• Email
  • Print

The Monstrous Itch

Private Domain

by Paul Taylor
Knopf, 371 pp., $22.95

Dancing was It. Dancing was what life was all about. If you wanted to be a dancer, you didn’t just want it, you felt chosen to be one. You see, dancing was more of an obligation than a whim. It’s a religion, a monstrous itch, a huge and illogical church. In my case, even before learning to dance, I was positive I was ordained to it. (Didn’t intend to be a choreographer. That came later and, even then, only served to scratch my itch. I made them to dance them.)”

Paul Taylor’s autobiography is an unexpected tale, written with candor and displaying the very energy, elegance, and intensity that was seen in Last Look, his choreographic masterpiece of 1985. His explication of the process of inventing dance compositions, his exhaustive narration of how an independent dance company is established, surviving nearly thirty years through individual performers who come, stay, and go, is supported by a ferocious self-portrait, whose honesty contains no self-indulgence.

At fifty-seven Paul Taylor is a current recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award. He started to perform at age twenty-one. In 1959, Balanchine created a solo for him; then offered him the role of Apollo in Stravinsky’s ballet, as well as other leading roles in his neoclassic repertory. Ballet was not for him. Alerted by Edwin Denby, the poet-critic who had much affected Paul Taylor and myself, I first saw him perform on October 27, 1957. The hall was Ninety-second Street’s YMHA. He was presenting the première of Epic, which, compared to today’s works of swollen minimalism, was an astronomical black hole. His costume was a nicely pressed business suit. As cleanly shaved as a young broker, he looked like an advertisement for sales at Barney’s Men’s Store. His accompaniment was the tape of a telephone operator which every ten seconds announced: “At the tone the time will be….” He remained immobile for about ten, but what seemed like twenty minutes. In about five, the auditorium was less than half-full.

Later, Louis Horst, Martha Graham’s musical adviser and an early defender of modern dance, honored the event with a famous review: four inches of blank white newsprint. My own reaction was abject enchantment; here was a “modern” dancer giving the devil his due, a miniature version of one of Diaghilev’s carefully contrived scandals. Of this Paul writes:

Martha shakes her gnarled finger and accuses me of being a “naughty boy.”

…. By assuming that dance could be anything one wanted it to be, I lost an audience, but this tells me to bear them in mind next time I try to communicate private dreams. And then there is what no amount of paid advertising could have brought—immediate notoriety. Almost everyone in the New York dance community has now heard my name. Having accomplished more than what I set out to do, I decide to get back to a more kinetic approach, and dive into new dances with a vengeance. I won’t get mad, I’ll get even.

It is not possible for one commencing at twenty-one to turn into an efficient classical ballet dancer. Most begin at eight, those starting at fourteen have a lot of catching up to do. Paul Taylor did not waste time aspiring to the academic dance; he didn’t begin until there was no doubt about what he wanted. He wasn’t going to be a painter, where he might have had luck, but his painter’s impulse was salvaged for the later distinction of sets and costumes which would dress his dances. He had disappointed his college swimming coach, and forewent Olympic trials. He possessed a fine face and figure, a happy childhood, and a sunny temperament. Importantly, he shared with intimacy the early poverty of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Of Taylor’s early efforts, he writes, Rauschenberg

is probably right when he describes my dancing as being of the don’t-bother-me-now-I’m-busy type. I’ve been too occupied with steps to pay much attention to the audience’s reactions.

It is this very attention to steps which distinguishes Taylor from other modern choreographers. He knew from the beginning that dance has to do neither with nuclear protest nor with primary promulgation of idiosyncrasy, but rather with the linkage of certain body movements, indeed steps, which are interesting to behold. He proceeded to train himself. He absorbed a broad spectrum of instruction from apostolic modernism at the Juilliard School to side glances of academic ballet as taught by Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor. More importantly, he danced with Martha Graham’s and Merce Cunningham’s companies. His appreciation of Graham is devoted, analytical, and sometimes excruciating:

After one of her classes, she takes me aside to give me a rundown on the Graham theory of movement. It sounds sort of psychological but not all that intimidating. Much more interesting to me are the actual steps. They are very rewarding to do, and I’m expecting them, in time, to fit me like a second skin. The sitting-on-the-floor steps don’t seem to fit as well—they have been designed specifically for a woman’s pelvis, namely Martha’s, and require more spread than I ever expect to have.

He worked closely with Merce Cunningham; they became and remained good friends. However, as for

the Cage mystique, already then in evidence, [it] seemed to me built along the lines of the Emperor’s New Clothes, or the pastime of standing at a busy street corner and staring straight up to see how many others will do the same. The quip credited to the composer Lou Harrison—“I would rather chance a choice than choose a chance”—seemed honorable. Still, though they were incompatible to my own ways of thinking, these methods served Merce and his audiences in a valuable way.

The iconography of modernism, formulas for collage, the shock of the sadistic flatiron, and the sacred urinal of Duchamp and Man Ray, had been defined by Cocteau as one recipe for the final Diaghilev seasons: the rehabilitation of the commonplace. No more outworn salon mythologies. Romanticism was by no means dead, but alive in jazz and industrial society. Paul Taylor’s trouvailles provided for him a program that was inversely exotic and provocative:

Everywhere the city’s inhabitants are on the move—objects just waiting to be found, make-dos of an untraditionalized piebald nation, milling and walking, sitting in vehicles or on benches, tearing off after a bus, some drunk and lying flat out. Lines of restless people at banks, theaters, and rest rooms. Wads crammed into elevators or spaced artistically on subway platforms or leaning against skyscrapers. They are standing, squatting, sitting everywhere like marvelous ants or bees, and their moves and stillnesses are ABCs that if given a proper format could define dance in a new way. All is there for the taking. There’s no need to invent exotic climes or bucolic Edens. An array of riches surrounded me daily, and its timeless beauty needed to be pointed out and shared.

Isadora Duncan, virtual grandmother of modern dance, bade her children to sway freely like the breeze on a field of flowers, invoking Great Nature against the sinister toe-shoe. Essentially, this appeal to the cosmos was her pulpit for a personal ministry. Taylor has never pretended to be an evangelist. Of all the modern dancers who followed her, Taylor was one who conceived a repertory without his own presence as capital. He danced as a fellow member of an existential chorus and assembled a vocabulary which was not an accent but a language. As for the interplay between physical movement and sonority:

I want the dance to be like two old troupers whose conversation overlaps and interrupts, like chums whose compatibility is so strong that they even have the right to ignore each other…certain unintended, emotional undercurrents have cropped up. Moving slowly to fast music (“long sighs against accelerating clickety-clacks”) sometimes seems to give the dancer a look of inner excitement, and its opposite—moving fast to slow music—perhaps gives a look of interior nonchalance.

For those unfamiliar with the niceties of dance history, a summary of difference, contrast and opposition, may dispel confusion. Classic academic ballet has three centuries of development; modern dance less than a hundred years. Ballet began in princely courts of Paris and Florence in competitive scenic spectacles with orchestral accompaniment performed by amateurs. This imposed the heroic or grandoperatic style, which it has maintained. Courtiers were replaced by professionals and ballrooms gave way to raised proscenium-framed stages of comparatively intimate court theaters. These were then replaced early in the nineteenth century by large public auditoriums managed by private entrepreneurs for subscription seasons of opera and dance. Academies, comparable to music conservatories, served subsidized troupes notably in Milan, Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen, and St. Petersburg. Star ballerinas were exploited at the expense of the male principal. Ballet, although still mandatory for opera, became its dependent. In the United States, ballet was a vulgarized, diluted, alien expression, not to be taken seriously until 1916, with the arrival of Diaghilev’s Russians-in-exile and their collaboration with progressive painters and Stravinsky and his colleagues.

Modern dance came into virtual being as the physical and moral crusade of a young and unique Californian. Isadora Duncan was as unprecedented, primitive, and powerful as her mentor Walt Whitman, and was similarly embraced by a European intellectual elite. Her symbolic embodiment of sexual freedom by discarding corset and tutu seemed a lively incarnation of the Elgin marbles—especially appealing at a time of American naval victories on two oceans and our emergence as a world power. Seriously, and almost for the first time, orchestral scores drawn from Beethoven, Chopin, and Wagner accompanied a solo dancer. The decadence of ballet until Diaghilev created a vacuum which Isadora’s aesthetic and presence single-handed seemed to fill. For twenty years, she was a rallying cry, but left neither a succession, a usable method, nor a repertory. But as mother of modern dance, she canonized herself, establishing idiosyncratic improvisation as its dominant philosophy.

California also provided the next development of American innovation. Ruth Saint-Denis and her partner Ted Shawn in Los Angeles and New York produced international seasons with their Denishawn companies in a broad repertory drawn from ethnic sources. Ancient Egypt, Greece, India, Japan, Mexico, Directoire Paris, our cowboy West, together with musical “visualizations,” served as delicious hors d’oeuvres of historic stylization. There was no contact with classic ballet. Ted Shawn was responsible for a pioneering effort toward masculine gymnastics. Denishawn left neither method nor usable repertory, but was valuable as the seedbed of a significant first generation of “modern” dancers.

Of these, the most powerful was Martha Graham, who developed her own system of body mechanics based on a somatic center. Its prime distinction from classic ballet was its insistence on earth as a base, on terrestrial gravity, while academic dance strove for precipitation into, and conquest of, the province of air. Spectacular strain, suggestions of anguish and erotic transport, were a theatrical comeon which could be perhaps equated with brilliant turns on the floor or in the air, as well as the height of jumps and the acrobatics of speed.

The language of ballet, like those of piano, violin, voice, and ice-skating, requires an early start if a professional career is proposed. Constant, driven practice, which preadolescents can support with minimal boredom, determines their later virtuosity (which has always appealed to a popular audience for its sportive proficiency). Aspirants to modern dance, on the other hand, decide their vocation rarely sooner than late adolescence. Their choice is usually more determined by intellectual idealism than by instinct. Ballet dancers rarely worry about their relation to the cosmos, since they have performed on stage since childhood and take it as their natural precinct. Their careers are often formed by where they are brought up, and where the nearest ballet company is. Modern dancers are more attracted by the fame of gurus, and they are more often formed by them.

From 1955 to 1961, Paul Taylor danced in Graham seasons, after experience with Denishawn’s principal survivors. As early as 1954 he began to compose his own dances. His particular framing was, in part, a consolidation of what he had preferred from his elders, but he added an athletic exuberance, which was emphasized by a sometimes sinister violence. While other figures dramatized themselves through provocative narcissism, he treated his own body as an experimental laboratory for the controlled impact of limbs against the floor, and against his partners. Other dancers presented themselves as triumphant victims. Taylor never took much interest in his own personality, as such. He could present himself, if not exactly as the boy next door, as a (more than) ordinary norm, a synthesis of the shrewd democratic citizen. He understood his audience as an electorate, his dancers as Whitmanian aristocrats. His subject matter was cheerful, ironic, and tragic, but without self-pity. What he knew best and most often chose was what the poet Randall Jarrell called “the dailiness of life”:

There set out, slowly, for a Different World,
At four, on winter mornings, different legs….
You can’t break eggs without
   making an omelette—
—That’s what they tell the eggs.

It was not long before Taylor established himself as the hope of a next generation of moderns. Modern dance came to present itself as an opposition, an alternative or competitor to ballet. Its leading proponents found an economic advantage in teaching in regional colleges and universities, where their instruction was certainly more fun than phys. ed. The association with important educational institutions also lent prestige to their training and the simplicity of their exercises could be absorbed easily by those for whom college athletics were familiar. The “schools,” or rather studios, maintained by leading modern dancers were essentially programs for recruitment for their individual companies, and these gained continuity and survival by dancers’ farming themselves out in interstitial weeks as “artists in residence.” This could be considered, at least for ordinary students, more as adding to their lives than as propelling them toward any professional career. In the meantime Paul Taylor stuck to his last. He was granted a bouquet of temptations, from Broadway shows to designing interludes for Aida at the Met:

Modern is what I set out to do and, come whatever, is what I’m sticking with. Don’t much care to branch out or gain a multifaceted career. The key to success is the art of saying no. No to incidental dances, no to hightech gimmicks, no to classroom situations. Best to concentrate and keep priorities straight. Career should not overshadow dancing. It’s better to be career free, be anonymous, just do the work. There’s something noble in namelessness. Artisans and real gents don’t give press conferences or sign their work.

Private Domain is the history of Taylor’s pilgrimage from doubt to a certain degree of security, from debilitating anxiety about money matters, from worry about the state of a dancing body’s ability to survive the wear and tear of travel, to a level of work which confidently promises continuity. It is written with a good deal of bread-and-butter cheeriness, happy-go-lucky fun-and-games. There is also a dark obverse, an almost Dostoevskian doubling imagery. Passages tell of that 51 percent fear of failure without which no good artist is spared for the 49 percent of his working hours.

And then, of course, there is personal life, never so apart from studio or stage as often might be wished. Taylor does not spare himself but he is without complaint, and shows real gratitude for the depth of a grim education which he has endured and passed through. He describes two episodes of physical anguish, one that took place near Liverpool, the other in a Brooklyn theater, which, for me, rank with the tension and terror of Benvenuto Cellini’s desperation in the casting of his great bronze Perseus.

William Blake had to “invent his own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Taylor is no innocent; reading, listening, looking, analyzing, choosing among hardy, not necessarily black-and-white options:

I might have developed some theories to impart had there been time. Trip and Recovery would have been a good one, or Manifest Balance. And I might have snuck in a little of Delsarte’s metaphysic Law of Consequences for good measure, but it was too emotional, even if it did have evangelistic overtones which encouraged Victorian women to throw off their corsets. I was also familiar with his Eurythmic Way of Thinking, but it seemed too mental to bring up….

The von Laban Directional Decahedron had been patiently explained to me, but not well enough—something about the dancer imagining himself within a large geometric shape; presumably, the bigger the dancer, the bigger the shape.

Then it came to pass, as it had with Denishawn and Graham, that working with Taylor would serve as a school for the next batch: Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, and Dan Wagoner. This year Taylor is presenting new work by members of his current company. He does not dissemble his natural deprivations; breakups in what, even in theater, amount to divorce are not easy for parents to take:

And so it goes. Faces come, people depart, most of them beloved but one or two only looked at, all passing through, leaving indelible footprints on each others’ pasts, and followed by others who are followed in turn—cellular generations of dancers, each of the same approximate age while together, each generation growing younger as I grow older. And they look to me for direction—want tugs from their puppeteer boss—and then snip the strings and set up their own shops, not only becoming puppeteers or parents themselves but competing with the great guy who first hired them. The nerve of it!

The Taylor technique, if it can be so termed, depends as much on the choice of the body of a recruited dancer as on the body of information about anatomy the dancer has gained since he was on Taylor’s swimming team. The spectacle of the company in theatrical combat is awesome; his simulacra of mayhem, based on his knowledge of how to hurl without being hurt, amounts almost to magic. His repertory, when borrowed by classical ballet companies, seldom represents a fulfillment of his original intention. When his Aureole (1962), which became a “signature” work, was performed by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Taylor found it “sweet, too sweet. A frivolous pastry, the Danes’ ‘Aureole’ as danish.” This precipitated an (unmailed) letter to “classic ballet”:

Keep away, keep building your creaky fairy castles, keep cloning clones and meaningless manners, hang on to your beanstalk ballerinas and their midget male shadows, run yourself out of business with your tons of froufrou and costly clattery toe shoes that ruin all chances for illusions of lightness, keep on crowding the minds of blind balletomanes who prefer dainty poses to the eloquent strength of momentum, who have forgotten or never known the meanings of gesture, who would nod their noses to barefoot embargos (“so grab me” spelt backwords). Continue to repolish your stiff technique and to ignore a public that hungers for something other than a bag of tricks and the emptyheadedness of surface patterns….

Yours truly,

A Different Leaf on Our Family Tree

At the present, journalists enjoy themselves by speculating on the awaited, promised, desired merger of ballet with modern dance. Ballet companies, in apparent desperation, enlist modern dancers, qualified or not, as guest choreographers hoping for something—nay, anything. Ostensibly, this will be a shot in the arm for repertories in desuetude, and augment the prestige of the modern language. Modern companies borrow ballet dancers, but having presented themselves in a few basic positions or on point, these dancers have no notion of the vocabulary, never having absorbed it, so the net result is “disappointing.” What could they expect? You don’t give a fine-honed instrument to the tin-eared or tone-deaf.

While the ballet public waits impatiently for the next Ivanov, Petipa, Fokine, Balanchine, they forget that one arrives every twenty-five years. Consider the number of operatic composers who have provided an extant repertory since Richard Strauss. A ragbag is not a good source for work that may last. In the meantime, what Paul Taylor may present over the next decade will be gratefully accepted for its own ordering of human bodies in motion.

In Paul Taylor’s Sixth Avenue studio hangs a needlework sampler that once said In God We Trust but now has the word “God” replaced with the word “order”:

I trust Order a lot more than I trust Him. Dance is a form of Order, a minor form and unimportant to many, but even so it’s one that should be played at reverently. And, though sacred, dance is an artifice, never natural. Ordered and mutated, yes; natural, no. Like other dance makers, I take my cues from such natural phenomena as the mechanics of water motion, moving formations of scaled, winged, and warmer creatures, the cycles of spheres, odd spectacles such as weddings, funerals, and lines of depositors at banks. Choreography is monkey see, monkey do.

  • Email
  • Print