From the sublime to the ridiculous and back - that's Paul Taylor. "Aprodisiamai," one of the two new works given Washington premieres by Taylor's dance troupe this week, is a bawdy lampoon, a knockdown farce after the manner of the commedia dell' arte, in which a num becomes a nymphomaniac and a snake charmer does bumps and grinds.
"Dust," the other new composition, is a gothic icon of deformity and death, intermingled with scenes of occult beauty - a medieval vision out of Hieronymus Bosch.
Between these two poles, as the Lisner programs have been demonstrating, Taylor's imagination traces an amazing gamut of moods and motifs. It is, perhaps, this polydexterity as much as anything else that sets Taylor apart from other modern-dance choreographers.
After a three-hour interview with Taylor, I had thrown my notepad into the back of the car and driven him back to his hotel. "Bye," he said, disembarking, "and thanks, I enjoyed talking." Then he added, a foxy grin stretching his wide cheeks into a clown's mask, "Oh, by the way, I just threw all your notes out the window before - I hope you don't mind."
The teasing, too, is quintessential Taylor. As he once wrote about his dances: "The aim is to do the most magical work you can - to permit the chain reaction of movement ideas, which spring from the original concept. The mind tends to think in a logical way, but magic is not logical. If dance is too logical, it becomes expected and predictable: Then it can lose its life."
The two programs on display at Lisner, which continue to alternate through Sunday, display some of the Taylor choreography, early, middle and recent, that has made the unexpected into a canonic principle.
It was Taylor who used amplified heartbeats as a "musical" accompaniment; who once made a "dance" out of standing stock still; and about whose "Three Epitaphs" artist Robert Rauschenberg (he designed the costumes) once said, "It was either the funniest or the saddest thing you had ever seen."
Equally characteristic, and unpredictable, are the diverse traits of other works on the Lisner programs - the classic poise of "Aureole," for instance; the brooding ritualism of "Runes": or the sheer athletic exuberance of "Esplanade."
Although Taylor's 6 foot 1 inch, beefy-shouldered frame (he put himself through Syracuse University won a swimming scholarship) heavily influenced both the roles he created for himself and the kind of movement he devised for other dancers, he gave up stage dancing in 1975 to devote himself solely to choreography. Others in his profession might be emotionally crushed by the experience of ceasing to perform; Taylor seems positively euphoric about it.
"Oh, yes, I feel fine about it. I'm so relieved," he says. "I've never been one to watch dinosaurs (Taylor will be 48 in June) on stage, and I think there's a certain dignity in withdrawing before it's too late."
"I feel a little guilty about it now and them. But it's really awfully hard work, you know, very tiring," he adds with one of his scampish chuckles. "Besides, my own parts so often got short-changed, I'd come in and set things for everyone else, and then get the last minute I'd throw myself into it, so those parts weren't always what they should have been."
That's hardly been the critical estimate, but Taylor seems to enjoy giving himself the needle almost as much as he does doing the same thing to an audience.
Taylor says he used to see everything in dance in New York, but rarely goes out nowadays. "When I get home from the studio, where I usually am working all day long, I've had it - I don't want to see any more, I'd rather turn my attention to other things."
The "other things" include watching animal acts on TV ("I saw this incredible cockatoe the other night, barking like a dog, playing dead it was extraodinary - I love these animals"), reading, gardening and beachcombing at his country place in Mattituck, Long Island. "It's the opposite of the Hamptons," he says, "very unfashionable, mostly farmers." He occasionally builds himself driftwood furniture from the flotsam of his beachcombing expeditions. "I'm very cheap, I like to make something out of nothing. It's my upbringing, I was taught to be very economical. I like using what's around, making the best of what's there. And I also like not to disguise the materials, but instead to put them together in ways that allow them to retain their own qualities."
This same penchant for "found objects" and natural materials permeates his choreography, as does the urge toward economy of use. "Esplanade," for example, is based on ordinary walking, skipping and jumping, and all his dances are spare in structure, esthewing lavish ornament.
Taylor was born in Allegheny, Pa., by one of those crazy historical curiosities the birthplace also of Martha Graham, who was later to create some major roles (Aegisthus in "Clytemnestra" for instance) for Taylor when he was a lead dancer with her company (1955-61). Early on, the family moved to the Washington area, where his mother and some siblings continue to reside. At age 9 or so, he was a delivery boy for The Evening Star. "I was the worst deliverer ever," he says. "All the wrong people used to get the paper, I always ended up with 10 extra copies (again the chuckles)."
He also took some of this earliest dance lessons here. He had gotten interested in dance for the first time at Syracuse, came home in vacation and looked for a teacher in the phone book, coming up with Graham-disciple Ethel Butler (who still holds forth in Bethesda and remains a close Taylor friend). "She was a wonderful teacher," Taylor says, "and I vividly remember her energy in class and her sense of commitment."
At Syracuse he made his first try at choreography, a piece called, characteristically enough, "Hoho Ballet." "I worked the whole thing out in my head, and taught it to all these girls - they made their entrance from garbage cans." A year or so later, when he was dancing with Merce Cunningham's company at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he did "Jack and the Beanstalk," his first collaboration with Rauschenberg. "The story was told by static tableaux in between a suite of dances. I remember. The beanstalk was a string of helium-filled balloons Rauschenberg set up, and there was also a golden egg that was self-illuminated with batteries inside, and an ogre who wore three different face masks all around his head."
Taylor's methods of working are as various as the choreographic concepts he arrives at. Sometimes he has only an overall idea and works it out with the dancers in the studio. Sometimes he devises all the movement on himself, and then teaches it piece by piece to the dancers.
Using a shorthand of his own involving stick figures and drawings (he started to major in painting at Syracuse), Taylor takes extensive notes on his own choreography, largely because "I have no memory at all - from one day to the next I can't retain things." He also relies heavily on work films and videotapes, and on the more capacious memories of his dancers. "I feel like a different person when I'm working, though. When I'm making a dance, it seems to take over, it consumes all my thought and I tend to do a lot of shutting off of things that would distract me."
He admires a no-nonsense professionalism in others, too. In 1959, when Martha Graham and George Balanchine undertook their only collaboration in "Episodes," Balanchine created a celebrated, eccentric solo for Taylor. "Balanchine was very business-like. We'd come into the studio, we'd bow to each other, he'd got to the piano, and get right to it - there was not horsing aroung and no philosophizing," apprehensive about his new "Aphrodisiamania," which has had only a few performances in New York thus far. "It's a big question mark," he said. "I don't know whether it will work." He grew even more alarmed when he realized that it was on the opening-night program, when some relatives would be attending and not Wednesday night, as he had thought. "This is a collaboration with Charles Ludham, of the Theater of the Ricidulous, you know. Charles had said that good taste was the enemy of true art, in the sense that over-refinement can be artistically stultifying. I was happy to go along with the dictum in the case of this piece, anyway. I'm sort of relieved, though, that my mother can't get up out of her wheelchair to see it. But what am I going to do about the rest of the family?"