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The Soloist

After 50 Years, Paul Taylor Still Creates Works for His Dance Company. But His Favorite Steps Are the Ones That He Takes on His Own.

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page C01


A crooked green mailbox with the name "Taylor" stenciled on it marks a crooked stone drive that winds past tangled pine trees to a low-slung, gray-shingled cottage, whose front door is opened by one of the world's greatest living choreographers.

Paul Taylor looms in the doorway, only to be pushed aside by his dog. The black Lab jumps up, all slobbery tongue and huge paws. Taylor shoos him away and ushers his visitor in, past overstuffed bookshelves and shelves of shells and walls hung with bugs frozen under glass and into the kitchen, where a sandwich and a bag of chips await her.

Choreographer Paul Taylor's company dances at the Kennedy Center tonight, but he prefers the seclusion of his Long Island beach house and the nature that surrounds it. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

The Paul Taylor Dance Company is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tour to all 50 states and the District that will bring it to the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater tonight through Saturday. At 74, Taylor presides over an organization whose longevity is nearly unheard of in the evanescent field of modern dance. For half a century, his works -- 121 of them, crafted on a steady schedule of two or three a year -- have fueled the troupe's world travels. The 17 dancers are on tour nearly half the year, an enviable schedule for a dance troupe, performing works of simplicity and delicacy, such as "Eventide," or bracing, geyserlike energy, such as "Arden Court," both of which will be featured on the Kennedy Center program.

But Taylor will be largely out of the fray. The anniversary tour is a "gimmick," he says with a laugh, and while he was delighted to create two new works for it, he is now just as delighted to stay home while the company is on the road.

"There's no place I'd rather be," he says, "than right here."

When he's creating a new dance, Taylor overnights in the 19th-century house he owns in New York's SoHo, within walking distance of his company's studios. But it is here, on Long Island's North Fork, where a hillside of gnarled trees leads to an unbroken view of Long Island Sound, where Taylor spends most of his time. Snugly tucked in among the bare, twisted flora, his wind-beaten house is more of a burrow, like something furry animals would inhabit in a children's book. Taylor has owned it since the 1970s.

He credits the house with saving his life. In his performing days he became addicted to Dexamyl, a prescription amphetamine that has since been taken off the market. Taylor took it to cope with stage fright. It had, he says, the remarkable property of revving his body and calming his mind. Over time, however, it sapped his energy altogether.

"I realized if I didn't stop taking it, it was going to kill me," Taylor says, settling into a creaky chair at his kitchen table. He speaks softly, his voice tinged with a vaguely southern accent that stems from a childhood spent in the Washington area. "I thought, well, if I could just go somewhere where I could be by myself." He bought the house and quit the drug, cold turkey.

What he desperately craved, he realized, was solitude. Taylor spent much of his early years alone, and solitude grew comfortable. His parents separated when he was a baby, and he lived with his mother in various spots around Washington, taking art lessons at the Corcoran Gallery, attending Arlington's Thomas Jefferson High School and spending summers on a farm in then-rural Bethesda. "As a kid, I was very much left to entertain myself," he says. "I learned to watch, and make up games. And I'm still doing it. Making up dance is kind of a game."

Taylor fell in love with dance while on a swimming scholarship at Syracuse University. He dropped out of school and moved to New York for dance classes. A natural athlete with a thrillingly high jump, Taylor was in high demand among choreographers. He performed in the companies of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, while also creating works for a little group of his own dancers.

Taylor was fascinated by the idea of stripping dance down to the basics of running, walking, even sitting utterly still. A 1957 concert featured seven works built from everyday, "pedestrian" movement, a radical idea at the time. In one, he stood quietly while a woman sat on the floor near him. Neither moved, and 4 1/2 minutes passed in silence.

His frustrated audience streamed out the exits. For his next season, Taylor retooled his notion of what dance should be -- he realized it had to involve actual dancing -- but he never relinquished his fondness for the movement of ordinary folks.

After his groundbreaking 1962 work "Aureole," an exhilarating, unbroken stream of steps set to Handel, critics and audiences began to embrace Taylor's notion of natural movement raised to a virtuosic level and shot through with drama.

"What I love about Paul's work is the combination of the endless invention with a strong dramatic imagination," says critic and editor Robert Gottlieb, the former head of Alfred A. Knopf, who edited Taylor's acclaimed 1987 autobiography, "Private Domain." Gottlieb, who as a longtime board member of the New York City Ballet worked closely with founder George Balanchine, says Taylor shares with Balanchine the ability to keep his company intact long-term while also developing exemplary dancers (choreographers Twyla Tharp and David Parsons are among Taylor alumni).

Taylor was the star performer of his troupe until 1975, when injuries and hepatitis forced him to stop. He says focusing solely on choreography was a welcome respite from the constant travel and anxieties associated with performing. Yet he still puts limits on his studio time. After spending his working hours organizing and mobilizing his dancers, deciding every footstep and gesture, untangling mistakes and trying to fit the movement to the music and the image in his head while the dancers stand and watch and wait to be shown their next moves, Taylor relishes time alone.

After rehearsals for a new work are over, Taylor retires to the shore and watches the water. He scans the sky. He wakes before sunrise. He putters around.

Occasionally he has visitors. A group of his dancers will gather here for Christmas. Otherwise, Taylor spends a lot of time in one comfy chair or another, writing letters or reading.

"I don't really think about dance except just before rehearsals start," Taylor says, lighting a cigarette. "I put it off. I don't live my life thinking about dance."

He makes this rather stunning pronouncement with equally stunning mildness. Imagine Picasso saying he didn't think much about painting!

"But painters are different," Taylor counters. He cites Alex Katz, the modernist with whom he has frequently collaborated: "It's paint, paint, paint. It's a mania. But choreographers can't do that. You have to have your dancers to do it."

Absent his dancers, Taylor says, he is content to live quietly with his dog.

"I had a very physical life while I was dancing, and the minute I stopped I was so glad to just be still and not hurt," he says. "I found barres and exercising extremely boring. You think I'm going to jog? Have you ever seen a jogger that looks like he's not in pain?" He laughs long and loud. "No, sir, not me. I don't exercise. I do a little outdoor work, gardening, cleaning up the woods, playing with my chain saw, that kind of thing. But I'm very happy not to move anymore."

Playing with his chain saw?

"It's a boy toy," he says with a shrug. "There are a lot of trees that fall down, and I cut 'em up for firewood."

Flames snap in the fireplace at the other end of the room. Home and homeowner are remarkably alike. Taylor is profoundly casual, even slightly frumpy in a denim work shirt, khakis and battered deck shoes. As he speaks, he chain-smokes and chews green gum, pulling it out from time to time to roll between his fingers. His hair sticks out at uncombed angles. Likewise, his house is cozy, rustic and down-to-earth. The entrance is graced by a dark, sturdy-looking hutch he built from wood that washed up on the beach. He also built the corner cabinets, which are piled with conch shells and coral he has collected from all over the world.

There is little evidence here of Taylor the choreographer -- no promotional posters, no framed studio shots. But everywhere you look you see Taylor the artist.

And like his dances, his artwork is arresting, clever and unsettling, sometimes all at once.

Take what hangs on the walls -- jewel-toned butterflies, meticulously arrayed in rows, blending together and seeming to whirl the longer you look at them. There are also spectacular arrangements of beetles impaled on pins, kaleidoscopic swirls of varying sizes and brilliant colors, each tiny black limb distinct and articulated.

"I like bugs because they're so different from humans," Taylor says.

There are also dead critters in picture frames -- a bat, a frog. And a few mice, flattened but perfect, with subtle grimaces on their furry little faces. "I found them in the basement," Taylor says offhandedly. "They're sort of freeze-dried. So I thought, well, maybe I'll frame that."

As with the framed works, Taylor has created his sculptures from "found" objects -- driftwood, rusted bits of metal, seedpods, more insects. They occupy nearly every bit of shelf space. Each one bears a title, punched out on a label gun. "Suspense" features a rock dangling from the end of a string; beneath it crouches an exquisitely delicate and very vulnerable-looking beetle. Some rather naughty (and funny) phallic imagery is explicit in several of them. A length of narrow pipe standing on a piece of wood and flanked by two blue light bulbs is labeled "Man With Two Muses."

But the sculpture is a joke; Taylor emphatically denies the existence of muses, at least artistically speaking.

"There's no secret" to his creative impulse, Taylor says. "My attitude is that everybody is an artist of some kind, whether it's wrapping a Christmas present or carpentry or anything that requires a certain imagination and decision-making to make it look good.

"I know I have talent, and I trust my talent," Taylor continues. "I don't know where it comes from. Certainly not my background; I wasn't brought up to be an artist. But I love to make things, and I love the proscenium, and I love the idea of making something for people to get something out of and enjoy."

Taylor says making dances is little different from arranging bugs under glass.

"There's this matter of framing, and placement in space," he says. "You decide that looks good, and that doesn't. It's about making decisions. Right or wrong, you have to get it done, by a certain time. The clock -- that's the inspiration," he says with a laugh. "The clock on the wall. Ticking. That's a great boost."

Taylor is a pragmatist. Get the work done on deadline with whatever materials are available. There's no celestial voice in his ear, no God guiding his hand. A self-described atheist, he has little patience for piety. His aversion to religious fervor ("I just basically feel that organized religions have been the cause of nearly every war we've ever experienced," he says) has given rise to some bitingly witty dance sendups of religion. "Speaking in Tongues," for example, revealed the dictatorial side of a dogmatic small-town preacher.

Which puts his newest piece, "Klezmerbluegrass," which will also be on the Kennedy Center program, in an interesting light. It was commissioned by the National Foundation of Jewish Culture to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in this country.

Taylor set out to use music by a Jewish American composer, but he says everything he tried was too gloomy. He settled on an unusual pairing of traditional Klezmer and bluegrass music arranged by clarinetist Margot Leverett.

There is nothing particularly Jewish about the piece, Taylor says, just glimpses of folk dances: the hora, and even a bit of a hoedown. "Just hints of that for a little flavor." It is mostly a happy dance, he says, but there is also melancholy, underscored by Leverett's clarinet. "I think that's a Jewish trait," Taylor says. "It's also a human trait."

Just as his art springs from found objects, his dances rely on found movement. "Way back I found that natural movement was like finding stuff lying around that nobody wants," he says. "A lot of my work involves fortunate accidents." A bum on the street with an unsightly tic caught his eye one day, and he put that into "Last Look" (1985), a singularly disturbing work, coursing with writhing and entangled bodies and images of searing cruelty, as the dancers lash out at each other and at themselves.

Patrick Corbin, a Taylor dancer who has been with the company for 15 years, says it is Taylor's emotional range and ultimate humanity that mark him as "not just a national treasure, but an Earth treasure."

"Paul goes from the lightest and happiest to the darkest, deepest, scariest places of the human psyche," Corbin says by phone from Philadelphia, where the company was performing last weekend. "It's a universal message, that we're all the same and it's okay and we're all in this together."

Taylor takes life down to the basics -- both his own life, in this small, quiet house, and the life that he portrays onstage. He does it with common human movement, framed so it gleams with meaning and kinetic thrust. He does it with nature -- bugs, rocks, driftwood -- raised onto a pedestal. He surrounds himself with the primal forces of procreation and death. He sums up the human experience in exquisite simplicity.

And he's always on the lookout for the stuff that nobody wants. "If you use it in an interesting way," Taylor says, "it becomes something to look at."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company