Choreographer Paul Taylor Looks Back on His Career in Modern Dance

January 19, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1962, Paul Taylor choreographed and danced in “Aureole” to music by Handel. More than 40 years later, the Paul Taylor Dance Company continues to perform this signature piece around the world, here at Washington’s Kennedy Center recently.

PAUL TAYLOR, Dance Choreographer: And, again, look like you’re falling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taylor himself, now 76 and long recognized as one of the great masters of modern dance, continues to create new works.

PAUL TAYLOR: Everybody has been stomping on that tape. Don’t…

JEFFREY BROWN: But while the world thinks of Paul Taylor as a great dancer and choreographer, he thinks of himself as, first and foremost, a watcher.

PAUL TAYLOR: Watching people has always been something that I’ve done, even as a kid. And, you know, I changed schools a lot, and I knew almost immediately who was going to be the class bully, who to watch out for. And you can tell sometimes by the way they move. And walking is the most revealing. A walk is like a fingerprint. No two people walk the same.

The earlier years

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the arts played little or no role in Taylor's early life, part of it spent on a farm in Maryland. He was an athlete first, a swimmer at Syracuse University, and only discovered dance in his early 20s.

Where did it all come from?

PAUL TAYLOR: Oh, you got me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You really don't know? I mean...

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, I fell in love with the idea of dance. It just hit me all of a sudden, and the idea of being a dancer was like the idea of being a flame, you know? And I love to move.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taylor made his name first as a virtuoso performer in the '50s, with the Martha Graham Dance Company and with his own small group, which he first assembled in 1954.

Did you ever feel afraid onstage?

PAUL TAYLOR: Not onstage. Before the curtain opened, I was terrified. I suffered from stage fright. Not all performers do, but I did, always. I never got over it.

But the moment the curtain lifted, I was fine. I forgot anybody was there, and I only had to -- I didn't even have to think about my steps. You know, muscles have a memory, and they took over.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taylor had been making his own dances from early on, often using movements he saw in everyday life.

He was known, too, for his experimental works. In a 1957 minimalist dance called "Duet," he stood next to a reclining woman for four minutes, neither one moving. A New York Times critic responded with a famous blank review.

Taylor has always been eager to reach dance and non-dance audiences alike with works of great variety. At the Kennedy Center, some of that range was on display: the classical movement in "Airs"; some delightful slapstick in a new dance, "Troilus and Cressida (Reduced)"; and dark political commentary in another new dance, "Banquet of Vultures," which takes direct aim at the Iraq war.

But for all the artistry and ideas in a dance, Taylor insists that's not the way it begins.

The creative process

PAUL TAYLOR: The way I work is I start with the practical restrictions, like, what's the budget? How long is the rehearsal period? Which dancer needs something special? Which dancer maybe needs a rest?

JEFFREY BROWN: Very practical things. So it's not about art at that point? It's...

PAUL TAYLOR: No, all practical, and it's problem solving. And then I form some loose plan for the dance, for the choreography, but not in detail. The real work happens in the studio, directly with the performers.

Get as tight and hunched over as you can. You can exaggerate...

JEFFREY BROWN: At the rehearsal for the Kennedy Center performances, Taylor was still refining moves.

What about your interaction with the dancers? When you're making a dance, when you're making these steps, how much freedom do they have?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, there are times, but basically it's a dictatorship.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're clear, it's a dictatorship?



PAUL TAYLOR: I hope so. My crew, I don't have to yell at very often. And it probably wouldn't work if I did. I don't have to give pep talks. The morale is high. And I sometimes think that a company's morale is more important than the choreography.

Holding auditions

JEFFREY BROWN: You must have many, many dancers who would love to be in your company. When there is an opening, how do you pick?

PAUL TAYLOR: Open auditions. A lot of time I ask the kids to walk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to walk?

PAUL TAYLOR: You know, walk across there. And I know whether they're a prima donna or have a lot of self-assurance, a healthy self-assurance, or maybe sort of chicken. And that's how the auditions start. And then we get to steps and stuff. And then it gets harder and harder. And then people, you know, there are fewer and fewer left.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Trusnovec must have walked well enough to impress Taylor. He joined the company in 1998. These days, he dances the part Paul Taylor once danced in "Aureole."

MICHAEL TRUSNOVEC, Dancer: As soon as I saw his work, I knew that that's where I wanted to be, mostly because of the variety of the work. You know, the range is so huge, and it's so rare to find a choreographer that does that in the work, that it leaves you without ever wanting to do anything else, totally satisfied because each dance is so different.

It's amazing. So many people come to me and say, you know, "Are all the dances choreographed by Paul Taylor?" Yes, they are.

The role of dance

PAUL TAYLOR: That one, yes, that's right. Even just the head does it.

JEFFREY BROWN: To date, Taylor has choreographed some 125 dances, and he and his staff have kept alive a company for more than 50 years.

PAUL TAYLOR: I think there will always be a need for dance, for dancers to dance and for watchers to watch. I believe that. I have to believe that, come on.

JEFFREY BROWN: What need does it fill?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, you see, dance, I think, consciously or unconsciously symbolizes life. And it reflects the human condition, or it can. It tells us the joys, the sorrows, the fallacies, the idiocies, the brilliance, anything human.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don't know how hard it is to do what you do, to make dances, but does there come a time when you see no longer doing it?

PAUL TAYLOR: No, I'm going to do it as long as they let me.

JEFFREY BROWN: As long as they let you?

PAUL TAYLOR: It's all I know how to do, really, and it's what I'm good at, as it turns out, and so I feel very fortunate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Paul Taylor, nice to talk to you.

PAUL TAYLOR: Thank you, Jeff.