The Monstrous Itch

Private Domain

by Paul Taylor
Knopf, 371 pp., $22.95
Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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