Roundtable: Celebrating Paul Taylor's 50th

July 19, 2007
Last fall, six Paul Taylor dancers (including Paul) from different but overlapping stretches of the last 50 years came together to talk about his work. The group gathered in the conference room of the Paul Taylor studios, and DM editor in chief Wendy Perron moderated. Participants, listed with the years they danced in the company, were:

  • Paul Taylor
  • Carolyn Adams
    (1965-82), founder and director, Etudes Project
  • Patrick Corbin
    (1989 to present)
  • Mary Cochran
    (1984 -96), chair, Barnard College Dance Department
  • David Parsons
    (1978-86), artistic director, Parsons Dance Company
  • Dan Wagoner
    (1960-68), faculty, Connecticut College
Wendy: What did you learn from dancers in the company who came before you?

Patrick: Cathy McCann was dancing when I first joined the company. I remember the sequential way she used her spine and this incredibly grounded, yet lyrically beautiful way she had. Although she wasn’t going for pretty, it always came out beautiful.

Mary: I can really twist myself up into knots, and Christopher Gillis (who is no longer living) encouraged people to “seek ease.” That is something that has affected my teaching. The basis of warming up is to open the body. Once you are open, you can distort, you can become anguished or tortured or do anything.

Carolyn: I was thrown in quickly, so my early experience was of being a sponge; I watched everybody. I had never seen anybody with as much power and speed as Paul. I enjoyed moving quickly, but not necessarily with that kind of power. In some ways I identified with the men in the company more than the women. I got to work with Dan, who dragged me around saying, “Try to look heavier.”

Dan: I didn’t say that. (laughter)

Mary: (To Carolyn) Your parts were my absolute favorites. The intricacy and the speed were such a challenge, and the musicality, the elegance—which I never achieved.

David: My training wasn’t formal. I was 18 when I joined the company, so it was my training. I can start with Carolyn, for her consistency. Ruthie [Ruth Andrien]: passion. Elie Chaib: Mr. Regal. What I got from everyone through Paul is that I stopped using my muscles and just placed bones. You put the bone in the right place and don’t worry about forcing it with the muscles.

Paul: I never learned that about dancing with your bones (laughter). It’s a wonderful idea and I’m sure it works, but it never occurred to me because I like to feel my muscles working. It was a sensation that I got from sports. I would feel stingy if I didn’t feel like those muscles were working onstage. This helped for adagio, where you have time to draw things out.
Wendy: How has Paul’s work changed over the years?
Dan: When I first met Paul he had just done the concert at the 92nd Street Y with all the silences [that led to the famous] Louis Horst blank review. I felt, excitedly, this is so avant-garde! But then Paul began to let go of that, and the work began to be more expansive, to take in narrative and broader musical [choices].
David: Paul has that wonderful gnarled imagination of earlier works like in Insects and Heroes and Scudorama—all of those great gnarly dark [movements]. Then he expanded my eyes with Airs, which is a shocker, and it was absolutely profound. It was expansive—those long, beautiful lines. The range was exciting.
Patrick: What I’ve noticed is the incorporation of both light and dark within one piece. In one moment you think you’re in this fluff piece and then the overriding darkness comes in. I like the fusion of the light and the dark, instead of having a Last Look and a Roses. The one constant is that when we’re onstage relating to each other, it’s our little world—as messed up as it might be or as beautiful as it might be. The first thing I ever saw the company do was Esplanade, and I just thought it was one big family, the family of all of us walking, crawling, jumping.
Dan: When we did Aureole at Connecticut College (ADF 1962), there was one contingent that felt Paul had sold out to music. The music was Handel. The dance itself was a huge success, but it made a rift.
Paul: Modern dancers weren’t supposed to use Baroque music. Some have, but it was going against the grain. And that’s why I did it. Modern dance was basically expressionistic at that time, and this dance wasn’t.
Mary: There’s a constant dichotomy and paradox that’s a thread throughout Paul’s work. I’m restaging Aureole now at Barnard, and in doing the “family portrait,” I don’t see it as all lightness and sunniness. It’s a moment about mortality. There’s always darkness and that’s one of the things I love about it.
David: Ghosts. The work is universal to the human condition.
Dan: Aureole is a beautiful dance and you (to Paul) were phenomenal. I’ll never forget your solo. It’s the bigness of your body, the range of it, the flexibility, the fluidity and yet the power and weight and strength.
Paul: That was sheer luck, because I was so anxious for you all to know your steps that I put off making my own part until the end. There was hardly any time left, so it was thrown together very quickly.
Carolyn: What’s remarkable about Paul’s work is that the quality and inventiveness and the honesty of the work have survived. When we get to teach some of the repertory at Juilliard, it’s upheld because the pieces are constructed in such an interwoven way.
Wendy: Is there anything else you want to say about how the work has changed?
Paul: Since I stopped dancing in my own pieces, it’s gotten better (laughs). I can sit back and remove myself.
Dan: The evolution of Paul and his work is a record, a blueprint of a lifetime, of someone who loves movement, loves observing the human condition, the human torso, and has sustained it and kept it going.
Wendy: What was the hardest piece that you ever danced in the Paul Taylor Company?
Mary: Mercuric Tidings.
David: Mercuric Tidings, along with others.
Mary: The first time I finished running it all the way through, I burst into tears.
David: When I first did it, it was like having a knife at my back.
Paul: It’s fast, very fast.
Patrick: And it’s all changing directions.
David: But Paul is somebody who challenges you and, two months down the line after you get it, it washes over you.
Mary: It’s exhilarating.
David: My part in Airs was pretty exhausting
Carolyn: I used to have a sneezing fit at the end of Airs every night, and it was just improper breathing—not enough oxygen.
Dan: In Orbs I remember finishing something lying on the floor with Bettie [de Jong, now rehearsal mistress] and I felt like I couldn’t breath. And Alex Katz [the painter and costume designer] had made this overthing that stretched one way but not the other. And I thought I was gonna die.
David: A lot of choreographers are afraid that they are going to hurt you, and Paul goes right to the edge. And that’s what we live for. The most difficult piece for me, the most exhilarating, was Last Look —that last solo. Everything quiets down, and you just want to blow it apart. There is so much joy in what you are about to feel. And then at the end everybody climbs on top of you and then rotates you and squishes you to the floor.
Patrick: So beautiful. Oh my god, it is devastating.
Mary: And Paul made that in two weeks!
Paul: Everybody learned the same phrase and the whole dance was made out of variations of that phrase. So they knew all the steps in the first rehearsal.
Wendy: As dancers, how do you experience the humor in Paul’s work?
Patrick: When it works it’s great. When it doesn’t …(laughs). Humor is the hardest thing. Most of the time it happens by accident. Paul usually doesn’t tell us, “This is a funny bit.” But the first time the audience starts laughing, it’s this wonderful feeling of, OK they’re with me—how far can I take this?
Mary: There’s a danger in getting that consistent laugh. Paul would warn us not to ham, because you’re going to ruin it.
Wendy: (To Paul) Do you know when you’re making up something that it is going to be funny?
Paul: On a lucky day something will happen by accident in rehearsal and I just keep it in. I’ve tried to use several different kinds of humor. But it all has to be steps. It’s the steps that count. Of course the performers bring their own talents to it. A lot of times humor depends on a quick change. You build up expectations, then you do the opposite suddenly.
Dan: I think it’s also his observation of people. He can imitate gaits and walks beautifully.
Patrick: Sometimes the darkest things make people laugh. We just did a piece called Dante Variations. There was that nervous laughter where the audience is not quite sure whether they should be laughing or not because the dancers are so extreme in what they’re doing.
David: It’s that universal thing, too. I mean here you are in Russia or China and they’re laughing at these jokes. Comedy connects people.
Wendy: You guys have done a lot of touring. I think you’re doing 50 states in a year. What kind of toll does it take?
Patrick: It’s just time away from home. I’d much rather be in my living room than anywhere else, other than dancing some of these pieces onstage. Once you get beyond the body stuff, it’s just time away. [On the road is] a wonderful place to be, there’s a lot of camaraderie, but—especially when everyone else gets younger and younger—there’s a certain amount of disconnect and a little bit of loneliness.
Dan: When we went abroad we danced in big opera houses in Europe. It was thrilling to me because I have a passion for dance. There was no one in the company who did not immerse themselves beautifully and completely into the work. Paul sometimes got a little aloof. If he had his sunglasses on, you’d leave him alone.
Paul: Yeah. . . “Don’t talk to me.”
Carolyn: I knew I was dancing in great work. When we were on tour and Paul was dancing, there was this sense that we were all dancers dancing. I didn’t get any sense of being judged. It’s always really comforting. Blue bathrobe in the wings.
Patrick: And we laugh so much on tour, it should be illegal how much we laugh.
Wendy: Was there ever a time during the 50 years when you thought the company was going to fold?
Paul: Oh sure. Every night (lots of laughter). There was a time [around 1977] that we had expected a South American tour, and it fell through at the last minute and we were broke. The company had not a cent. So I called a press conference to say, “I’m sorry folks but we’ve got to disband.” Anna Kisselgoff was the only one who came to this press conference. She wrote something in The New York Times, and somebody in Washington, D.C., read it and offered to come up and reorganize. He did, and he brought Wally Scheuer, who has been our most generous board member over the years. (He just died this year.) And so we were able to keep going.In a way I owe Anna that. I’ve had a lot of help along the way.
Wendy: What is the future of the company, the future of the pieces? Are you planning on another 50 years?
Paul: Oh at least. Well, like most dancers I tend to live day to day. Ross [Kramberg], our previous executive director, kept pushing me to make those plans, so arrangements have been made to pass the work on and the company can still exist.
Wendy: Thank you all very much. It was really a pleasure.
Paul: Yes. We must do this more often.