The Paul Taylor Dance Company
Historic evenings of dance exist in the imagination—Nijinsky’s Faun, Ulanova’s Swan, the première of Le Sacre…were they really as extraordinary, as breathtaking, as scandalous as legend would have us believe? I attended one such occasion on the evening of May 14, 1959, when Martha Graham and George Balanchine “collaborated” for the first and only time. The work was Episodes, set to all the music Anton Webern ever wrote, and “collaborated” is a strong word for what actually went on. Webern’s scores were divided in half, like two parcels, and Graham tied up the first, and Balanchine the second. Beyond a mutual composer, if there was any connection between the first and second halves of the program it escaped me. But something odd and important happened that evening: Graham and Balanchine exchanged positions, almost as if by deliberation. It became clear that the ballet had taken over the avant-garde, and that modern dance was presenting its audience with a “story ballet” in the old-fashioned sense, complete with magic scenic effects (a throne that turned around of its own accord), fancy costumes (all black and glitter), and even a game of battledore, in which Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots traded shots over an imaginary net.
But the evening was historic for another reason: each choreographer, by agreement, could pick one dancer from the other’s company, and Balanchine chose Paul Taylor. Taylor could do anything on stage, from twisting himself into a ball of worms to flying across the air with the speed of a radio wave. Balanchine exploited all of Taylor’s talents, save one—the main one, and not only inappropriate to the occasion but invisible at the time. How could he know his Graham dancer was going to turn into a choreographer of the first rank?
Taylor’s troupe is now one of the few modern dance companies that can spend a month at the New York City Center and fill it up. His most recent season just ended, and watching his company one sensed something completely new to dance and peculiarly American—the playing field hovering at a discreet distance behind the scrim. Taylor’s use of sports is never thematic, like the semiliteral tennis match of Nijinsky’s Jeux, or openly suggested, like the scrimmage line one occasionally sees in Jerome Robbins’s work. It exists in the nature of how he conceives a dance, in the quality of the movement, the kind of energy expended. It is kinetic and daring and its impact is direct and visual. The strength of the football player, the speed and swerve of the hockey forward, the individual competitive grace of the tennis champion are present on Taylor’s stage. Swimming movements appear often: the stroke, the dive, the plunge. Taylor choreographs as naturally for the male body as Balanchine did for the female, and his is the only big dance company in which the male dancers are preeminent. They are a different …