NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of choreographer Paul Taylor, the creator of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which is in the midst of its annual run at City Center.
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Paul Taylor has been part of new dance performances for 50 years, first as a dancer, and then as a choreographer. So as he prepares for his dance company's annual visit to City Center, is there anything new to be experienced, or is it all old hat?
“Every time I start a new dance I feel like I’ve never made one before, and it's always something new,” Taylor says. “[Why do I think that’s so?] Because I forget easily.”
Paul Taylor first cobbled together a small group of his fellow dancers to perform one of his dances in 1954. After thousands of performances, there is still the desire to create something new, something that will intrigue an audience of faithful fans and modern dance aficionados who follow the company from year to year.
“You look around and see the world, and you see people and things, and they resonate and you put them in a dance,” he says. “I’m always watching. I’m actually like a spy. I love to watch people when they don't know I'm looking."
Taylor has been awarded a National Medal of Arts, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and a Kennedy Center honor. Newsweek once called him "the world's greatest living choreographer," and a documentary about Taylor and his company, 1998's “Dancemaker,” earned an Academy Award nomination.
Does he ever allow himself moments where he thinks, “I’ve performed all over the world, the company has performed all over the world and I’ve been honored all over the world?”
“Nah, nuts to that,” he says. “I don't think about that. If I think about that I close up. It's kind of a responsibility to live up to those kinds of things."
In fact, in his home in the village, Taylor keeps many of the awards in what he calls his laundry room.
But Taylor is passionate about something else you'll find on his walls; bugs and butterflies.
"As a kid, when I didn't have any other kids to play with, the bugs became my little friends," he says. “They're very different than people. They don't make up their own minds about things, they’re all programmed. And they're not evil, like some people. If you discover an unclassified insect or animal and register it, you can call it by your own name.”
After all these honors Taylor has had all around the world, is that the one he’s holding out for?
“That would be different,” he says.
It's not an overstatement to say that Paul Taylor's life, and perhaps modern dance in America, changed in a "flash." That's how he describes his revelation at Syracuse University in the early 1950’s that he wanted to become a professional dancer.
“Everything suddenly seemed ordained, that I then knew what I would really like to do with my life," he says.
Before answering the call, Taylor had to go to his swimming coach and tell him his days in the pool swimming for Syracuse were over.
"I went to his office and said, ÎCoach, I’m sorry but I'm leaving,’” he says. “He said, ÎLeaving? What are you going to do?’ I said, ÎI'm going to be a dancer.’ And he said, ÎAre you nuts?’”
Taylor had grown up in and around Washington D.C., raised by a single mother after his parents' divorce. He spent a few years living with a foster family on a farm in Maryland.
Now he was coming to the big city to study at Julliard.
“I lived in really crummy place, $12 a month, Hell’s Kitchen, no heat, smelly, dangerous – I loved it. It was exciting,” he says.
In 1955 he joined the company of one of the leading lights of American dance, Martha Graham. In just a few years, he'd gone from a student at Syracuse to a rising star in New York.
“Talking about the 50’s, the early 60’s, there were relatively few large male dancers in modern dance, so it was less competition,” Taylor says. “I never liked to be looked at, even though I was a dancer. I didn't like the idea. I like to watch other people, but I'm not wild about being watched myself. [Look at me on stage], but be quiet and don't let me know you are there.”
Taylor danced here and around the country and around the world, creating pieces that are still performed today.
In his autobiography, “Private Domain,” he describes the last years of his dancing, the breaking down of his body, and the use of pills to deal with the pain.
"Well, if you have the right pills it's not too bad,” he says. “But the pills eventually kill you so I had to stop that."
His final performance came at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1975, a night when his body said "enough."
“I call it my death in Brooklyn, because to stop dancing was a kind of a death, really,” he says. “Things worked out OK because I enjoy making dances even more than I did dancing, because it doesn't hurt.”
At times, the company's concern about money has been so great that its future was in doubt. But at 75, Paul Taylor continues to oversee a troupe of young dancers who will carry his vision in performances around the world, a vision that came one day as a college student and then formed as a young man in New York, more than 50 years ago.
Are there moments of, “I can’t believe how fast this is happening?”
“When I think back now, yeah, it just seems miraculous. But at the time it seemed perfectly natural,” he says. “I had no doubt that I was going to be not just a dancer, but a good dancer."
- Budd Mishkin