Somewhere in a sealed box in a basement is a single copy of a thirty- or thirty-five-page typed profile I wrote around 1999 of the choreographer Paul Taylor. Based on scores of conversations and hundreds of hours of observing his rehearsals and his company's performances during the 1990s, the most important thing in it, by my lights, concerns his relationship with music. And the most important points in that section are that: 1) his mother was especially partial to strings, and many of Taylor's scores in which strings dominate are somehow connected with his feelings about her, and, 2) although he couldn't read music, he would listen to recorded works viscerally, many times, and, for music he was thinking of choreographing, he would record the intuitive way he counted the length of musical phrases—sometimes with periodic rhythm but mostly not—meticulously writing out his counts in pencil on ruled-paper notebooks. When he was in creative rehearsals, these pencil counts would be by his elbow, as close if not closer than the ash tray for his cigarettes. His counts were like an electrocardiogram of whatever recorded performance was representing a piece of music to him. The choreography would then be made according to his personal counting of heartbeats (so to speak) in phrase after phrase, rather than according to the way the composer (or an analytical musical interpreter, such as Mark Morris) would physically structure that stretch of musical time. Taylor's counting method based entirely on listening, provided, in essence, an additional ghostly line of musical experience—a counter rhythm—only it was both inaudible and visceral. When he was really cooking with the counts, and the dancers were really “on,” the experience could be mystifyingly profound, and yet, if one tried to pin down why, one came up against a version of “Aw, shucks, I just put some steps together,” a cloud of “unknowing,” which, of course, kept the sticky fingers of critics out of the real creative juices. The addition of Taylor's counting system as a silent layer to a musical composition can result in a dance as a multileveled entity, every so often an entity almost as complex as The Rite of Spring.
Taylor choreographed Stravinsky's Rite, giving the première in 1980—but in the two-piano reduction, not the more familiar orchestral version. I've often wondered whether one reason for that choice might have been because Taylor's own way of listening was so competitive with the subject of his listening that for an audience to sense the physical-auditory energy that Taylor brought to the experience required the clarifying percussive texture of two pianos rather than the comparatively exotic instrumentation of the composer's orchestration. And having two pianos playing music that is choreographed with two interlocking stories (one about a detective and one about a dance rehearsal) points up the bi-tonality that is one of Stravinsky's achievements in this music, points it up, that is, without a casual listener's being able to perform a gotcha operation on the sources of the fantastical effect in the theater. Stuart Hodes, one of Martha Graham's leading dancers and a teacher of distinction who has thought so highly of Graham's genius that he has compared her favorably to Shakespeare, has also written that, in his opinion, Taylor's version of the Rite—entitled The Rite of Spring (The Rehearsal)—is the greatest dance made in the twentieth century.
It was the second dance that Taylor made to Stravinsky's Rite, as well: The first was his “dance of Death, leavened with light touches”: the 1963 Scudorama, a beach-blanket vision of Hell, containing a long, excruciating solo created for Bettie de Jong, which was choreographed to Stravinsky's music but, owing, I believe, to problems of obtaining rights to that score, is performed to another one made to measure by Clarence Jackson. (Taylor would do this bait-and-switch procedure with some regularity. I saw him do it with a solo for Andrew Asnes that was rehearsed to a sea chantey and performed, as I remember, to Schoenberg. Among other things, such a procedure gives the dancers imaginative levels of musical possibility that keep dancing alive.)
In the event, I'd spent more than half a year researching and writing this profile, on a typewriter, at the end of which the magazine that had commissioned it told me I was mistaken: they “never” published profiles, and, furthermore, owing to a “meltdown” in the office (a trusted staffer was revealed to have made up some forty-five columns of “fact”), the kill fee I'd been promised wasn't forthcoming; nor were the wages for two subsequent columns. After months of pestering Payroll, I was finally paid, although the wear and tear of having to plead and harangue took its toll. Paul said I should just submit the profile to another periodical, but it had been written to the specs—and for the readership—of the magazine that commissioned it. I gave it up as lost, yet it was I who lost. Paul had invested a lot of time in this story and demonstrated considerable kindness to me, giving me space to write in the basement studio of his historic Vandam house; bringing me to Mattituck, the quasi-farm home where he really lived, where I met his beloved longtime companion, George Wilson (“Babe”), and where Paul himself made a delicious vichyssoise for lunch. His generosity to many artists and writers is well-documented. But so was his withdrawal when he felt he had been treated unjustly, and he never forgave me for not getting that profile published elsewhere. I had wasted his time. In one way or another, as far as he was concerned he put me in Scudorama forever. I had earned it.
But I never lost my passion for his work, never lost admiration for his company or his imagination. From the very first program of his I saw, in Oregon, in the 1970s—with the 1978 Diggity and the 1975 Esplanade—I was of his party. In the next life, where I'm going to become a dancer, I want to perform his work. I'm touched to the core bythe physicality, the transitions from air to earth, the chevron-like “birding” ensemble formations; the curvilinear beauty of shoulders and knees; the variations on Renaissance contrapposto, which implicate the spine, the crossbar of the shoulders, the abdomen, and the pelvis in feats of internal balance and muscular fluency; theeloquent vocabulary of gestures and poses familiar from everyday action, the many themes and variations on the image of cradling in the lap or the hand: these constitute “home” to my sense of the world in dance terms. It was a tremendous privilege to know this artist at all, not to speak of living in the right era to follow along in the audience as his choreographic career unscrolled. And he has devoted chroniclers busily at work even as I write this: the scholar Angela Kane and his much-trusted biographer Suzanne Carbonneau, both writing books about him and his dances. Another chronicler, if of a different kind, is the appointed successor to run the company, Michael Novak, a Paul Taylor dancer in his dreams way before he auditioned for the company, a detail I happen to know because he was one of my students when he was an undergraduate. All his teachers knew that it was only a matter of time before Michael would be performing in Esplanade.But Taylor knew more than we did.
Paul thought as a trained painter, considering proportions, foreground and background, flatness and depth, and, with tremendous sensitivity, color and tonality. And he dramatized movement as a practiced writer, frequently advancing his choreographic line in the direction of a story, with a beginning, middle, and end that can be summarized.
He was a dog person.
He had no love lost for organized religion. He once told me that all the ills of history could be traced back to religious wars and religions' misapprehensions of the world. Nature—unsentimentally considered—was the worthwhile repository for the spiritual impulse: the Nature of magnificent butterflies and other insects that are caught and pinned for study; the Nature of scudding clouds and the physics that put men on the moon; Nature red in tooth and claw or in the lapis lazuli of the poets, Wallace Stevens or Whitman or Shakespeare or Dante or Neruda.
And he loved the historic animations of Walt Disney, from the time he first enjoyed them as a preadolescent. It's in his dances: Snow White, The Sorcerer's Sofa, most impressively in the cold patterns of the post-9/11 Promethean Fire, whose Bach score, arranged by Leopold Stokowski, Paul first heard, he told me, in the 1940 Fantasia, where it is associated with a kind of celestial awe. Affection for the output of historic Disney—who, during the 1930s, was considered by some critics to be not only America's most popular artist but also its most avant-garde, an achievement indeed.
Mindy Aloff, is the Dance Editor of The University Press of Florida and the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation and a collection of poetry, Night Lights. She is also the editor of Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World by Agnes de Mille and of The Unpicturelikeness of Pollock, Soutine and Others by Louis Finkelstein and is the author-editor of Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom and Modern Dance. Her essays, features, reviews, and interviews on dance, literature, film, and other cultural subjects have appeared widely in U.S. and European periodicals, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dancing Times, The Threepenny Review, The New Yorker, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Find more about Mindy Aloff here.