Remembering Paul Taylor, a "naughty boy" of dance

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It's funny that, despite his deserved status as one of the most respected and influential figures in modern dance, a choreographer who created many lyrical, formal works, Paul Taylor was also known for the ways in which he occasionally thumbed his nose wickedly at the genre. This great dancemaker — who turned 88 in July and died on Wednesday — once notoriously earned a blank space instead of a review in a newspaper column: A silent `tsk tsk' in response to his 1957 "Seven New Dances," a work that included a section in which two figures just looked at each other for several minutes, neither moving nor dancing.

(It didn't displease him that his senior colleague Martha Graham —another master of modern dance in whose company Taylor performed earlier in his career — once called him a "naughty boy.")

Yet Taylor had a last laugh vis-a-vis his mischievousness: His 1975 "Esplanade," composed entirely of "pedestrian" movements — there's no formal dance vocabulary, only variations on themes of walking, skipping, running, and sliding — was an instant sensation. It's considered to be one of modern dance's greatest masterworks. Though it sounds like a paradox, a truism in concert dance is that walking is the hardest thing to do (with running and standing close seconds). To look natural yet convey a heightened sense: a dancer walking like a person — it's not as easy as it sounds. And yet in "Esplanade," and in so many of his works, Taylor got his dancers to walk (and run and stand) with such humanness, and such joy, that one often feels swept right up into the dance.

His playfully anarchic streak aside, the bulk of Taylor's oeuvre —he created an astonishing 147 works — was firmly rooted in technical dance vocabulary. Indeed, a quick glance at something in the vein of the balletic, austere "Aureole" from 1962 may lead the uninitiated to think that the Taylor troupe is a ballet company.

The steps may be "generically" recognizable, but the ways in which they are arranged, and the ways in which they are performed by Taylor's dancers are highly specific. You know when you are seeing a Taylor work, as you know when you are seeing one by Graham. Taylor's "style" was certainly a composite of the movement designs of his own mentors and peers in the modern dance world, as well as a healthy dose of ballet steps and positions — but filtered through his distinct lens.

Elevation and earthiness co-exist organically in Taylor's dancers' bodies. A high, usually formal carriage of the torso rises out of a weighted pelvis; the often barefooted dancers are comfortable creatures of the ground, sinking into it with smooth pli s or electrified by it in taut lunges, or embraced by it as they dive and roll onto it. In contrast to this grounding is the quick surprise of the frequent bounding; Taylor's choreography bristles with cavorting leaps and jumps, and his dancers pop into them as if wired with springs.

Emotionally, Taylor's works are frequently sunny but perhaps just as often clouded by darkness, whether it tugs coyly at the edges of his jitterbug-filled 1991 "Company B" or elusively hovers in his elegiac 2008 "Beloved Renegade." Then there was his unabashed goofiness: recent samples of this silliness include the 2011 dancers-as-sex-starved-insects romp "Gossamer Gallants" and the 2016 "Dilly Dilly."

With this array of moods, it's easy to say something banal like "there's something for everyone!" but this undercuts what was finally Taylor's chameleon-like nature, satisfyingly impossible to pin down. Of course not all of his works were brilliant — who ever batted 1,000? — but I want to celebrate the man in this short space, and his many home runs, and the fact that he was still at the top of his game in his ninth decade. Indeed, "Concertiana," the last dance he made (which local audiences saw at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center when the Taylor company performed there in July) was one of his pure "just dance" dances, and it was sublime. He made it earlier this year. (This year.)

Because Taylor, coincidentally like many other dance legends, lived a fairly long life, his passing isn't exactly a surprise, but like those other losses, the moment does feel like a sucker punch. Though his company will go on — in May Taylor named Michael Novak as his successor — it's the end of an era. Graham, Alvin Ailey, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon — to name some of the biggest trailblazers of modern dance — have left us, one by one, just as their 20th-century ballet peers such as George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, and Antony Tudor did. There is of course the next wave that came after these icons (and we hope that they'll be with us for a long while) as well as many promising younger choreographers; but we have our contemporaneous blinders on and cannot know whether which of them, if any, will eventually stand as tall as the Taylors of our time, the riders atop those early, invigorating, shocking, dazzling waves.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com.




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