Sunday, February 15, 2009


A Gentleman Does Something Ugly, Again
PAUL TAYLOR gets peevish about interviews. He knows they are “part of the job,” as he puts it, but until he gets into the groove, he tends to rely on a tactic he also employs in his dances: a mixture of the dark and the light.
“I see you have your pen,” he said, twinkling his blue eyes in a kindly manner, his tone mocking.
Mr. Taylor, at 78, is a Southern gentleman, a sarcastic New Yorker, a playful conversationalist, a vivid writer and, most of all, a revered choreographer who for more than half a century has rigorously explored the light and dark sides of human nature. As part of the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s annual New York City Center season beginning on Feb. 25, one of his oldest, most haunting gems, “Scudorama,” will be revived through an American Masterpieces grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Well, I’ll tell you the truth,” he said with a wicked laugh in the parlor floor of his SoHo town house. “The reason we’re doing it is money. We get a grant to revive real oldies. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. But it turned out O.K. I like watching the present cast, and I’m particularly pleased with Sean” — Sean Mahoney, a company member — “who’s doing my part. I like his energy. His presence. And his height. That helps.”
Created in 1963 and not performed since 1973, “Scudorama” reveals Mr. Taylor in a bleak mood. The dance was choreographed a year after “Aureole,” his acclaimed lyrical work set to Handel that left experimental dancegoers reeling but cemented his reputation as a bold choreographer not scared of beauty for its own sake. While some criticized “Aureole” as being easy, it was actually a daring move that challenged the trends of the dance world. “Scudorama” was even more audacious. “ ‘Aureole’ was so pretty,” Mr. Taylor said. “I wanted to do something ugly.”
At the time Mr. Taylor resented the popular success of “Aureole” and wanted to create its opposite, in terms of movement and temperament. “I wanted the steps to be very different,” he said. “As I remember, we worked very quickly on ‘Aureole.’ After that there were other dances that I really slaved over and didn’t get the attention that ‘Aureole’ did.”
In his 1987 autobiography, “Private Domain,” Mr. Taylor recalled, while on tour with his company, passing a trapped dog on a highway median. The mongrel, he wrote, was “rearing, spinning and pawing the air.” His attempt to choreograph the anarchy and chaos that defines “Scudorama” stemmed partly from that image.
In “Scudorama” eight dancers, wearing street clothes and bright leotards and using beach towels as shrouds (with sets and costumes designed by the artist Alex Katz), disintegrate into ravaged forms. Like shifting shadows they crawl across the floor in jagged bursts of bewilderment, emptiness and rage. The dance’s accompanying program note, from Dante, begins with “What souls are these who run through this black haze?” For Mr. Taylor, those words refer to the “lost souls in purgatory, because they hadn’t done anything good and they hadn’t done anything bad.”
Mr. Taylor named the work in two parts. “Scud,” he said, refers to fast-moving clouds. “And ‘-orama’ because I thought it was sort of unpleasantly tacky,” Mr. Taylor added. “In those days everything was ‘-orama’ this and ‘-orama’ that. And the ‘scud’ is a reference, perhaps, to the people in the dance. They’re like scuds — just wisps of humanity.”
Dan Wagoner, a former company member who had injured his calf a few days before the work’s premiere at Connecticut College, split his role with Mr. Taylor. “Twyla Tharp was in the company then, and I remember I had to teach her how to get out of the wings,” Mr. Wagoner said in an interview. “She was standing blatantly ready for her entrance, and I said, ‘Can you see the audience?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Then they can see you, so back up.’ ”
To bring the dance back to life, the cast and the rehearsal director, Bettie de Jong, watched an archival video of the piece, which had been performed in silence. (The music, by Clarence Jackson, didn’t arrive on time.)
“Well, you make do,” Mr. Taylor said. “I couldn’t cancel. I was younger then, you know, but it was a killer.”
For the revival the dancers relied on an audio recording that was matched, as closely as possible, to the original performance. “We had two blueprints to work on that sometimes contradicted each other,” Mr. Mahoney said. “It seemed like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ on crack.”
Once the dance was reconstructed, three former members of Mr. Taylor’s company — Mr. Wagoner, Sharon Kinney and Elizabeth Walton — assisted in coaching. “It is movement that’s kind of pushed to a distortion or contortion that they don’t do as much today,” Mr. Wagoner said. “It seemed soft and rounded to me when I first saw it, so we worked first on some of the mechanics, and then I talked to them about what was going on in New York at the time. Now I really feel like I’m seeing the dance that I remember being in.”
Mr. Taylor’s City Center season also includes two New York premieres: “Changes,” a 1960s-flavored piece featuring music by the Mamas and the Papas, and “Beloved Renegade,” inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, who is quoted in the program notes: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Before choreographing the work, which is set to Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” Mr. Taylor immersed himself in writings by and about Whitman. “The thing that made me know that I really wanted to make a dance about Whitman was that he believed the body and the soul were the absolutely same thing,” Mr. Taylor said. “You know, he talks about himself a lot, but he is really talking about mankind. He wasn’t egotistical.”
Mr. Taylor is working on a new dance, though he is reticent to reveal much about it. “It’s opera ballet music, and I picked it because of the challenge it presents,” he said. “There are 15 very short pieces, which” — he paused for an anguished laugh — “is a structural problem. None of them last very long. You never know if anything’s going to turn out well. Not everything does.”
As someone who has led a dance company since 1954, Mr. Taylor would know. But the opposite was true of his company’s recent space problems. After rent increases forced the group to vacate its lower Broadway studio, the East River Housing Corporation stepped in to offer the company a 20-year lease at 551 Grand Street. As soon as construction is completed next fall on what is now the Ralph Lippman Auditorium, the company will move to its new home. (It is currently renting space from American Ballet Theater.) Mr. Taylor plans to move as well, to an apartment closer to the studio.
“I like to walk to work, and I like to be near where I work,” he said. “It’s a big luxury, I know. In the early days I lived in my studios, and then I got this house. I love this old house. But there’s no point in keeping this place if I’m going to work somewhere else. It’s too big for me, really. I’ll find something, hopefully with a view of the East River. See the sun come up.”
Mr. Taylor’s reluctance to leave Manhattan fueled the decision to relocate to the Lower East Side. “There are nice places in Brooklyn, but there’s something about Manhattan,” he said. “All of these dancers that come from everywhere come to New York, and New York is Manhattan. Of course now they all live in Brooklyn and Queens, because they can’t afford Manhattan, but it’s where we’ve always performed, and it’s home. I’ve lived here longer than anyplace. But I’ve never felt like a New Yorker. It’s true. I always feel a little like an outsider. My background is Virginia. And my mother raised her children to be Virginians.”
His dances, he said, still stem from those childhood memories and impressions, especially his connection to the natural world. “As a little boy I spent summers at Edgewater Beach — a saltwater river — and I remember wading and looking at all the minnows and soft-shell crabs under the water, and how the water seemed to magnify them when looking from above,” he said. “Also watching insects and birds: animals have always interested me. Early on they were like playmates because there weren’t other children around.”
He has retained that fascination with observation. “I watch people,” he said. “You can tell a lot about people from the way they move and the things they do, especially when they don’t know they’re being watched.” He smiled broadly, a secret smile full of pleasure, and added, “I always dreamed of being a spy.”

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