After you've done nothing at all, what do you do for an encore?
Choreographer Paul Taylor, whose dance company opens a week of performances at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater tonight in the Dance America series, is living proof that the question isn't meaningless. In a sense Taylor's entire career -- which has taken him from an earlier summit as one of America's finest modern dancers to a still higher one as a prodigiously imaginative maker of dances -- is a demonstration that there's life beyond a vacuum.
Taylor is now 52. In 1957, when he was still a leading soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company and in an incubating stage as a choreographer, he presented a now legendary program of "Seven New Dances" at New York's 92nd Street YWHA.
In one of the seven, called "Duet," the curtain rang up to reveal Taylor standing motionless in a business suit; nearby a young woman in a cocktail dress sat, equally immobile, in a chair; pianist David Tudor tinkled the sparse notes of a score by John Cage for three minutes, while the "performers" remained just as they were; then the curtain went down. That was it.
Taylor's zero movement opus was the precise dance equivalent of Cage's own notorious "4' 33" " musical composition -- the silent one -- of 1952, and with it the art of dance had reached a watershed.
Still very much a part of dance folklore is critic Louis Horst's celebrated review of the event -- a quarter-column of blank space in a respected dance journal.
What has that 25-year-old program to do with Taylor's current activity in general, and his Kennedy Center visit in particular? A great deal, as it turns out. The centerpiece of tonight's program is a work called "Lost, Found and Lost," created earlier this year and now receiving its Washington premiere. Taylor spoke about the connection during a phone conversation from New York last week:
"Not long ago I was working on a retrospective concert for public television," he explained, "and in the course of it we had to rummage through all the old tapes and movies of my work that I hadn't seen in years.
"We ran across a couple of pieces I'd done at that 'Y' concert. At the time, nobody liked them much; a few people did; I did.
"And I got the feeling watching the film that there were things that I hadn't done with that stuff, that there was more to be done with it yet. So I took the basic idea of the material and made another, new piece, and Donald York, our musical director, arranged a score for it out of Muzak-type numbers, what I call 'wallpaper music.' That's how 'Lost, Found and Lost' happened."
The motionless "Duet" was not one of the pair of pieces from the 1957 concert that reawakened Taylor's creative fancy, but the ones that did -- "Epic" and "Events I" -- shared the same spirit and a similar concept.
"The material in all of them was static postures," he recalled. "Not poses, just natural postures like standing and shifting weight from one leg to another, slumping a shoulder, and so forth. There were other categories of posture we used--sitting, squatting, shiftings of the head, things like that."
What Taylor discovered from his staged exploration of such commonplace stance and movement -- half a decade before the radical Judson Dance Theatre turned the same kind of investigation into a veritable fetish -- was that gesture was implicated in all of it. It was impossible, he found, for the human body to assume a shape or make a motion without implying some kind of interpersonal feeling or attitude.
Having arrived at this realization, Taylor spent no further time in the minimalist groove, but instead went on to produce perhaps the most astonishingly diverse repertory modern dance has known.
Though there are recurrent motifs in much of his work, it seems part of Taylor's nature to switch tracks with each new piece. Thus, his next work after "Lost, Found and Lost" this year was a thundering whirlwind set to early Schubert Symphonies, entitled "Mercuric Tidings," it, too, will have its Washington premiere this season, with a first performance tomorrow night.
"It's very hard, the hardest thing the company has ever had to do," Taylor says of it. "It's very fast and very complicated -- there's lots of double action going on, things happening in front of other things. It's so dense and layered, I don't know how the dancers get through it without killing each other -- I really get scared about it." During one of the early rehearsals one dancer actually careened through a studio wall -- miraculously, without serious injury.
Meanwhile, in New York, Taylor has been putting finishing touches on yet another switcheroo -- "Snow White." "It's the story more or less straight," he says, "except, since we only have six men in the company and need at least one in reserve, we've only got five dwarfs -- five very tall guys." One dancer will double as the Prince and the Wicked Witch, and another will portray the Poisoned Apple.
Just last week, Taylor got started on a further tangent: A new piece featuring mostly the men of the troupe, who'll be wearing military uniforms and dancing to "half-Elgar and half-loon calls -- they make wonderful, mysterious sounds."
Somehow, in between, Taylor sandwiches work on his memoirs, a task he's been at for three years. "Bob Gottlieb at Knopf is my editor. It was his idea, and he keeps pushing me and encouraging me. And it keeps growing and growing. There's enough for three books right now. But I figure, he got me into this, now he's gotta get me out."