Paul Taylor in conversation with Allen Robertson


Allen Robertson

Posted on

Photo: Jack Mitchell

‘Each of my dances is different,’ says choreographer Paul Taylor in the quiet drawl which has never lost the hint of the American south, ‘and I’m always trying to push ahead in my own way and trying to do things that are not in “style”‘.

‘I was a rebel, I still am – nobody believes me of course,’ he says with a smile. ‘Also, I have an edge in that every time I start a new dance it feels to me like I’ve never made one before in my life. I feel like a total beginner. I know there are things I’ve learned over the years, tricks of the trade, but I don’t feel secure, like there’s a blueprint to follow. So each one feels like a new adventure.’

His recent Promethean Fire, performed by all 16 members of his company, was inspired by three short Bach pieces he first encountered when seeing Walt Disney’s Fantasia. That this masterful dance also conjures up images of the World Trade Center disaster is some indication of the vast scope of Taylor’s creativity.

Lauded with honours

Throughout his half-century as a choreographer – there are now some 150 Taylor dances – he has never felt a need to stick to other people’s rules. ‘I can’t worry about what other people think,’ he says. ‘If I like the piece, that’s good enough for me. If somebody else doesn’t, that’s tough luck.’

Now 72, Taylor is one of the giants of modern dance. He has had so many honours bestowed on him that he has a special room up at the top of his house in Greenwich Village where he stores the trophies, medals, doctorates and other miscellaneous gongs. ‘To tell you the truth, that’s all a little hard to accept. It’s very flattering when people say nice things, but, it’s a kind of burden. I’m grateful of course, but sometimes it’s a little hard to relate to.’

His dances, on the other hand, are always easy to relate to. Their diversity and surging momentum have an openness, an ebullience and exceptional emotional depth.


He admits to being surprised when audiences and critics started talking about ‘9/11’ in relationship to Promethean Fire and points out that he had already started rehearsals before  then. ‘The day it happened,’ he remembers, ‘I was walking to the studio – I had seen on television the first plane crash into one of the towers and I suspected it was terrorism because it didn’t seem possible otherwise – then on the way to the studio I looked down the block and I saw the second tower go down.
‘But, no, the dance isn’t “about” the Twin Towers. It’s not “about” specific incidents. I was thinking a lot broader. But people see what they want to see and, sure, you can read a lot of things into it. That’s OK by me.’

Telling tales

At the opposite end of the scale is Taylor’s newest dance ‘In the Beginning’. A fresh look at Genesis with a cast that includes Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Jehovah himself. ‘It’s a story dance with a recognisable plot. I consciously wanted there to be a narrative to it. I didn’t invent this approach, of course, but telling stories has been out of style for quite awhile now and I love the idea of being out of step.
‘It’s sort of a Grandma Moses, American primitive version of the Creation — I think. But you never know until you see it on a stage with an audience watching it. And it’s risky to talk about it beforehand, so forget everything I’ve just said.’

Taylor’s own dancers will be performing In the Beginning for the first time on the opening night of the company’s week at Sadler’s Wells (29 April-3 May), which is then followed by a three-week regional tour. Earlier this month the dance was seen in Washington, DC, but performed by the Houston Ballet. Like his be-bop Company B, this is one of the rare occasions when Taylor has worked with companies other than his own. Well, not quite. He devised these dances on his own company, but then handed them over to Houston. ‘They paid for it,’ says Taylor, ‘so it’s only fair that they dance the premiere. They can do it as much as they want for three years, but my company will be dancing it too, that’s part of the deal.’

The next Taylor dances are already churning around in his head, ‘I have no “ambition” to retire,’ he says. ‘What would I do? My life has for so long been dance that it’s sort of ingrained and that’s who I am.’ Even so, he does admit that he often puts off starting a new work until the last minute. ‘You know, I’m a little leery of the word “inspiration”. I prefer the word “deadline” better.’