pieces at the Joyce one by one, kaleidoscoping in for details and out for context, imagining them in their moment and in ours.

From the Top

“Events II” premiered at the 1957 show that earned the budding choreographer a blank column from Louis Horst—No dancing? No writing. The notoriety meant that “almost everyone in the New York dance community has now heard my name,” Taylor recalled in one of the few page-turners in dance-memoir history, his 1987 Private Domain. With the curtain rising on two women standing in semi-darkness, an apparent breeze billowing their pretty summer dresses, “Events II”is not quite as immobile as John Cage’s more famous “4’33” ” is silent. At its first-ever revival, Eran Bugge and the captivating newcomer Jada Pearman each occasionally shifted their gaze, their stance, the way they held their arms. The women even took some steps across the stage to assume a position elsewhere. Nevertheless, this four-minute study accompanied by a tape of ambient noise (rain? wind? subway rumble?) presages the investigations the Judson Church folks would pursue a few years later: Is it dance when the movement isn’t organized into a pattern? Is it dance when anyone could do it and everyone does, all the time?

Taylor was intent on disburdening movement of the connotative freight he felt it sag beneath with Graham, whose company he had joined in 1955. But the elegiac and mysterious “Events II” exudes a perfume. As he explains in the autobiography:

With no dance steps for us to hide behind, even more than is usual the sequences are revealing us as people. Undisguised, our individual traits are laid bare, and our shapes, spacings, and timings are establishing definite emotional climates in all that we do. In context, what was meant to be “scientific” has turned out to be dramatic. Posture has become gesture.… [M]y awareness of the communicability of dance has increased…. I’ve more or less defined for myself some roots to work from.

And yet what is most noticeably communicable about “Events II” is its distance from us. Its beauty works like people in pictures that make you regret you cannot cross over. The alienation that will run through decades of Taylor dances has already emerged, in its most naked form. “Events II” doesn’t present estrangement between its players, for us to identify with, it enacts it between us and them. “Events II” digs a chasm.

To ignite drama, Balanchine needed a boy and a girl. For Taylor, anyone would suffice, and they could do anything—or nothing. If the sample of early works that the Taylor troupe has restaged in the last half dozen years is any measure, this discovery exhilarated him. He didn’t need to worry about having something to say, only about the words by which to say it. In his maturity, Taylor would set one language—social or aesthetic—against another like the gears in a monstrous machine. But for now he’s letting them flap about like baby birds falling out of the nest to fly. (And yet the work is not jejune.) His output in these years is diffuse in spirit but abundant in invention. You never know what will come after what and neither, it seems, does he. Indeed, the dances are often subliminally about this adventuresome fact. The young choreographer is a vertiginous, Dadaist poet for the Space Age.

John Harnage in “Images and Reflections” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Ron Thiele

“Images and Reflections”—or at least what Novak, his rehearsal directors, and the dancers concerned were able to piece together from the archives—established its surreal tone from the start. Robert Rauschenberg’s double mane waved like rows of silver wheat down John Harnage’s back in the four-minute solo “White and Sulphur” as Morton Feldman’s creeping piano plinks slowed, then evacuated, time. In a wide parallel stance with arms straight out to the side like Vitruvian Man, Harnage looked toward us with superbly concentrated intent.

Taylor is still figuring out how much mileage he can get from minimal means, but the movement lexicon has grown more dancerly. For this first solo, the motif is isolated joints. The wrists flex and curl at the end of straightened second-position arms. Knees and feet swivel right, then left, like a downhill skier’s. With Harnage’s inky black unitard set against dark floor and wall, the bare feet and hands were almost all we saw. Yet the torso that resisted his lower body’s torque blazed forward. Harnage eventually made his way into the wings, pivoting right, then left, his mane’s otherworldly shimmer lighting the trek. “White and Sulphur” is at once systematic and mysterious, austere and a bit spooky.

“Shell,” another four-minute solo, deploys the same isolationist means but to delightfully frou-frou effect. Rauschenberg set the scene again, this time with a dress that widened out from the ribs like a bell to engulf the fine Kristin Draucker in an iridescent yellow, red, and pink blur. Keeping to profile as much as Harnage faced forward, Draucker stuck her arms in front of her in parallel fourth and paddled them like a landlocked swim instructor demonstrating the kick. She delivered the silly steps sensually; the constancy of Feldman’s intermittent piano strokes also kept the ridiculous at bay. If Harnage was redolent of universal man, lost in deep space, Draucker was a fantasy of a particular woman, eluding stereotype.

By the two-minute solo “Blue and Copper,” we have entered the realm of extremity. The joints this time are the big ones—shoulders and hips—and the steps are strenuous. In a blue-gray jumpsuit, Devon Louis pitched forward to windmill his arms, then hinged backward all the way to the floor, staring up at the ceiling, vulnerable. He ended by springing up to leap into the wings: Escape.

One might designate the solos by their point of views: ideal, erotic, and nightmarish. But one of the pleasures gleaned from “Images and Reflections” is how it avoids schematics—how lightly it means. The great discovery of the post-Graham choreographers, as well as the post-Eliot poets and the post-Pollock artists, was that you could leave the massive existential themes aside and still have something to say. In fact, it is almost impossible not to have something to say, though Taylor did try, especially with “Fibers.”

“Naughty Boy”

With this 1961 quartet, Taylor goes up against his mentor and boss Martha Graham. The “naughty boy”— as she liked to tease, waggling her finger at him—will characterize his sojourn with her as “six wonderful, hideous, bewitching, boring, tickling, vivid years” and admit that “hardly a week has gone by… that I haven’t thought of her.” But what he thought about was mainly how to defy her. “Fibers,” which is funny in the sense of curious more than comic, does so in big ways and small, beginning with the set.

The spindly tree that Rouben Ter-Arutunian fashioned from extra-long pipe cleaners shares the same rainbow palette of delicious pastels as his Candyland two years later for the Lincoln Center debut of Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.” Graham’s set designer, Noguchi, liked trees, too, but his were stripped to trunk and branch, and constructed from somber wood and stone. The Ter-Arutunian costumes play off Graham as well. In place of the black horizontal bands that swathed Taylor’s manly chest in her 1958 “Clytemnestra”—he originated the part of Aegisthus, the avenging heroine’s lover—red, green, and white elastics crisscross the two male dancers’ torsos like duct tape holding a battered travelling trunk together. And what more battered trunk than the modern dancer’s torso? Without the elastic, these men might have spilled their guts. Plus, the knit masks (Martha to Paul: never cover the face) resemble tea cozies.

As for the music, the 1949 ensemble version of Schoenberg’s “5 Pieces for Orchestra” is as violently mercurial as many a Graham score, oscillating from dissonant screech to thunderous crash to dead silence. Taylor, however, uses its sudden disturbances not for drama but to cue new sections: the two men twisting their limbs like yogis; a woman expatiating her torso while a man curls up at the skinny tree’s base; two women executing primitive ballet steps in tandem, and so forth. Imagine Clytemnestra with no murder to avenge—indeed, no particular plan at all. With the 17-minute “Fibers,” anything happens after anything else. Taylor captures our attention precisely by depriving us of pattern, of foreknowledge. The dance proceeds elliptically, as do many of his 1960s pieces. The pace is sketchy, the ambience spacey, and, therefore, the quality of the steps tantamount.

Taylor is not known for movement innovation. In fact, it’s become a truism that he possessed a limited—and, the implication is, static—vocabulary. He did severely limit his terms within a given work or set of works but, I would argue, not across works. And for the early dances he kept the parameters very loose, which turns out to be what “Fibers” is about: the daunting task of inventing a language. The dance proceeds by the article of faith, stumbled upon at the 1957 concert, that if you build it, meaning will come. In fact, “Fibers” dramatizes this conviction. It’s not only the audience who can’t make sense of the chain of steps, the dancers, these members of Tribe Modern Dance, also don’t know what they’re saying. In the future, Taylor will often circle around civilization’s moorings—and unmoorings—but here modern dance is the civilization. “Fibers” is its prehistory.

If no one understands what they are saying (including the characters themselves), how about how? The men laid down a dense thicket of steps, pretzelling their limbs both standing and plunked on their haunches. The women spent a lot of time balancing on one leg, with the other extended or crooked front or side, their torsos stretching away. To travel, they borrowed basic ballet steps, turning them more basic—plus homely. Most of the travel, however, involved movement qualities, not space.

The dance’s beauty and drama depend on the migration of kinetic impulse, by which floppy distinguishes itself from silky, and muscular from droopy. Or this is what I surmised from the lone member of the quartet who wholly invested in her weird moves: the newcomer Lisa Borres. At the Q&A with Taylor’s esteemed biographer, Suzanne Carboneau, Carolyn Adams—the eloquent former company member, now education director—noted that there was no such thing as abstraction in Taylor. Everything arises from and points to human experience. Novak added that the movement always harbors an intention. Novak wasn’t thinking The Method—Graham wore out any desire Taylor might have had to root around for psychological motivation—but only what every good dancer ruminates over: Where in the body does this movement begin? Where does it go? How does it get there? The inquiry particularly matters when a choreographer creates character and mood largely through timing and texture, as Taylor does. Borres might begin a movement as a whisper in the shoulder before it gathered force across her torso to end stolidly at her foot. In a piece about innocents learning to read their body’s babble as signs, she showed us her interpretations.

Lisa Borres and Devon Louis in “Fibers” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Ron Thiele

Borres offered a glimpse of what “Fibers” could be right beside what, in 2022, it is. Watching was seeing double. The other dancers’ moves looked smudged and fussy. At the Q&A, Adams said Taylor didn’t explain what he wanted. He’d say, “Do it, and I’ll tell you if you’re ruining my dance.” Borres aside, I suspect they’re ruining his dance.

But there are good reasons for performers to keep their distance from “Fibers.” Taylor may have thought of the masks and scanty coverings as a dig at Graham’s “idea of a man”—“something large and naked for women to climb up on,” he jibed—but the Ter-Arutunian get-ups also spell “primitive tribe,” a troubling association that the casting of African-Americans for the Joyce outing brought to the fore. The problem with the dancing is not limited to “Fibers,” however, nor even to the current company.

“How nice it feels to press against water”

The Taylor idiom evolved from the choreographer’s own largess as a dancer and worked in counterpoint to his gangliness—his big feet, huge wingspan, and capacity to ball up his magnificent frame. The technique’s pith is a spine as sinuous and tensile as a monkey’s tail. When I first saw the troupe in the late ’70s, that rooted, wily back floored me. I was familiar with the Graham contraction and the Cunningham spine’s methodical, incremental articulation, but this was something else. By 2000, the spines had stiffened and have remained stiff, with a few notable exceptions. Taylor dancers now move the torso as a single erect block or let it collapse.

Fifteen years ago, I asked the choreographer about the spine I remembered. Perhaps I wanted to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it. He said, “Often our steps start in the low or middle back so the beginning of a movement causes the rest of the spine to ripple outward.” Ripple. Like water or like a practiced swimmer moving through water. Before dance, Taylor swam. A sports scholarship paid for his education at Syracuse University. The team spent four hours a day in the pool. The wave of motion that propels backstrokers and freestylers through the water—from fingertip on one side, across the chest, to the hip and leg on the other—occurs constantly in Taylor, in all manner of permutations and combinations. He is also acutely aware of a step’s viscosity. “Being an ex-swimmer, I remember how nice it feels to press against water,” he wrote. “I can’t resist using air in the same way.” In films of him in the famous, meditative solo from “Aureole,” his torso moves as if suspended in time, like a body submerged in water. But his hands and wrists flicker without resistance: they have hit air.

Taylor once averred that his work could be divided into the pretty, the ugly, and—what is neither or both—the funny. Critics made things tidier by reducing the categories to two: light and dark. Gravity succumbed to and resisted seems to me a better gauge. By this measure, Taylor’s dances become less evasive and more profound, more poignant, which particularly suits the early work, where the feeling is subdued, which is to say, impure. In the 1950s, it seems, you could have suppressed feeling in modern art—a mix of feeling, akin to a body attuned to its force and entropy, a Taylor body.

The current troupers have many redeeming qualities. There is Jada Pearman’s unostentatious magnetism—wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, your eye follows; Lee Duveneck’s capacity to make intent, including towards his partners, visible; Devon Louis’s quiet prayerfulness (whenever he’s relieved of his many jumping duties); Madelyn Ho’s split-second timing and Gumby back, which puts her in the illustrious company of Taylor alums Twyla Tharp and Pina Bausch; and Harnage’s everything. This diminutive man (at least by the Taylor male standard) is so precise in his articulations, so complete in his mining of a move’s potential, that you would think he would draw us in to him like a spotlight. Instead he animates negative space so the whole stage mystically enlarges.

Harnage is the exception that proves the rule. Taylor may be the company’s reason for being, but the dancers look more at home in the commissioned works: this season, Michelle Manzanales’ wonderful “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” in which tentative optimism emerges from a fundamental exhaustion that the pandemic has made too familiar, and Peter Chu’s antic “Call for Softer Landings”—muddled but with inspired moments. For these works, the dancers did not have to contract space around them or open it out: they could use momentum. Flinging their weight about, auras did not emanate from them—they were thoroughly self-contained.

In the last 20 years, it has mattered less how a Taylor dancer used her spine, because the Taylor premieres didn’t require much beyond weightlifting strength—for the men, anyway. (Every other minute they were picking up a body.) The up side of the sad fact that there will never be another Taylor dance is that now there’s more room on the program for older dances, which will expose what is missing in their delivery and revive that, too, I hope.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I have yet to describe the choreographer’s road to Damascus, by which the beginning ended.

The Turning Point

No matter how people interpret Taylor’s career—that he gave up on avant-garde aspirations for mainstream success; that he finally figured out what he was doing—“Aureole” signals the change.

In 1959, Balanchine created a long solo for him for “Episodes,” a foreign exchange venture with Graham. (They each choreographed half a ballet, swapping a few dancers.) The solo satisfied the Russian enough that he threw three more roles at the modern dancer, including the lead in “Apollo.” Taylor learned them all. Through the mirror of modern dance, “Aureole” reflects what he absorbed. Like many neoclassical ballets, the 17-minute piece has a sonata structure: a lead man and woman featured in adagio, a second man with three lady pals favoring allegro, a perky solo for the second female lead, and so forth. The subtext is also balletically inclined: romance. So is the music: Handel.

“Aureole” sealed the coffin on Taylor’s standing with his avant-garde peers. He had buckled not only to classicism but to Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine’s right-hand man, as the late postmodern choreographer David Gordon explained to Alastair Macaulay, former lead dance critic of the New York Times.

Lincoln Kirstein goes to Paul Taylor, after that [1957] concert with the standing-still, and says, “If you want to do this and to be with them [Rauschenberg, Feldman, et. al.], you can, that’s your choice. But it will never get any farther than this. You will just do the next thing you think of and then the next thing you think of. But you’re a really good dancer, and you’re—really good. I think you can make better dances than this.” (I am overhearing.) “And I will help to support it and to bring you to the right people.” …. And that’s how the entire next part of Paul Taylor’s career happens, which separates him from those people he was amongst. And he goes off in that next direction.

No one would deny that “Aureole” took Taylor in a “next direction,” if only in opening the way to solvency and stability. Having a hit on his hands meant gigs, tours, and pay for the dancers. It turned his fly-by-night operation into a company. But Taylor didn’t create “Aureole” in order to escape precarity; it just turned out that way. Indeed, he didn’t enjoy the success. “It was the most isolating thing,” he wrote. He wasn’t even happy with the dance: “I couldn’t forget how relatively easy the dance had been to make and how previous dances, both larger and smaller scaled, had stretched my goals much further. ‘Aureole’ had been child’s play compared with others that I had to dig for, grapple with, and slave over, ones that had a more developed craft to them but weren’t as popular.”

Yet in 1968, when he was out with an injury and could see the piece from the front, he came to appreciate what its relative simplicity was worth: “Aureole” could “survive cast changes.” It was transferable.To pursue what he understood as his vocation—not dancing but choreographing—he needed a repertory to maintain a company on which to make work. No work without dancers, no dancers without a stable of pieces to perform: around and around it went. So, six years after “Aureole,” and after several more strange marvels in the early mode, he began to plan for reproducibility. In shaping the steps, he appealed less to individual dancers’ idiosyncrasies.

His lexicon increasingly demonstrated what Balanchine called a “family relation.” Syntax also changed: phrasing became more identifiable, regardless of whether the dance “followed” the score. Did Balanchine drive these developments, as Gordon assumes? Artists usually evolve a more cohesive idiom and signature phrasing: Taylor wouldn’t have needed Balanchine’s example to gravitate in this direction. On the other hand, how could the ballets not rub off on him, a choreographer, who has learned several roles by heart? Balanchine is everywhere in Taylor’s dances for 1962—more, in fact, than any other year. And you don’t need the classical music to notice.

Madelyn Ho, Kristen Draucker, and Jessica Ferretti in “Tracer” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Four months before “Aureole,” “Tracer” debuted. The 11-minute quartet has the obvious stamp of the New York avant-garde: an original score by Cage acolyte James Tenney punctured by spells of silence and a Rauschenberg set (his last for Taylor) that replicates the 1913 Duchamp readymade “Bicycle Wheel”—the stem of the wheel screwed into a stool so it can spin. But by way of that wheel, “Tracer” evokes “Apollo.” The circle is a recurrent motif in the Balanchine work: the womb that gave birth to the sun, circles both, as well as the Olympian rings that enchain the young Apollo to his muses. (Balanchine’s first, 1928 version, for Ballets Russes, begins with a graphic birthing scene that he cut for New York City Ballet when he revived the ballet after long dormancy in 1979. American Ballet Theatre still performs the complete version.) In “Tracer,” however, there is no god. There is a man (Duveneck) but he is second to the wheel. The wheel “is the magnet,” Ho noted at the Q&A. The circle does not point to Apollo; it points to itself. Form has replaced godliness. Its transcendence is immanent.

Beautifully staged by “dance detective” Kim Jones of University of North Carolina at Charlotte and brought to vivid life at the Joyce by Duveneck, Ho, Draucker, and Jessica Ferretti, “Tracer” began with Ho on her back, knees tucked in to her chest, like a defenseless bug. Duveneck and she romanced each other by conjoining their curving arms into a single sphere. At one point, he faced upstage, raised his arms in a tight sphere overhead and arched back—the arms one circle, his head another. The women tended to form lines as in a procession, but the steps could be sinuous. In one notable case, the standing leg was bent, the free leg in attitude, and one arm slipped from front to back like an archer preparing to shoot.

“Tracer” transpired at such a leisurely pace that you didn’t think about where it was heading until Ferretti became the missing arrow. She penchéd headlong towards the whirling wheel, arms stretched forward, before Duveneck caught her around the waist. In unitards stamped with tire tracks, the women had congregated a couple of times around this impish art wheel like Balanchine’s muses around Apollo. But only in this last desperate lunge, as piercing and paradoxical as the final couplet of a Shakespeare sonnet, was it clear how much the iconoclastic art object drew them—gleaming as it spun, elusive as light. “Apollo” (the 1979 edition) ends with the muses arrayed like sunrays. They are outshoots of the sun god, their charge and source. “Tracer” is “Apollo” with modernism as its god. The Taylor muses-without-portfolio cannot grasp it. They cannot even touch it with the tips of their fingers.

Taylor preserves the makeup of the Balanchine cast (one man, three women) but discards their mythological bona fides. He retains the circle motif but not the source in womb and sun by which Balanchine evoked the cradle of classicism. In the late modernism of “Tracer,” the wheel turns but no one rides it. Pinned to a stool, it does not travel—or carry us—anywhere. Taylor has “traced” the Balanchine not like Rauschenberg has done with the Duchamp but like Duchamp does with the bicycle wheel. He has de-purposed the ballet by dismantling the plot and severing the dance from a mythic classical lineage. With “Events II,” Taylor tried to divorce posture from gesture; with “Tracer” he tries to separate form from story. In both cases, drama intractably remains, though more mysteriously here. The greater cohesion of “Tracer” solidifies its elusiveness.

“Aureole” is much more explicit in its uses of Balanchine and, more broadly, ballet. In its tweaking of recognizable conventions, Gordon was right: Taylor had taken a new turn, which he followed out through a long fertile period that only dwindled in old age. For these halcyon years, he is not aiming for complete originality but for an unexpected alchemy of combined influences. In this respect, Taylor anticipates Tharp and Mark Morris. Like them, he may approach a given idiom or social notion irreverently only to have it provoke deep feeling for whatever it has managed to turn into cliché.
Several generations of Taylor dancers in “Aureole”

So, “Aureole.” The 17-minute through-the-looking-glass ballet can be jokey. For example, Taylor updates the plucky footwork that traditionally characterizes the soubrette with hip-swishing: a smart, hilarious substitution. At the Joyce, Jada Pearman swished with twinkly charm. And in the pas de deux, the couple (Maria Ambrose with Devon Louis and Lee Duveneck alternating nights) reached the peak of their mutual adoration not with a courtly bow but with friendly froggy squats. The comedy is not limited to one-liners, however. The curtain rises on a woman already cradled in a man’s arms. Taylor comes to use this and other conventional signs of endearment so often that the sentiments would feel unearned even if they weren’t already shopworn. We are dying for a wink. “Aureole” for once gives us one. To begin with this code for intimacy before we even know the players is funny and disarming. “Aureole” doesn’t cut to the chase—it cuts the chase. Soon enough the man sets the woman lightly on her feet and the prelude that is a denouement ends so the dance can begin—with everyone else. A circularity asserts itself when the cradling returns at the duet’s end. “Aureole” plays with the order of events we expect in theatre, in romance, in life. The dance begins in the middle, then returns to the middle. And the duet stutters at its peak.

Dance, like music, is built on repetition. When there is no story, its drama consists in bringing pattern to resolution: solving the puzzle the repetitions have implied. The “Aureole” duet splits the difference. It repeats the moment of resolution, the dramatic peak, but doesn’t resolve it. The man bends the woman back for a daring kiss. He waits a beat, then does it again—still no kiss. Taylor may have in mind the moment in “Concerto Barocco” when the cavalier spins his ballerina into deep cambré again and again, except he discards the genteelism for graphic depiction, as if to say, “Let’s call a kiss a kiss.” Only there is no kiss. Ultimately Taylor concedes Balanchine’s point, if not his delicate way of putting it: art relinquishes kisses for another kind of consummation.

“After great pain,” Emily Dickinson famously intoned, “a formal feeling comes.” Dance, with its vivid presence yet inevitable patterns, is made for formalizing feeling—grief or otherwise. “Aureole” is about that crystallization. Like the repeated preparation for a kiss, the romance is “easy and warm, also formal and distant,” Taylor noted with typical irony (typically disguised as dopiness). The long male solo that precedes the duet prepares us to notice this paradox, which it gives a melancholy turn.

The choreographer crafted the entrancing four-minute solo on himself, justifying all 6+ feet of his magnitude, ranginess, and luminosity. The music—the larghetto for strings from Handel’s F major concerto grosso (op. 6, no. 9, HWV 327)—takes the form of a siciliana, a depressive ancestor to the tango. This larghetto repeats more than it doesn’t. In weary, pleading long-short-short rhythm, the first measure repeats notes, then repeats itself: first, half a dozen times as the opening to alternating A-B melodies before a more substantial variation intervenes, then a bunch of times afterwards. Midway through the movement, a violin curlicues upward—once, then again. You expect the whole ensemble to take off after it. Instead, they sink an octave and stay the course. Larghetto No. 9 surprises by refusing to.
Paul Taylor and Patrick Corbin trading off in the “Aureole” solo, from Dancemaker by Matthew Diamond, 1998.

The solo catches the music’s air of petition and of carrying on. The dancer alternates between plunging forward and pulling himself up. Taylor treats repetition as constancy: a dream of underwater feeling that doesn’t come up for air. The man lunges deep, planting himself, while the arms swing and twist around the torso at double speed. An arm brushes along the floor towards the weighted bent leg so we feel the curve in this X. Likewise, the wrists flick impetuously at the end of arrow-straight limbs when he swivels on bent leg. The directional and qualitative counterpoint makes us aware of the opposite: how the chain of movement never breaks. (Of the two male leads, Louis, with rock-solid balance that reads as spiritual inwardness, was better at maintaining the throughline, while Duveneck brought out the textural contrasts.)

The solo is as stoical as it is lyrical. It is Sisyphus with a case of Hamlet’s gloomy, poetical yearning. It is all of us who consider life beautiful while rolling that rock up the hill. At one point, Taylor’s existential man parallel-pliés down and down, until his palms are hovering above the floor. He is laying hands on the surface of the deep. You cannot stay close to the waters for long without drowning. Hamlet understood: “The rest is silence.” But the solo has done its work (as perhaps only a solo could). After an allegro palate cleanser for the second man and his three lady-friends, the duet can now approach the vexed imbrication of repetition on feeling—ritual on experience—more lightheartedly.

After “Aureole”

In Private Domain, Taylor recognizes “Aureole” as a choreographic pivot. He describes how it taught him to simplify his lexicon. But he doesn’t account for how—how by filtering his modern-dance vernacular through a foreign idiom and architecture, he recognized the power of limiting his choices, and not only choice of steps but also of themes and values. Baked into the neoclassical pas that he upended or at least tweaked were age-old assumptions about romance and aesthetic discretion, which he also probed. He defamiliarized the landscape so we could see it again and, in the process, became intimate with the tools of estrangement. He did this again and again for thirty more years, in ways subtle and outlandish, and only sometimes with ballet as the foreign invader. For “Profiles,” it is a cartoonish version of Nijinsky’s neo-primitivism that does the honors.

The dense 12-minute quartet was the single Taylor piece at the Joyce that premiered after 1962—a good seventeen years after. It justifies the gap. Novak may have largely chosen it for its small cast and modest space requirements, but it perfectly exemplifies how, by the 1970s, Taylor was tightening the screws on a given dance’s idiom.

“Profiles” is a savage, slyly funny take on coupling: the attraction and repulsion, unwillingness and compulsion, subservient contortion and leaden entanglement. For such dumb misery, Taylor coarsens the profiled flatness of Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun” or perhaps merely borrows the “King Tut” appropriations that were springing up all over the place as the exhibition of ancient Egyptian art made the rounds of American museums (to the tune of 8 million visitors by 1979). That it’s a flip of the coin whether the mythic Ballets Russes or the museum blockbuster inspired the flat profile would likely have pleased this avid cross-breeder of high and low.

An idiom of bent, parallel legs, side-facing bodies, and nubby hands (last digits folded in) lends itself to this exposé on rudimentary love. (And is there any other kind? Taylor asks.) At the Joyce, the couples were Eran Bugge with Alex Clayton and Ho with Harnage. The women hooked their bent limbs around the men’s biceps, shoulders, or waists to stay put in knotty configurations for an uncomfortable length of time. They threw themselves at the men, her chest thumping his. Harnage twirled Ho like a baton—from feet on the ground to feet on the ground. Meanwhile, Jan Radzynski’s tortuous original score for strings slid up and down the scales like a drunken siren. The mesmerizing music was as airless as the dancing was stumpy.

When they close-danced, standing on each other’s feet and dragging their partners from move to move as if in the final hours of a Depression-era dance marathon, they resembled stick figures. When Ho and Harnage passed at top speed through the several stages of romance, they brought to mind herky-jerky flipbook figures. Only when one pair achieved rapprochement did the cartoonishness diminish. Standing in profile, one leg in front of the other, Clayton extended his arm toward Bugge, who was kneeling low to the floor, and uncurled his digits. He was “offering his hand.” She reciprocated, laying her upturned palm, fingers unfurled, on his: the 2-D version of a hand clasp. And they lived happily ever after—aka the curtain fell. “Profiles” is subtle in inverse proportion to the bluntness of its instrument. It wasn’t until a second viewing that I found myself laughing under my breath. “Profiles” isn’t just strange like the early dances, it’s funny.

Six months later, Taylor used the same lexicon for “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal),” to the legendary Stravinsky score. The flattened profile no longer alludes to primitivism but to the charged, deadpan argot of 1940s noir (e.g., Bogart in The Maltese Falcon). And it works. Even with a style this flat, Taylor found new angles.

Breaking away

In his first dozen years of dance-making, Taylor’s approach was open-ended, in keeping with the era’s penchant for radical juxtaposition. The dances’ floaty consciousness belongs to a buried period in modern dance worth wondering about for all the roads that ended and started there as well as the ones not taken. Later, Taylor’s dances became meaning machines—social conventions grinding against dance idioms so that each implicated the other. The work relinquished some of its spaciousness for layers. It grew smarter, meaner, and more gripping. More than prioritizing music over the visual (Rauschenberg’s complaint) or indulging in prettiness (Gordon’s bugaboo), this compaction of meaning, drama, and architecture—without the mitigating effect of disinterest, anticness, or cerebrality—repelled his early colleagues. We are aware now of the avant-garde’s puritanical tendencies, how much they excluded and how often the cause was less principle than upbringing, or, what no one wanted to call “taste.” If his peers had been less prone to judgment, Taylor’s nuanced associativeness might have caught their attention at least as much as his tight construction. Over decades, his associations remained wild, inspired, often perverse, and fun. For example, Draucker’s solo for “Images and Reflections” links her straight-arrow zips from stage left to right with her arms and legs poking out from her bulbous dress: horizontal travel advanced on straight up-and-down legs, with a flaming poof of taffeta mediating. For “Profiles,” the delight is in his yoking romance to a clumsily flattened idiom.

But if you want a break, I’ve got one, though it doesn’t derive from principle, either. After working impossibly hard for more than four decades, Taylor must have been exhausted. He began to lose interest in the social conventions and dance idioms that had given him cover to be wise, to reveal and ignite feelings, to sort between the ugly and the beautiful. Gradually his subjects grew more predictable and his style more fixed. It does not desecrate his memory—it is not treason, as he might have put it—to acknowledge this diminishment. In fact, it would be a disservice to the dozens of dances that need no justification not to, besides distorting the answers to the critical questions that all living companies of dead masters must ask: What matters about our choreographer—what has mattered, what did matter, what still does? The full conjugation.

The summer season at the Joyce was a promising sign. It broadcast that the early dances deserved an audience. Next time, let it be the same audience that enjoys the rest of the best of Paul Taylor—at the same venue, on the same programs. After all, it’s the same man.

Apollinaire Scherr

Apollinaire Scherr has written regularly for the Financial Times, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Newsday, and contributed to Salon, New York magazine, the Village Voice, Elle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Barnard magazine, and Flash Art International.



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