Dance lovers in San Antonio have a rare opportunity this week to see one of the world’s great dance companies. The Paul Taylor Dance Company (PTDC) will perform for one night only at The Majestic Theater on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 p.m.
Over the span of more than 60 years, the company has traveled the globe many times over, bringing Taylor’s ever-burgeoning repertoire – 141 dances and counting – to theaters and venues of all sizes in more than 520 cities in 62 countries. The esteemed choreographer has also been the recipient of nearly every important honor given to artists in the United States. The MacArthur “genius grant,” Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, three Guggenheim awards, numerous honorary doctorates, the French Legion of Honor, and so on. It is quite a long list.
Taylor began “making dances,” as he likes to phrase it, in 1954. A friend asked him to partner with her in a university dance piece. He had never danced before that, but he was hooked and never looked back. He went to New York to study, earning a degree in dance from Juilliard in 1953.
In short time, he found himself working with some of the greats of the dance world. As a performer, he was a soloist for seven seasons with the Martha Graham Company, and worked with Merce Cunningham, as well as the great George Balanchine.
Paul Taylor was one of the first modern dance choreographers to examine everyday gesture and relate it back to dance. When he premiered “Seven New Dances” in 1957, the success that his company ultimately achieved was not in evidence. One of the movements, an untitled duet, featured Taylor and a female partner in complete stillness performing to John Cage’s silent composition “4’33”.” The audience was not amused and most walked out. The review by Louis Horst that accompanied the performance in The Dance Observer (which ceased publication in 1964) was, famously, a blank column.
Yes, Paul Taylor was the enfant terrible of the dance world for a while, dubbed “the naughty boy of dance” by no less than Ms. Graham herself. He later observed, “I wanted to do everything in my work to get away from her work. I did not want to be another little Martha Graham, as much as I admired her . . . so I was always trying to find ways, frankly, to annoy her.”
Once while on tour in Tokyo with the Graham Company, Taylor was asked to define “modern dance.” His reply? “Modern is like ballet, only uglier.” He continues on to say, “I was never allowed to talk to the press again after that.”
Taylor’s goading of the establishment came to a crashing halt with the success of his “Aureole” in 1962, a signature work that distilled his romantic, athletic, loping style. Although criticized by some for being too pretty, this was a real artistic breakthrough for Taylor and how audiences perceived his work. Make no mistake, though. Throughout his long career, Taylor has successfully alternated light with dark, humor and despair. There is no subject that is taboo, including incest, marital rape, blind conformity to authority, intimacy among men at war, religious hypocrisy, skewering feminism – at 85 and still going strong, there is no conversation off-limits to this uniquely American, creative genius. And his company presents it all with grace, intelligence and style.
Taylor is a defining master in our American dance culture, influencing numerous dancers that have gone on to greatness such as Pina Bausch, Laura Dean, Danny Ezralow, and Twyla Tharp. Again, the list goes on. The scope of this influence has been such that it is nearly immeasurable as his shadow looms over multiple generations of dancers in this country and throughout the world.
The San Antonio program will include “Arden Court” (1981), one of Taylor’s breezy and athletic romantic romps set to a beautiful baroque score by William Boyce; “The Word” (1998), a thought-provoking piece that examines the vagaries of religious zealotry; and “Piazzolla Caldera” (1997), in the grand tradition of the Tango masters, examining “the flawed confusion of human beings…” The program is a balanced affair, giving our San Antonio audience a sampling of the diverse flavors that the PTDC repertoire offers.
In addition to the powerful impact of the dances, be prepared for a visually exceptional event. Taylor has always worked closely with artists, counting masters such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns among his friends and collaborators. Renowned artists, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and scenic and costume designer Santo Loquasto have been with PTDC for decades now. No detail is left unfinished or to chance in these productions. As Taylor has said, “An artist’s designs can shape the way we see dances.”
Taylor is also recognized for his pleasant demeanor, choosing to work gently with his dancers rather than cracking the proverbial whip. In interviews and on film, his quiet charm and humor is deeply evident.
“They (the dancers) are there as instruments. The devotion of who they are and what they are is my inspiration. I want to please them, I want to please the public. Most of all I want to please myself.” Dancers tend to stay with the company for a very long time, particularly considering how short the career of the average dancer is.
There is also a special San Antonio connection – dancer Francisco Graciano. Francisco is a San Antonio native who joined the small touring company Paul Taylor 2 in 2004, and went on to join PTDC in 2006. We welcome our native son home to The Majestic.
If you are one of those perennial fans of the Joffrey Ballet here in San Antonio, you owe it to yourself to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Stylistically and in terms of technique and artistic content, there will be no disappointment. For tickets visit ArtsSA.org.
To learn more about Taylor and his company, check out the Oscar-nominated documentary “Dancemaker,” or his autobiography, “Private Domain”, hailed by the National Book Critics Circle as the most distinguished biography of 1987.
*Featured/top image: “Arden Court” by Paul Taylor. Photo by Paul B. Goode/Courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company.