The Earth Moved: Falling In Love With Paul Taylor's Esplanade

Esplanade. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC

I am 4, and it's a muggy July evening in the Berkshires. I am holding my mother's hand; my father and 12-year-old sister are just ahead of us in the sea of over-sized people streaming into the theater. It is 1982, and I am at Jacob's Pillow on my way in to see the first dance performance of my life—the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Blame it on that elusive thing, memory: In my imperfect one, we sit front and center on wooden chairs. My feet don't touch the floor. The ceilings are high, the wood beams rustic, and there is no air conditioning. Adults are fanning themselves while we wait. I am nervous and excited and feel tiny inside such a big space. The lights dim and I squeeze my mother's hand.

The dancers are so close they look immense, superhuman. I can hear the sounds of their bare feet taking off and landing, and the screeching of their skin against the marley. I can see sweat staining the armpits of their bright costumes. I can see them smiling—beaming, it seems, with real and relentless joy—as they throw themselves fearlessly into each others' arms or leap heartily over each other to the ground, and I am riveted. I want so badly to join them that my little bum is practically levitating off the bench.

Later, I find out this piece is called Esplanade.

At intermission, I refuse to leave my seat. I'd rather pee in my pants than risk missing a single instant of this new magic. The following week, my mother enrolls me in a dance class.

I am 29, and it's a cold March afternoon in New York. It's been 25 years since I've seen Paul Taylor live, and I am, needless to say, nervous and excited. In the quarter century since Esplanade inspired me to dive and fall and jump and run—to reach for that kind of bliss and feral abandon in movement—that story has become family legend, as good as gold, the uncontested story of my movement beginnings. I am worried that the real thing just won't—couldn't possibly—hold up.

In the last 10 years I have had, and lost, a dance career—not one of the Paul Taylor variety, with a steady income, busy touring schedule, and historical significance—but a career nonetheless. Mine was made up of overlapping rehearsals and odd jobs and unpaid performances on dirty, unsafe stages. It was of the fragmented downtown variety where I danced in silence, or with gigantic puppets, or to words. One that Paul Taylor might not recognize as a dance career, but one that allowed me to reach those mysterious places I saw in his dancers' eyes and bodies that night; a place where you really can be that free, that bold, that brave, and that human.

Once I am settled into my seat at City Center, feet touching the ground this time, I gaze around the audience, curious, hopeful. And there he is, sitting perfectly still in a suit and tie at the back of the theater. My heart flutters. I cannot believe that I am sitting mere yards from the man who changed my life. It takes all my powers of restraint to stop staring. I dig into my program and pretend to read.

Esplanade is, of course, on the program this afternoon. I have planned it this way. When I rented Dancemaker, the PBS documentary about Taylor, I had a potent, visceral reaction to Esplanade—it was like switching on a light in a dark, abandoned room and seeing that everything was just as I had left it. I knew immediately that was what I had seen—and, by extension, wanted to be.

Since then I have watched Dancemaker dozens of times and know the fragments of the piece as if I had danced it myself. Still, I am nervous. What if I think Esplanade (not to mention the rest of the dances) is stupid, boring, or obvious? What if my taste has changed so much that I can barely recognize what about Taylor's work made me want to dance so desperately? What if this family legend suddenly makes no sense?

Esplanade sneaks up on you—the simple walking patterns turn into skipping and running and sliding and jumping. The happy lifts and turns transform into sadder images of failed connections, of families that can't, or just don't, touch. But the mood lifts again, Bach's violin concerto speeds up and the movement becomes death-defying—the dancers soar backwards and seem to be plummeting to the ground—before being swept up by another body at the very last moment. The women jump into the men's arms from great distances, dismount, and start all over again. It is exhilarating and terrifying to watch, all of this humanness onstage, and I start, slowly, surprisingly, to cry.

It is not that the dancers are so terrifically skilled—which they are. It is humbling to witness such physical perfection at work. It is not that I am feeling nostalgic or regretful or angry or jealous, or even happy. It is something deeper, this feeling, something that slices right through to my guts. I feel that rare burst of light that only great art delivers: I feel lucky to be alive in such a wonderful, painful world.

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