Paul Taylor and Commissions

More than 75 modern and ballet companies around the globe have danced Paul Taylor’s choreography. However, there are only three very special Taylor pieces which have actually been premiered by other companies before being danced by Taylor’s own troupe. Two of these, Company B and Black Tuesday, will be seen during the company’s British tour this spring.


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Photo: Paul Palmaro

Black Tuesday was originally commissioned from American Ballet Theatre in 2001 where it was scheduled to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center as a part of a ‘Modern Masters’ programme which also featured a ballet by Twyla Tharp, who made her professional debut as a dancer with Taylor back in 1963, and Mark Morris’s Gong, which was subsequently added to the Royal Ballet’s repertory this past autumn.

Taylor’s approach to Black Tuesday followed the formula he came up with when he had created Company B for Houston Ballet in 1991. (It is a strategy which Merce Cunningham has also utilised when creating new dances for other companies such as Rambert.) The choreography is originally fashioned on Taylor’s own dancers working in his own studio. It is only when the piece has been completed that it is then passed on to the commissioning ballet company. The responsibility of staging Black Tuesday for the dancers from ABT was given to Susan McGuire, a former member of his company and now the head of the Taylor School. Since 1993 she has also been in charge of the young rep company known as Taylor 2. Composed of six dancers, Taylor 2 tours his works to venues too small to accommodate the main company of 16 dancers.

‘Paul is very, very aware of the implied pitfalls of these commissions,’ says McGuire. ‘He recognises the differences in training, in styles, and he knows from the outset that the piece is obviously going to look different on a ballet company. But, that’s okay with him.

‘He’s said to me that he wasn’t thinking about the fact that these are ballet dancers who are going to be doing this. But I would imagine in the back of his mind he is thinking that they are certainly not going to be able to throw themselves around the way his own dancers do.’

This explains why all three of these commissioned dances are in Taylor’s lively, up-beat mode, rather than from the strenuous and often downright quirky style he invents in works such as The Word.

McGuire is the one who does the casting. ‘It’s a huge responsibility,’ she says, ‘but clearly, at both American Ballet Theatre and in Houston they want me to come in and see their dancers with a fresh eye. In the end, I may surprise people with some of the dancers I choose, some of those I bump up from the corps de ballet, but they are pleased with that. Fortunately, there has never been any feeling of  “Oh, no, that dancer shouldn’t be doing this solo because they are not at that level yet within our own company.” And it’s great to find how gung ho the dancers can be.

‘The ABT dancers were wonderful to work with. I think, right away, they felt this was going to be something different and fun. They were completely open and went right for it. They ate it up, and had such a good time, it was amazing. Black Tuesday was one of the best times I’ve ever had doing a reconstruction, and heaven knows I’ve done more than my fair share of Taylor reconstructions.’

'There are infinite possibilities in dance and most of them have yet to be tried. The surface has just been scratched. I wish I could come back in a hundred years to see what’s happened.’

This same process is being used again to produce a new work for Houston Ballet. The world premiere of In the Beginning , a frothy gloss of Adam, Eve and events in Eden, will be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., April 9-13. This programme will be shared with the Taylor company. Houston will also revive Company B and the Taylor dancers will perform two of the works heading for England, the delightful Offenbach Overtures and his monumental Promethean Fire.

One of the spin-off benefits for these works is that a large ballet company wields a sufficiently generous budget to allow both Black Tuesday and In the Beginning to have more elaborate set designs than is usual in Taylor’s own company. Both feature the work of Taylor’s longtime collaborator Santo Loquasto along with lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton, who has been working with Taylor since the earliest days of his company.

Despite the Biblical themes of In the Beginning, Taylor has spiced the movement with hints of American folk dance and show-biz razzmatazz. This is something he has done on more than one occasion, notably in the evening-length From Sea to Shining Sea (1965) where he interweaves the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock with Biblical characters and Noah is transformed into a ranting bigoted evangelist and the Ark becomes a paddle-wheeled showboat.

The choreographer David Parsons, who was a leading Taylor dancer during the 1980s, has jokingly dubbed Taylor’s light, folk-flavoured Americana comedies as ‘cornography’. He is right in the way that they dare to appear simplistic, or as Taylor himself describes it, ‘In the Beginning is the Genesis story as seen through the eyes of Grandma Moses.’ (A bucolic, self-taught L. S. Lowry type for nostalgic New Englanders, her paintings are naive evocations of homespun family values with the open simplicity of children’s art.)

Taylor has never shied away from this cornball streak. I think that’s because he is confident enough in himself and knows that he is capable of balancing his banjo-plinking, hoe-down primitivism with the profound depths of works such as Promethean Fire or the blistering darkness of The Word. Sometimes he even mixes these two strands into a single work. Big Bertha (1971) features an All-American family on a holiday outing at an amusement arcade. It starts out jaunty and playful, but gradually transforms itself into an horrific saga of incestuous rape and murder.

More than any other dance-maker, Taylor is a choreographer who finds inspiration in the widest possible variety of styles, music, themes and ideas. An avid collector of insects, moths and butterflies, he has been known to spend hours studying animals in the zoo. His observations of his own species help him to transform man into yet another choreographic specimen.