Some tributes to Paul Taylor on his 80th Birthday — July 29, 2010.
Former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer and founder, National Dance Institute
Some artists are of such stature that it is said of them… “After 6 days, he rested, looked at his creations and felt… GOOD!”
Director, Dance Program, New York State Council on the Arts
Having had the privilege to be in attendance at virtually all of the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s New York City Center seasons for many, many years, I constantly marvel at the depth and breadth of Mr. Taylor’s awe-inspiring talent. He is indisputably one of the major figures of 20th century modern dance – and continues on into the 21st century, as an artist who consistently exhibits an amazingly inventive and sophisticated imagination and an uncanny insight into the human condition. Mr. Taylor’s work runs the gamut from the angelic to the macabre. That he is a genius, with his inner demons and outward “aw shucks” demeanor, is part and parcel of his charm and his persona. Often, I have been at one of the intimate and revelatory studio showings, and at the dinner party afterward, seated at Mr. Taylor’s table, I think “How lucky I am to be in this place at this time – in the presence of an individual of such towering capabilities.”
The quality of the Taylor dancers, over the years, is also to be admired – matching the radiance, energy, wit and profundity of the choreography. Some of the works that stand out in one’s memory are the magisterial Promethean Fire; the dazzling, erotically-charged Piazzolla Caldera; the poignant, hauntingly evocative Sunset; the heartbreakingly beautiful Aureole; the wonderfully multi-layered Company B; the classic, always-fresh Airs and Arden Court; and of course, Esplanade, a masterpiece that never fails to thrill – but even in this overtly exuberant dance there is the hint of a darker side, which reveals itself on repeated viewings, only adding luster to the already illustrious. I could go on and on, as I reminisce about the myriad Taylor works that have given me infinite pleasurable and provocative evenings in the theatre.
Happy Birthday, Paul, may there be 80 more!
Former PTDC Production Stage Manager, Executive Director and Trustee
Working with Paul for many years taught me something I had NOT learned from my earlier arts-related jobs… that the role of the support team for an artist is to help make that art HAPPEN… To find a way to assure that the concept of the work – what the artist has in their head – actually ends up on stage – NOT to stand in the way of that goal! Not to say the word ‘no’ until every option has been exhausted. That lesson carried me through the balance of my career in the arts and, I hope, helped to make me the very best arts manager I could be relative to helping artists realize the creation of their art. Paul didn’t preach this lesson – it was just perfectly clear to me as our relationship grew and prospered. It was a LIFE LESSON for me.
The stories one could tell about touring with the Taylor Company could fill several books… Just one that I always remember: Paul and I had to fly together from somewhere in Europe to London, in advance of the rest of the company. I was Production Stage Manager at that point, and had to do the load-in and set-up at our London venue and he had press to do. So on the plane we were chatting about one thing and another, and Paul said he thought he ought to work on being MORE difficult and unpredictable in his dealings with the company… Incredulously, I asked why. He said Martha Graham always got the best work out of her dancers when she was the MOST impossible! I assured him that he was impossible enough already…
Paul’s work has always dealt with his observations on the human condition – relationships, the absurdity of our daily lives, and how we feel about things – translated through physical movement: sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, just like life! I think audiences relate to this work because they see themselves reflected therein – for good or bad. Paul Taylor is surely among a very short list of choreographers through the history of this country to achieve this ‘stage-to-audience’ symmetry – moving and affecting the viewer in such a connected way. For ME, his is the greatest dance work I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to enjoy and appreciate.
He is a genius. His brain is always several miles ahead of mine, no matter how hard I concentrate on following his train of thought. His unique and original technique/style of choreography is accessible, human, natural, and astounding. Those of us, dancers and staff, who had the privilege of working with him, are the luckiest. Those audiences who have attended his performances are too. He is simply the best.
It has been extraordinary to be entrusted to translate Paul Taylor’s incredible work to the screen. That trust has changed my approach to my own work, making me, at the same time, both bolder and more caring. Moreover, his example of embracing the dark and light sides of his work and personality has encouraged me to accept and nurture the complexity of my own inner life and that of the people who are near to me.
former Executive Director, Brooklyn Academy of Music
To have seen Paul Taylor dance in his prime was really a pleasure. I remember him in Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra and in his own early works. The memory of Paul that I remember almost as if it were a week ago was when he danced at BAM and, as he described it so brilliantly in his autobiography, Private Domain, he called it dying in Brooklyn, when he collapsed on the BAM stage during a Company performance. He was taken to Brooklyn Hospital, a few blocks from BAM. I and several others went there as well. I remember Paul coming to us in the waiting room, saying that he didn’t want to stay in the hospital but wanted to go home. We were told that his blood pressure was high, and he said that he could fix that, and indeed he did. His blood pressure having dome down, the hospital agreed to release him. And so we all piled into my car, and we drove him home. While this ended his dancing career, we can be grateful that he carried on to choreograph many new wonderful works for his Company. A particular favorite of mine is Sunset. All my love and very best wishes on your 80th!
Artistic Director, American Ballet Theatre
Paul has given us a gift through his work that steeps us in classical art, lifts our spirits with exuberance, rubs our faces in veniality, and shows us ourselves walking that fine line between reverence and rebellion.
Director, American Dance Festival and Paul Taylor’s first Manager
One day in 1962, Paul walked into Isadora Bennet’s office (he knew her from his Graham days) to ask if she knew of someone who might be his manager. Isadora (Issie) had a protégé: me. She had offered me free of charge, the tiny office on the airshaft. Issie said to Paul, “Check out the kid in the closet.” Paul came in, I quickly emptied the one chair from its two feet of papers and asked him to please sit. Not one for small talk, he asked me if I would come to his studio next Thursday and see his dancers. I said, “Sure.” He said “Goodbye”.
All I knew regarding Paul was his 1957 concert at the 92nd Street Y, where he had reduced dance to stillness. I climbed up the five flights of stairs expecting to see stillness. In the studio were the wonderful, cheerful dancers and a low bench (like for kindergarten kids) and I sat down. What they did next was perform Aureole.
All I can say is that by the end of the dance, my mouth was wide open, eyes in disbelief, hair risen on the back of my neck, and I had unknowingly slipped off the bench. The dancers looked at me and chuckled at the sight. An epiphany? At least. And so it began.
ROBERT A. SCOTT
President, Adelphi University
When we awarded Paul Taylor an Honorary Doctor of Arts Degree in May 2008, we were happy to salute him for many reasons. We know him as an astute observer of people and their gestures, always reflecting the “beauty and pathos of society,” selecting artists and creating dances that with a few moves show the body conveying a mood, a personality, a paradox, a story. With Paul, dance can express the human spirit in fear and in hope, without words, even in advance of the music, as if directing the sound from the flow of the form.
Paul has been called the ‘American Choreographer’ because of his distinctive style that “celebrates vigor, athleticism and strength” whether the torso is standing or striding. Throughout his work, Paul has evoked simple images imprinted in childhood which opened his heart and led to visions of kings and queens, paupers and prisoners, joy and sorrow. In our estimation, he is a dancer for dancers, the master of masters.
PTDC lighting designer 1964-present
Paul Taylor is the person who gave me my life’s work. In 1963(?) I was his stage manager when we did a ‘Broadway season’ – that’s what we called four nights of performance in a Broadway house in those days – and Paul’s usual lighting designer, Tom Skelton, my mentor, was not asked to do the lighting. When the season finished I told Paul that I would be happy to do the lighting done by the new designer for the season but that I would really love to do my own. I never would have asked if it had been Tom’s lighting. Happily, Paul told me that I should do my own! I then proceeded to tour with the Company, lighting the new pieces and refining my own aesthetic and sensibilities about design. After seven years I stopped touring with the Company as stage manager but remained the lighting designer for almost all of the new pieces since that time. AND proceeded to enjoy a rich and challenging design life lighting in theater, opera and dance. Dear Paul, it would not have happened if it hadn’t been for you.
Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer, San Francisco Ballet
Paul Taylor’s impact on the world, especially on the dance world, cannot be overstated. For me, he is one of the most inventive and interesting choreographers of this century and I feel that he has revolutionized dance as an art form through his choreography.
Artistic Director, The Joffrey Ballet
It is without question that Paul Taylor is one of America’s greatest contributors to dance. He has enriched millions of people’s lives with his broad reach of artistic excellence, not only across America, but across the globe. He is truly an American icon.
The following tributes come from former members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company; their years in the Company are indicated in parentheses.
Paul and I grew up with nothing in common. I grew up on New York City streets and Paul was a country boy. We first became friends when he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company about a year after I did. He was the partner I trusted the most. The one who danced with me, not just beside me, and the one who could save me in any lift thrown our way.
On our first Asian tour I discovered Paul’s great affinity for, and knowledge of, nature. Real nature, not Central Park nature. Trees, rain, beetles, butterflies, bats and monkeys. He was interested in and respectful of anything that grew, crawled, crept, flew, or hung upside down from a tree limb. I was a city kid. I had an ‘ugh’ aversion to roaches, flies, mosquitoes and mice, which in Paul’s world were multi-layered, magnificently complicated, and highly socialized societies. It was a new world and when I got my feet wet, I went through India, Indonesia and Pakistan with a new set of eyes.
A few years later Paul asked me to be in a new dance he was creating for his small company of 6 dancers. ‘Want to be in my dance Lindy-loo?’ Martha was on a layoff, so I gladly slipped down his rabbit hole, and there I was in TaylorLand. We both had several years of Graham under our belts. In fact we were still active members of her company. Early American and Greek Drama, conflicts of the heart, and orgies of hate and revenge were familiar territory. We knew the end before we got there. TaylorLand was unexplored tundra. At times wild and somewhat wooly, but with a great sense of design and spatial roadmaps that led to something as yet unknown. There was meaning, but I had to look for it. Much like looking at the carefully designed, layered society of an anthill or a beehive.
Paul is relentless in his search for new movement, new ideas, new everything. We have been friends, and sometimes colleagues, for well over 50 years. We have a long history of shared memories, in both the real world and in our dance lives. We enjoy each others’ company and we make each other laugh. I have a deep and abiding respect for Paul, for his work, and for his friendship. I hope we last forever. Has he ‘changed’ my life? Perhaps – perhaps not – but he sure as hell has enriched it by millions, and I can’t imagine it any other way.
Since the age of 13 I had proclaimed that I was going to become a doctor who searched for a cure to cancer. I finished college with a degree in science and prepared to select a medical school. However, I first took a job at a cancer research hospital to determine whether indeed I wanted to pursue this specialty. The Boston hospital that hired me was the premier hospital for treating children’s cancers, leukemia in particular. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was about to make a huge mistake. Seeing the sick children everyday was utterly depressing. The work I was hired to do was boring, and was not about to solve the cancer problem anytime soon.
To take my mind off my job, and try to determine a plan B, I enrolled in a modern dance class taught by Robert Cohan, of the Martha Graham Company. Two other students in that class were about to move to New York for further dance study and they invited me to come with them to share an apartment. They felt I could be successful as a dancer. I asked Bob whether he thought I might be. His answer was, “I don’t know honey, but if you’re going, you’d better hurry up.” I knew my mother would be disappointed with this plan. My father, however, was a musician, so I decided to audition at Juilliard to see whether I could get in. I thought this might impress him. I was accepted at Juilliard and after their initial shock, at so great a deviation from their expectations, they said they would support me for one year to see whether anything actually would come of this.
On the Columbus Day holiday, I went with my roommates to take class at the Graham studio. Who should come into the class and give me his phone number, but Paul. He needed a dancer to do 3 Epitaphs, so that Pina Bausch would have time to change her costume for Tablet. I was hired for the job. The following summer, when Pina was sick and another of Paul’s dancers had returned to Japan, I was available to learn Insects and Heroes, as a company member. I just made it under the wire, before my parents’ deadline. I have never looked back.
In addition to the obvious fact of seeing the world when the Company toured, and the lifelong friendships that I developed with Paul and other Company members, I enjoyed some of the most indescribably euphoric moments on stage as I performed Paul’s choreography. The opportunity to be part of the creative process while he constructed Aureole, Duet, Junction, Insects and Heroes and Scudorama was truly a privilege. I had the added joy of dancing with Paul. I’m only sorry that today’s Company members never have that experience. He was a remarkable dancer and an excellent partner. Working with him prepared me for my lifetime career of teaching dance and teaching his works in particular. He discovered me at a time when I was considering another career; I should say that he saved me from it. On the occasion of the Company’s 50th Anniversary, I looked around at all the dancers and said to him, “These dancers owe their careers to you.” “No,” he answered, “I owe my career to them.”
I was a scholarship student at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut, when my Graham teacher, David Wood, said, “Paul Taylor and his Company are coming next week and Paul would like three extra dancers to perform in one of his pieces… Would you like to do that?” I was floored and thrilled at the same time. I only knew of him through the Graham Company and had never seen his work but I didn’t hesitate to say yes. We met at his rehearsal and Paul told us what he wanted us to do. The piece was Insects and Heroes and essentially we were to stand still throughout the piece, and only open or close doors of the set when we got either a sound or light cue. Easy… except that the piece was 50 minutes long! It was such an honor and fun to be onstage with Linda Hodes, Dan Wagoner, Maggie Newman, Elizabeth Keen, Liz Walton and of course Paul Taylor. I would have stood for 3 hours if he’d wanted me to.
A year later Renee Kimball Wadleigh and I were asked to come back to audition. We danced to some music by Handel, and Paul asked if we would like to join them in the making of a new dance and perform it in New London. The dance was Aureole – and the decision changed my life. I’ll never forget dancing Aureole at ADF. It has stayed with me throughout my life… performing it, teaching it, coaching it and loving it! When Paul was choreographing it, I worried about not dancing it well and Dan Wagoner said, “Don’t worry, Paul will never let you go onstage not looking your absolute best!” I think that’s how he feels about all his dancers.
On the train ride home from New London, Paul asked me to become a member of his Company. Without hesitation I said yes! For the next four years I danced some of the most beautiful, funny and exciting dances of my life. And ever since, I’ve had a relationship with Paul, the dancers and the Company – and with the dances, which have enriched, encouraged and challenged us all; made us laugh, cry, wonder, and question. But that’s the world of Paul Taylor.
Meeting Paul was like meeting a friend – he was so down to earth and easy to be with. Being inside his choreographic process was as inspiring and rewarding as performing the work. He taught me so much about performing, teaching, and choreographing – and dancing with him was unforgettable. Watching his solo in Aureole from the wings or leaping across the stage in the finale was like watching an eagle fly, with such grace and strength.
I made my Company debut dancing a duet with Paul in Junction, and I was petrified! While we were in the wings I told him how nervous I was; he said, “Don’t be… just look into my eyes, dance with me and you’ll be fine!” I did, and I was!
Happy birthday, Paul. Thank you for Aureole, for making me a part of your family and for everything you’ve done for me. Love, “Tweety.”
Paul changed my life by being Paul. A Mr. Bunyan with a grin, who impossibly clears a rocky beach of stones, who builds an equally impossible tall and sturdy fence by tossing fallen branches just so, and who collects butterflies for, and draws portraits of, his dancers. Paul, who writes you a letter at 3:30 in the morning. Paul, who keeps track of just how many rehearsal hours it takes to make this dance or that. Paul, who told me he hoped I would make better dances than he did when I left his Company, and who made sure I would get a good start by working with Taylor dancer Karla Wolfangle and me on our first duet. Paul, whose dances bring memory, tears, chills, laughter, terror, and hope to audiences everywhere. Paul, who coached me in Aureole in 1968 when he got hurt. (Charles Reinhart told me at a company party after a recent City Center run that I was the first person ever to do one of Paul’s roles – basically a necessity, as we were on tour in Europe, and Paul’s good standing foot was in a cast.) Mr. Taylor, who, a million years later when he had to replace a dancer, did so by asking my son Nathaniel to join his Company. Nathaniel became the first and only second generation Taylor dancer. Paul, who told me the funniest joke I ever heard, which I’ve never heard again. Paul, a kind of on-going revelation and dream frequenter, who for years drove an older car than me, and who wore out any number of chain saws, and who caused multitudes of flowers to bloom and an even greater multitude of dancers to flourish.
I named the first group dance I made for my fledgling company, which Mr. Taylor came to see at Riverside Church, Letter to Paul. This letter, celebrating Paul’s 80th birthday, is one of a hundred since then, with hopes of a hundred more!
I’m always moved by Paul’s vision for what is beautiful and valuable in this world. His work penetrates the atmosphere like moonlight and frames the ordinary with mystery. That off-center quality runs through him as well, and gives encouragement to everyone he touches to reach into their own place of distinction. By his example, I learned to trust my imagination and to work as honestly and meaningfully as I can. It’s been life affirming to dance and to share his soulful work with countless dancers all over the world.
Paul gave me a place to deepen my artistry. When I came in he wanted people who hadn’t been with other companies, and I had been with Ailey – a repertory company – and wondered how it would be to do just one person’s work. Paul took a chance, and realized he could trust me, that I had good things to bring and wanted to serve his vision, and I feel he respected me as a collaborator. And I never felt cheated, because we explored his various sides and layers, which were vast. We’d joke that with some choreographers, you did the same piece but changed costumes three times and the lighting got darker. But Paul would explore abstract dance, story ballets, comedy, he’d be inspired by the insect world, so there was always the newness of it. One of my favorite years was 1985, when he did Roses and Last Look. Oh my gosh, he’s answering all my prayers: a lyrical gymnast and someone fighting to get into this motley group of civilization. It was very satisfying to partake in his creations, because he looks for people to inspire him – he doesn’t just want clay, he wants sentient clay – and we thrived on that. I don’t know when it became passé to have a beginning, middle and end in a dance, but Paul knows how to take you places. I love that man, crazy as he is.
As an artist, Paul is the real thing. He showed me that you can fashion your own world out of thin air. I learned from him that a simple existence can bring you great wealth intellectually and spiritually. And I will never forgive Paul for bringing me into the nonprofit world!
When I joined PTDC in 1982 I had been living in New York City for 11 years, working with choreographers who were mostly my contemporaries and exploring with them the modern dance scene of the ‘70s. There was just enough funding to keep these small companies from starving but not enough to thrive. I was feeling invisible in a culture that looked on dancers and other artists as people pursuing indulgent hobbies who did not deserve serious compensation or esteem. I was on the verge of quitting in frustration when I went to Paul’s audition for a new dancer. During the audition the feeling of invisibility began to disappear and I began to feel completely present and valued for the commitment and choice I had made to be a dancer. The years I danced for Paul, interpreting his new and old work, were the most valuable of my time as a dancer. I always felt a potential in the work to experience truthfulness. To transcend into that truth was rare but Paul provided a place to continue the exploration of what being a dancer is. I felt seen by Paul, and trusted to express his search as an artist. This most certainly changed my life.
The first time I was exposed to Paul’s work was my first day at the Joffrey Ballet in 1985. I was a very angry young man, partly because I never felt as if I belonged anywhere. Linda Kent was auditioning us for Arden Court and the first thing we did was a variation on the “sandwich jump”. You brush one leg out sideways and as you’re traveling sideways through the air you lean sideways toward your leading leg. People were having trouble with it but when my turn came everything fell into place and I found it not only felt natural but it gave me a satisfaction that I had never had. Although the Taylor rep became my solace at the Joffrey, I still felt like an outcast.
When I went to audition for Paul I had no expectations of actually getting into the Company. I thought maybe he could give me some advice on what do next since I was so unhappy at the Joffrey. The day was magic for me. The moment I walked into the studio to warm up I felt this strange calmness. It felt like home. As the day progressed into the next “call back” day I felt as though maybe I did have a chance. Several of us were hired at that audition: David Grenke, Tom Patrick, Andrew Asnes, Rachel Berman, Caryn Heilman and I.
My years with the Company were beyond what I could have ever imagined. Getting to know and love Paul helped my anger drip away and I became a much better person. He gave me a home and became the one person I could count on with whom I could be totally myself and not be judged. He has seen me through the most difficult times in my life and supported me completely. He has given me the gifts of his knowledge not only as a dancer but as a person. He is simply the most influential person in my life. I will always be indebted to him, for you see he didn’t just change my life, he gave me life. I belong.
Because of Paul I learned to see beauty in the minutiae of a world that is dancing all around us. That the smallest gesture speaks volumes. I learned that a moment of the most breathtaking beauty can be created out of nothing and then fade into memory. That “beauty” can alternately be transcendently divine or astonishingly depraved. Dancing for Paul took me to places I never thought I would be, both physically and spiritually. He allowed me to find my identity within the privilege of interpreting his vision. He gave me a family for life. I am forever grateful and proud to say I AM a Taylor dancer. When I am 80, I hope that friends will toast me and remember that once I danced the masterworks of this great man.