Singular Beauty

3.10.2014

By Brian Schaefer

At home with Paul Taylor, the last living legend of dance

At the far end of Paul Taylor’s living room, a 1,000-piece puzzle awaits completion. The edges are already in place, so it’s basically a frame with no picture. “I’ve done that one a couple of times already,” Taylor says. “I do them over and over.” Despite that, he says, they don’t seem to get easier. “Sometimes I think they’re harder.”

It’s an unavoidable analogy, because Taylor has also been piecing together, over and over since the 1950s, intricate dances that reveal splendid, sometimes startling, portraits of society. At 83, he is the last living representative of the generation that pioneered American modern dance, though the thought hardly seems to have crossed his mind. This spring marks the 60th anniversary of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which the company will celebrate during its annual three-week season at Lincoln Center in March.

“It’s amazing,” he says of the milestone. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.” As for whether it carries any personal significance for him, he shrugs. “It’s been a cause for a gimmick to sell tickets.”

Taylor, wearing jeans and a blue denim shirt that matches his eyes, is nearly consumed by a tall leather chair in the center of the room. A Humane Society mug sits next to an ashtray in which two cigarettes are interred. Midway through the interview, he lights another. “Don’t ask me to give it up,” he says. “I think it’s good for me.” He’s not joking: His hunch is that they’re why he never gets a cold.

In fact, not much about the dance scene in New York today resembles the one Taylor entered as a young swimmer-cum-dancer in the middle of the 20th century. Modern dance was still a precocious child, defiantly rejecting the rigid conventions of ballet.

Taylor was not of the founding generation, but he inherited and dispensed the new gospel. On the dance family tree, he’s the artistic son of Martha Graham, creative younger brother of Merce Cunningham, prolific father of Twyla Tharp, and grandfather to many more. Of course, now his are the conventions that young choreographers dismiss. Yet Taylor’s work is far from vintage. He’s celebrated today not for nostalgia’s sake but because, as The New York Times put it last spring, he “has often seemed the greatest of today’s choreographers, the most imaginative and disconcerting in any genre.”

The upcoming season’s repertory is a mix of company staples, new revivals, and a world premiere titled Marathon Cadenzas. Only the latter interests him, admits Taylor, who has a surprising ambivalence toward his past works, especially those that become too popular. “I’m always the most interested in the new baby,” he explains. “The others I can live without.” Of Esplanade, a signature work from 1975 that is a scientific marvel of strength, endurance, and grace, he says, “I don’t care if I ever see that one again.”

One of this year’s resurrections is Private Domain, from 1969 (pictured at right), which is also the title of Taylor’s 1988 autobiography, as well as an apt description of how he likes to keep his personal life. In introductions to Taylor’s 2013 essay collection, Facts and Fancies, Robert Gottlieb, Taylor’s editor on Private Domain, and Suzanne Carbonneau, the author of his impending biography, charge that the eclectic nature of his dances and writings is a technique to keep himself hidden. “I think they’re right,” he says.

Which isn’t to say he’s overly guarded. He’s glad to show his apartment, which boasts a majestic view of the Williamsburg Bridge and is near his company’s Lower East Side studios. When he opens the door to his bedroom, Molly, his part-husky dog, bounds out. She’s a constant companion, accompanying him to rehearsals, even those in the theater. The walls are a deep turquoise, VHS tapes are piled under an old television set (Babe is on top) and a weathered teddy bear from his childhood has pride of place on a dresser.

The bathroom contains a Homer Simpson bathmat, and a cabinet near the kitchen contains colorful fine china. Together they’re a fitting representation of Taylor’s work — silliness and popular appeal paired with fragility and a craftsman’s attention to detail.

After this portrait of the artist begins to emerge — or at least a frame of it — I turn off my recorder. Taylor asks if the tape worked, and I joke that if it didn’t, I’ll just come back to do it all over again. “Well,” he says, “then I might give you different answers.”

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