Unlike many dance documentaries, “Paul Taylor: Creative Domain” doesn’t fetishize every aspect of the dancer’s day. It zeroes in on a mystery.
The mystery is how Taylor, one of the greatest modern-dance choreographers, uses a simple formula of people plus time to make a work of art that pulls you in like an undertow.
Director Kate Geis’s engrossing film charts Taylor’s creation of a dance called “Three Dubious Memories.” Creation is maybe not the right word. The dance grows from mumbles, awkward silences, groping and stuck gears. Nervous dancers, Taylor smoking, chewing gum, rarely speaking. Gradually poses are worked out, a running sequence is unwound and rewound to get the timing right; a spare, knocking musical score is introduced — and marvelously, out of what feels like mere scraps of activity, the dance blossoms, full-bodied and frantic, onstage.
It’s a process that can only be experienced, not explained — not by the dancers, nor Taylor himself.
“Poetry doesn’t always spell everything out, you know. They leave room between the lines,” Taylor says. “A dance can be like that, too.”
So can a film. You may not leave this one feeling like you understand Taylor; he remains somewhat inscrutable, although he also comes across, at 80 (the film was made in 2010), like a dear, gentle neighbor, someone you could sit with for a lovely chat. It’s an accurate portrait; I’ve interviewed Taylor many times, at his weekend retreat on Long Island and in the same Lower East Side studio where “Creative Domain” takes place, the headquarters of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Taylor is even-keeled, quiet, hospitable — and rather mercurial, as Geis discovers.
One of the pleasures of this film is its perfect pacing. The percussive music is reflected in quick behind-the-scenes shots of makeup and costume-changing — snatches of how the dancers prepare, filmed in close-up so their bodies resemble abstract art. But the camerawork is patient in the studio, lingering on Taylor. We see him standing, a little stooped, in his work uniform of corduroy trousers and denim shirt.
His words, when they come, drift out like smoke. At one point, he explains that as a dancer he had worked with choreographers who talked a lot, but he found that all their gabbing and “poetic flow” (spoken with a wry tinge) was “basically not helpful.” He knows that to make his deadline — premiere night — he needs to complete a minute of choreography in each 90-minute rehearsal. So he simply gets to work.
He lowers himself to the floor with difficulty, like an unoiled tin woodman. But once he’s in position, he’s as decisive as a painter throwing color at a canvas. It’s fascinating to watch his eyes close in concentration as he stabs an arm in the air or curls his wrist above his head. His movements, meant for the dancers to copy, are unexpected and precise. When the dancers adopt them, you see an unnameable emotional state take form.
“The joy of our job is getting to actually work with Paul,” says Robert Kleinendorst, one of his dancers.
Working with Taylor means they do anything he asks.
One dancer crouches on the floor, a human boulder. Taylor turns to another.
“Can you leap over him?”
The instant reply: “Sure.”
Early in the film we see an embroidered vintage sampler, framed on Taylor’s desk, which has been doctored to read “In Order We Trust.” Taylor places a high value on accurate spacing, correcting his dancers inch by inch. He keeps a notebook for each dance, recording the choreography and musical counts with neatly penned symbols. He has firm ideas for costumer Santo Loquasto. No bare midriffs for the women: “They shouldn’t look sexy.”
The gradually emerging dance has a dark, tense feel. It’s about memory and how each person in a heated love triangle remembers the tumult differently. With the sucked-in movement and sharp gestures, it looks a bit like the work of ballet choreographer Antony Tudor, a master of social anxiety in the 1930s and ’40s, and with whom Taylor studied.
Indeed, Taylor acknowledges that he lifted a scene from “Dark Elegies” by Tudor, whom he calls one of his favorite choreographers.
“Amateurs borrow, but professionals steal,” he says with a grin.
Taylor is also a dedicated people watcher. “If you watch and steal like I do, there’s a lot of gold out there.”
Taylor describes the conflicting, fragmented recollections that entwine in “Three Dubious Memories” as “like life. We really don’t know each other.”
Yet Taylor does know, to an eerie extent. Sensing romance between two dancers before they had made it public, he cast them as the central lovers. (They’re now married in real life.)
Geis wisely trusts her viewers. She allows us to read between the lines, to feel and intuit just as Taylor does, and to experience the mystery that even longtime associates can’t explain.
“Paul’s a very private person about this process,” says John Tomlinson, the Taylor company’s executive director.
Even in the question-and-answer session after the film’s recent New York premiere, Taylor dancer Sean Mahoney said that after all his years in the company, he still didn’t quite understand his boss’s methods.
“I’m not sure exactly what he’s looking for, and he’s not sure exactly what he wants,” Mahoney said.
Patience seems to be his muse, what he trusts most. With time, and a good, long study of the people around him, the work will come. At one point in the film, the Czech-born composer of the music, Peter Elyakim Taussig, confesses to the choreographer that he knows nothing about dance.
“That’s all right,” Taylor says amiably. “There’s nothing to know. You just open your eyes and see what there is.”
Through Sept. 24 at Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market, 550 Penn St. NE. $8-$11. Call 571-512-3311 or visit https://www.angelikafilmcenter.com/dc. 86 minutes. The Angelika Pop-Up is hosting the following Q&As in conjunction with some of the screenings: With filmmaker Kate Geis after the 5:30 and 9:15 p.m. screenings on Friday; with biographer Suzanne Carbonneau after the 7:30 p.m. screening on Friday; and with dancer Elizabeth Walton after the 7:30 p.m. screening on Saturday.