Susan McGuire talks Taylor with Allen Robertson

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Allen Robertson

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Susan McGuire

A leading member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company for more than a decade, Susan McGuire is now the head of the Paul Taylor School as well as director of the young touring company known as Taylor 2. From 1991 to 1998, McGuire served as the artistic head of the London Contemporary Dance School at The Place. When she can manage to fit London into her demandingly busy schedule, McGuire loves to return here as a guest teacher.

‘That school still means so much to me,’ she says. ‘There was a very Graham-based ethos when I got there. I helped shift that a bit.’

That’s not to imply that McGuire has anything against Graham. Far from it. Before switching to Taylor’s company, she had danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company, 1973-76, was its rehearsal director during 2000, and still teaches at the Graham school whenever possible.

So how did this very American performer end up in London?

‘I had stopped dancing at the end of the 80s, and at that time New York was just horrible, so my husband and I decided it was time to try something different. We moved to Berlin. We were there when The Wall came down and that was tremendously exciting, but also my husband became a little wary about being in a unified Germany because he been a child there during the Nazi era.

‘It was the very week that we had decided to leave Berlin that I got a call from Richard Ralph, who was then principal of London Contemporary, telling me that Jane Dudley was retiring and would I please come and interview.

‘The first couple of years in London were really tough. There was a quite a bit of resistance to the fact that I was American and many people now thought a Brit should be coming into that post — which I understood completely.

‘There were certain changes I wanted to make to the curriculum, the way some things were taught. I gave myself a five-year plan and it really took six. And then after eight years I thought, “I’ve done it. Now I’m ready to go home.” But, it was one of the best dance jobs in the world. I designed a curriculum, could do a lot of teaching and hire in all the choreographers for 4D, the LCDS performance company. It was fabulous.’

Taylor at LCDS

‘I think that the idea of Paul Taylor’s work in London then was a little narrow.  I think the view had been a little one-sided.  I wanted to give people in the UK a sense that Paul’s work has a great deal of variety. Having had Paul’s work in my body for so long, I hope I was able to bring all of that to the students.

‘They learned big chunks of Taylor rep  — large parts of Airs, Esplanade, Musical Offering. And 4D performed Runes. I also taught parts of Junction, which was one of his earliest pieces and very much about the way Paul moved himself .

‘It was important for them to experience Musical Offering, which I think of as his masterpiece. It is so profound and so primitive in a sense. It’s not lyrical, it’s not balletic.

‘I think people who look at Paul’s work and find it “simplistic” are not really looking at it. Take Aureole, for example. There’s not a movement there that isn’t justified.

‘Even if you are perhaps prejudiced against Paul’s work for some reason  — if it’s not London Festival Ballet performing Taylor’s Aureolepart of your aesthetic — if you see Aureole often enough, the piece will teach you differently. In its simplicity it is so complex.

‘I have been closely connected to Paul’s work since 1976, teaching it, performing it, coaching it, and there is such pleasure there. You know, even after all this time, he reveals more and more to me.

‘I’m astonished by the craft in Esplanade. I’ve reconstructed that piece many times, I know it like the back of my hand, but every time I watch it there is more that just astonishes me.’

Taylor & Graham

Is it fair to say that Taylor’s work is less dated  than Graham’s?

‘I don’t think his work dates as quickly, perhaps it doesn’t date at all. Just think of something like Esplanade, that will never date. It stays fresh. The Graham aesthetic is so clear — a rule book that you go by. I remember my first look at Paul’s dancing. My first thought was: ‘He’s breaking all the rules.’ Even after I started working with him I was sometimes shocked at the way he would stretch the rules. But he doesn’t make judgements about the kinds of input that he uses. You know, he really takes it all in. He certainly edits, but I don’t think he makes hierarchical judgements about movement or about ideas. He makes them work. And I think that’s extraordinary. He taught me that everything is grist for the mill. You gotta take chances. It’s important to put yourself at risk. I felt that Paul really allowed me to show a range of styles as a dancer. He didn’t pigeon-hole me.’

Taylor & audiences

What can we expect to see in a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company?

‘You’re sure to see dancing that you will be able to understand, dancing that you will be able to feel a kind of kinetic response to. This is dancing that you need not be intimidated by, that doesn’t need any explanation. You just sit and you enjoy. You watch and you interpret for yourself what you see.

‘At times, because the dancing is so joyous or so deep, you feel almost as if you are doing it with the dancers. I feel that the visceral response of the audience is very important, and Paul’s work encourages that. It really does, and although the work is “accessible” it doesn’t condescend. So there’s always more to see; but you don’t have to work yourself to the bone to try to understand what he’s doing.

‘Paul is not interested in making it difficult for people. He is interested in helping people see things a little bit differently, maybe take a different view of life, maybe feel a little bit differently about themselves when they walk out of the theatre. So if you come out of the theatre feeling that maybe your point of view has altered a little bit  — that’s great. Just be open to that.’