'Fresh Air' Remembers Choreographer Paul Taylor

Aug 31, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 1:19 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Choreographer Paul Taylor, a singularly talented dancer who brought to life dances by some of the world's most renowned choreographers before establishing his own dance troupe, died Wednesday. He was 88 years old. As a young dancer in his 20s, Paul Taylor created roles for such master choreographers as Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and Martha Graham. He then started his own dance company, whose subsequently famous members included Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean and Dan Wagoner.

Taylor's style emerged from a period of radical experimentalism in the 1950s. And his company established itself as one of the world's best and most acclaimed dance troupes. But Paul Taylor had no early training in dance. He studied art in college while on a swimming scholarship. Terry Gross spoke with Paul Taylor in 1987 when he had just published his memoir titled "Private Dancer." She asked him what it was like to begin dancing at age 22.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAUL TAYLOR: I do think that there's something to be said for starting late. A lot of people do, more than you'd expect, perhaps.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: I think probably more men than women too.

TAYLOR: That's right. Yeah. I think you're - you've developed as a person a little more. You know, a lot of ballet children are sent very, very early. And they go through their childhood and their teens and even, you know, into adulthood in a kind of hot house. And they don't have the kind of perspective view that a person who's been out of that has. And I think this affects the dancing. I think everything we are is seen on stage.

GROSS: You danced with Martha Graham for several years, and I think she was a mentor to you as well as the head of the company. What were some of the things you felt that you learned from her?

TAYLOR: I think the main thing I learned from Martha was a very deep respect for the art of dance. We were - all of us that worked for her and have worked for her and will work for her, even now - I think are given this kind of brainwashing, I suppose (laughter). And it's a very good kind of brainwashing, and we're made aware of the importance that dance can be and a dancer and an almost religious attitude towards dancing.

GROSS: One of your first dances got you a lot of attention back in 1957 - was a series of postures that you did to basically the telephone time check. And a lot of people walked out on the performance. One review was a blank column in response to your minimalist dance...

TAYLOR: No, not a column - just a couple of inches. It wasn't even (laughter) very long.

GROSS: Oh (laughter). What were your intentions with that dance?

TAYLOR: Well, I thought I'd really discovered something wonderful that I would like to point out, and that is that just ordinary posture, which is connected with gesture, can be very beautiful to look at. And I learned a lot from doing this concert. It was a whole evening of dances, a suite. And I went into it very seriously.

But of course, what I hadn't realized was that - how the audience might take it because we did a lot of holding still as a part of it, and it was not exactly athletic. And so at the time when this was done, the audience - the modern dance audience, concert audience was not at all used to this (laughter) sort of thing and, as you say, very quickly left. Most of the audience got up and left within ten minutes after the curtain (laughter) raised.

GROSS: So you feel that, since then, your dances have been more accessible to audiences?

TAYLOR: Yes. At least, I've made an effort to make them more understandable, not that they're all completely (laughter) understandable. I think of dance like poetry. I mean, there has to be a kind of little air left somewhere for the reader or the watcher to bring what - their own experience to.

GROSS: Let me quote something that you say in your autobiography. You write a letter to someone giving them career advice. You write, both a dancer's stage minutes and his career days are numbered, and dancers have to accept this chilling fact. Sadly, just as their talent and experience begin to mature, their technique and their poor temporal bodies have already slid over the hump. Did you think about those things when you were still dancing? Did you feel like you were cherishing your moment?

TAYLOR: Yes. I felt it was a race against the clock. I was always aware of that, especially starting late as I did.

GROSS: You had broken an ankle, and then another ankle started splintering. And in - I think it was your last performance on stage, you ended up performing in a pool of blood from your shattered ankle.

TAYLOR: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: Do you feel like you needed for that to happen in order to stop dancing?

TAYLOR: Yes. I would have gone on if I hadn't - if my body hadn't revolted (laughter). And the - if I'd been in better mental and physical health, I certainly could have gone on. But after I'd stopped awhile and took the time that I needed to recuperate, the urge to dance was no longer there. And I somehow had sensed in that time that I could go on working and perhaps producing better dances by not dancing myself, by simply choreographing. So that's what I did.

GROSS: What are - are there certain movements that the female body can do and the male body can't, or vice versa, that you keep in mind when you're choreographing?

TAYLOR: I don't know if - I wouldn't know about individual movements, but there are very definite differences in - oh - stamina sometimes and pain. I think women can stand pain a lot better than men. Men are sometimes more energetic in their dancing, but they can't sustain it for as long as a woman can. Women seem to go on and on and endure throughout (laughter) all evening.

There's structural differences. Women are usually a lot more stretched in pelvic area than men are, that men are tighter. The men can usually jump higher. There are - you know, there are loads of differences. But as far as executing, you know, particular steps other than leaps that I just mentioned, I think they can both - they're pretty equal.

GROSS: The head of a company is almost like a parental figure and a spiritual adviser to the dancers. And you wrote that, in your early years, you confessed your confusion to Martha Graham about your sexual preference. And you asked her for advice. And I wonder if you encourage dancers to ask you about things as personal as that.

TAYLOR: No. No, I don't. And I don't ask personal questions about their lives. If they come, of course, and I can - I'm glad to listen. But they - their personal lives, the dancers in my company, they keep pretty separate from their stage work. And we're together so much of the time, and they're together so much on the road, that to come home and have a personal life at all is - you know, is nice for them, those that have it.

GROSS: Some dancers now who have top companies are alumni of your group. And I'm thinking of Twyla Tharp, Dan Wagoner. Do you ever feel competitive with (laughter) them, you know, that your children are now competing with you?

TAYLOR: (Laughter) Yes, I did. I resented that I'd invested in these dancers, had brought them along, had trained them to a style, had, you know, done the best I could by them. And they'd up and start their own companies, get bookings and be, in a sense, competitive. But that's the way it works. I don't begrudge that (laughter) now. And it's fine. I'm quite proud when someone makes a go of it after dancing with me.

BIANCULLI: Paul Taylor speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The renowned and influential choreographer died Wednesday at age 88. Monday on FRESH AIR, we conclude our series of Emmy nominees with Issa Rae, who's been nominated for her starring role in her HBO series "Insecure," Peter Morgan, creator and writer of the historical drama series "The Crown," nominated for 13 Emmys, and with Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," nominated for two Emmys. Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. We'll close with music by Aretha Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY MATTY'S")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Every day, I'm making my way to Matty's in the morning. Every day, I'm making my way to Matty's in the morning. Matty's is kind of lowdown, and I hear there's going to be a showdown in Matty's this morning. What's happening, Mella? I wonder, are you on your way to Matty's this morning? I'm going to be all up in there. There's going to be a group of people from everywhere in Matty's this morning. So go on and do your do, try to hurry up and get through and meet me at Matty's this morning, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.