A singular vision: Nearing 80, Paul Taylor is as moving a dance figure as ever

Choreographer Paul Taylor has been making dances for more than 50 years for his singularly successful Paul Taylor Dance Company. As part of his 80th birthday celebration, his troupe will perform a world premiere Tuesday night at Wolf Trap. We caught up with Taylor recently in his headquarters on New York's Lower East Side.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

NEW YORK -- We're here to see Paul Taylor, the cleareyed and trenchant maker of dances and revered elder statesman of his art form. On Tuesday, his company unveils a world premiere at Wolf Trap. But the interview must wait: Our visit begins with a tour of the Paul Taylor Dance Company's sprawling new headquarters on the Lower East Side, where we're trudging around behind a man in a pinstripe suit and tie. He's John Tomlinson, the troupe's executive director, and he wants to show off the business side.

He pulls open coat closets, points out the archival storage, the fundraising files, the computer server, even the bathrooms. Ooh, we say. Yawn, we think.

Then Tomlinson opens the door to one of the studios, where -- whoops -- two dancers are necking.

Awkward! And lovely. Boy, does this derail the executive's controlled presentation. Yet stumbling upon the unexpected tryst is like being inside a Taylor dance.

Taylor's greatest works put the primal forces -- fear, joy, procreation -- on a pedestal. But you never see them coming. He lulls you with common human movement swirled into exquisite patterns, entrances you with reassuring displays of form and order, and then oh! A flash of love. Sex. Life. The door flies open on the human heart.

The Taylor operation is inordinately successful. The primary company of 16 dancers has lasted 56 years, a feat few single-choreographer troupes could hope to match. There's also Taylor 2, a smaller group that travels to informal venues. Ballet companies around the world, as well as modern-dance repertory troupes, want Taylor's works. The Taylor brand has long been established as the Cadillac of dance. What's interesting is that all the wit and freshness at its core, the passion, poignancy and flashes of naughtiness, are the product of an essentially unchanged, old-school artist.

We're finally face-to-face with him, in some retro dimension. It's about 1955 in Taylor's little nook. Your run-of-the-mill office cubicle is more spacious. But Taylor, who will turn 80 on July 29, looks at home here, sunken into a chair at a narrow desk, puffing away on a discount cigarette. Gray-haired and sporting oversize glasses, he's in Eisenhower-era weekend attire: tan slacks, sturdy shoes and a blue work shirt, well worn. It's a shirt with character: A pack of cigarettes and a lighter crowd the chest pocket, and on the back, Taylor embroidered a picture of his first dog, Deedee ("damn dog").

He had been reading a crumbling paperback of "Great American Short Stories"; now he pushes Steinbeck, Faulkner and Welty over by a mug of coffee, more cigarettes and a decapitated beer can full of pencils.

Taylor lives the spare aesthetic that you see everywhere here. He rises well before dawn and turns in before sunset. He walks to work from his apartment near the East River. He's a self-described cheapskate. In his flat and in the rustic Long Island cottage he's owned since the 1960s (bought back in Deedee's day), what furniture he doesn't drag in off the streets he has made himself, along with odd and witty sculptures of found objects.

"I've always known not how to make money, but how to cut corners and save money," he says. "That's one reason this company has lasted so long."

Taylor values simplicity, especially after his turbulent beginnings. He had a rootless childhood, raised in and around Washington by a divorced mother who eventually sent him to live on a farm in pre-suburban Bethesda. He bounced from school to school, was briefly at Arlington's Thomas Jefferson High but graduated from Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg. In college he was a swimmer; then he discovered dance and within a short time his tall, athletic physique had landed him in Martha Graham's company. He was on the road a lot, especially after starting his own troupe. Now he enjoys his stability.

Sketches, photos and bits of vintage Americana have been arranged on the cubicle walls with an artful eye. A cross-stitched hanging bears the slogan "In God We Trust," but Taylor has taped the word "ORDER" over "God." Indeed, order reigns here. Nothing but the essentials. Underfoot, a Navajo rug in pale stripes.

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