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

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; E01

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.

Where's the battered typewriter? we wonder. Something about this snug den brings the writing process to mind. Maybe it's the purposeful calm, the feeling of refuge amid mementos. It's also in Taylor's way of stitching people-watching into his works. Taylor is not a writer -- though his 1987 autobiography, "Private Domain," is a lively read -- but he seems to think like one. It's fitting to find him absorbed by mid-century short stories, written when the form was king, because so many of his works have the distilled characterizations, the tautness and condensed punch of the best short stories. Works such as "Offenbach Overtures," with military duelers who fall in love while their seconds carry out the fight; and "Company B," with its heartbreaking reflections on youth, war and nostalgia.

Taylor's new piece, co-commissioned by Wolf Trap, is of that sort, with sharply etched characters swept up in microdramas. It's called "Phantasmagoria" and uses Renaissance music. Like the 2007 works "De Suenos" ("Of Dreams") and "De Suenos Que Se Repiten" ("Of Recurring Dreams"), it follows the fluid logic of the unconscious.

"It's very easy to make a dance that relates to a dream," Taylor says, rolling a wad of green chewing gum between his fingers. His voice is soft, almost sleepy. "A dream is not very realistic."

We talk a bit about structure, and his belief that a dance needs both form and -- this is the Taylor difference, a large part of why his works have such broad appeal -- a subject. Abstract works are not for him: "If you've got people onstage, they're not just shapes moving around -- they're human beings," he says.

Throughout the interview, Taylor meanders equably from one topic to another, in a leisurely conversational style that's missing only the creak of a rocking chair. Is it age, or contentment? He has a somewhat detached air; perhaps it's the serenity of knowing his life's work is humming along in the care of others, with no need for him to micromanage.

"If you look through my entire output, you'll see relationships of one dance to another," he says, in a typical detour. "Not a repeat, but a return to a subject: war, disaster, death." He takes a long drag on his cigarette. "Those are subjects that crop up all the time."

Do they crop up in "Phantasmagoria"? Taylor pulls out a spiral notebook, scans his scribbling. "There's a fight. There's death. And there's sickness." Among the characters are Flemish villagers, a Byzantine nun and someone called the "St. Vitus's dance infector," a man who spreads a disease that causes sudden spastic movements.

"They lost control of their bodily movements and twitched and jerked a lot," Taylor says. Perfect choreographic fodder.

We watch a rehearsal in a large, high-ceilinged studio with a sweeping wall of windows overlooking Grand Street. No mirrors, though: Taylor has never allowed them, believing dancers should focus on the instruction rather than their reflection.

He settles into an office chair with cracked vinyl upholstery (a street find courtesy of David Parsons, the choreographer, who was once a Taylor dancer). Throughout the rehearsal, he'll whisper occasionally to Andy LeBeau, the company manager. Otherwise Taylor chain-smokes in silence, head bobbing slightly.

How do the dancers breathe in here? The studio has the air quality of a newsroom 25 years ago, when one inhaled more smoke than air. But the dancers get by just fine, and so do we. It's homey. A coffeepot gurgles atop a scarred mini-fridge, and Taylor, reading our mind, offers us a cup. We're getting a buzz from the secondhand smoke, and "Phantasmagoria" is funny. An Adam-and-Eve couple cavort amorously with a stuffed snake, until the nun barges in and jabs her middle finger at them; they scoot off and, once the coast is clear, she gets cozy with the snake.

Most impressive is the opening, with the dancers grouped in contrapposto poses, the distinctive Renaissance S-curve of the torso, as harpsichords sound. It's a surprisingly moving tableau, and the effect is intensified when one dancer begins crumpling to the floor in a fit of emotion.

"I couldn't have done it years ago because it's very simple," Taylor says after the run-through. "I think this comes with time, simplicity."

Talking the walk

"One thing I've always known about Paul is he challenges himself," LeBeau says. "He doesn't take the easy way out."

"Phantasmagoria" is evidence of this: The only constant thread is the Renaissance music. Every scene introduces a different time period. Dancer Laura Halzack, who plays the nun, describes a freewheeling improv session with Taylor, brainstorming about "what a creepy nun would do."

Taylor has created a body of work that makes dancers feel "like you're in a repertory company," LeBeau says. His works are so varied in style, tone and form, they can seem to be the output of many different artists. But he takes his inspiration from a consistent source: how ordinary people move. He's a devoted people-watcher, on constant stakeout. For example, he says, non-New Yorkers are easy to spot: Tourists amble and, the ultimate frustration, "they walk three abreast!"

A person's walk is so telltale, Taylor continues, that that's the first thing he has dancers do at his auditions.

"I can eliminate half of them by how they walk," he says. "They're either too self-assured or not assured enough, or they're just weird. You can tell an awful lot."

His eye for honesty in the hips gave rise to "Banquet of Vultures," a 2005 work that centered on a devastatingly sadistic portrayal of George W. Bush, complete with red tie.

"It was George Bush's walk that gave him away," Taylor says. "It was a pseudo-militaristic thing that he had no experience with. A total phony."

He hasn't yet assessed President Obama's walk. The political issue he's following now is the new state tax increase on cigarettes, to help shore up the budget.

"And to punish smokers!" Taylor cries, suddenly energized.

"What these health fiends don't tell you is there's a lot of healthy things about smoking. It calms your nerves, gives you extra energy. I think they make you live longer." He smiles as he lights another smoke, as if to say: Exhibit A!

Then again, he continues, "it's not so special to be 80."

Perhaps not, we say, just to be agreeable. Our great-grandmother lived to be just a month shy of 110.

"Really!" Taylor says, blue eyes wide. "Did she smoke?"

No, but she drank.

"Well!" he says triumphantly, jabbing the air with his cigarette. "If she both drank and smoked, she'd have made it."

'Let me work'

Taylor's frugality, his look and his tastes may recall another era. But there's a constancy about him. A resistance to self-indulgence. No, dreams about his own mortality didn't give rise to "Phantasmagoria." No, he wasn't thinking of his legacy in "Beloved Renegade," a work that draws on Walt Whitman's poetry, some of it about death, which will also be performed at Wolf Trap.

A third dance on that program, "Also Playing," is a tribute to vaudeville -- in particular, Taylor says, the unsung supporting players. "They did these road trips and worked so hard to perfect them," he says. "As people devoted to their profession, they were very admirable."

Road trips. Work. Devotion. Sound familiar? No wonder Taylor salutes the vaudevillian ethos. It's his own.

The rehearsal continues under LeBeau's watch as Taylor prepares to leave. Parisa Khobdeh, a dancer he hasn't seen in a while because she's nursing an injury, comes to say goodbye to him. She fusses over Taylor, holding his face in her hands and planting a kiss on his cheek. "I love you a lot, you know," she tells him, as he beams a boyish smile at her.

As for his birthday . . .

"He'll probably tell me he wants to be by himself," says Tomlinson, the executive director. "Maybe I'll show up with a cupcake. But," he adds darkly, "I might also value my life."

So what does Taylor really want for his birthday?

"I've got everything anybody could want," says the man who has just moved his company into the best real estate he's ever had, a space full of life, art and passion -- in plain view as well as behind closed doors. What could possibly top this studio, these sweet dancers, this smoky air of honest industry?

"Oh . . . to keep on working. Let me work," Taylor says with a laugh. And as predicted, he adds that he'd like to spend the big day alone, at his cottage. Maybe with a new dog.

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