At 80, Paul Taylor is one of, if not the only, master choreographer from the birth of modern dance who is still alive and creating. He danced in the companies of Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham (who dubbed him the “naughty boy” of dance), and George Balanchine, absorbing styles and techniques as he went. By the time he set up his own company in 1954, Taylor had a style, a way of moving. But most writers agree that when Taylor retired from dancing in 1974, his choreography went from good to great, as his company, his family, became a group of mini-Taylors. A towering presence himself, his male dancers tend to be larger than average.
“You can do the steps, but there’s a way that he moves that you have to learn,” says Robert Kleinendorst, one of the current company’s senior dancers. “He likes everything to originate from the hips, the back and the center. There’s a lot of twisting. The arms are secondary.”
Taylor’s choreography became known for using everyday actions as inspiration, and his students, like his teachers, read like a who’s who of modern dance: Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, David Parsons and Christopher Gillis. He’s also worked with pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
Although he no longer tours with the company, he remains in New York and has a say in all business and artistic matters. And he still choreographs new work for the company: When the company arrives back in Santa Barbara for a show at The Granada they come with a recent work, “Brief Encounter,” which shows Taylor’s mind has turned this time, if not to love, at least to a casual hook-up for the night. And that’s not too surprising. In his autobiography, written at 57, he noted his bisexuality, as well as his mix and match approach to gender in his works, noting that to “pick partners of consistent gender would’ve run against an arbitrary streak.” That streak, found throughout his 130+ works, is part of his success.
“Brief Encounter,” scored to a Debussy piece, finds the dancers in a dark, underground setting — maybe a bathhouse, perhaps — and deals “with all the different sexual dynamics between men and women, and men and men, and women and women,” according to Kleinendorst. But these are not love duets, he says. “Most of the time, of the two people dancing together, only one wants to be with the other. There’s a lot of that one-sided desire.” The last section, however, is very bright, the music fills out and the dancers chase each other in a very different way.
“Often you’ll find out it was something he overheard or saw in public that is the spark for the whole thing,” Kleinendorst says of Taylor’s methods. It’s the realization of “hmm, maybe that’s the way the world works,” that fuels the choreographer’s creativity.
Since the company’s last visit in 2006, the company lost its rehearsal space in Manhattan to a Banana Republic. However, a well-timed article in the New York Times found them a benefactor, who has leased them a huge building on the Lower East Side for 30 years. (Kleinendorst jokes that though everything worked out, they try not to shop at Banana Republic anymore).
With such a huge repertoire, the company rarely overlaps work, even when digging back into the catalog. But dancers are also called on to learn a repertory work very quickly, sometimes with four to five rehearsals, before setting out on tour. “It’s better for our bodies when we can rotate the rep often,” Kleinendorst says.
The other two pieces featured in Wednesday’s performance contrast darkness and light. “Dust,” from 1977, came out of the inspiration Taylor found in the infirm and disabled, and the movement challenges many go through every day, and how the body adapts. By restricting his own dancers in several ways — limping, faux-blindness, crawling and so on — we glimpse both the hope and the tragedy. It’s also very hard on the dancers.
“It’s very contorted, there’s lots of floor and knee work, and there’s a lot of crawling,” Kleinendorst says. “But it’s also very rewarding.”
For the lightness, “Company B” incorporates the music of the Andrews Sisters, the nostalgia of WWII American culture, and the price paid for war, even a “good” one. For Kleinendorst, who does the “Bugle Boy” solo, it’s work. “It’s probably the hardest solo I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s one minute and 40 seconds of constant jumping. By the end you just want to die. I don’t look forward to it sometimes because I know how bad I’m gonna feel at the end of it, but it’s something I never want taken away.”
“Company B” may make interpretation a bit easy, but the other two take some pulling apart. All are classic Taylor.
Kleinendorst says that Taylor can be forthcoming about “what it all means” when they come to an impasse, or when a character needs to be built (Taylor also has spoken many times against reading any of his works as autobiography). But sometimes, he says, Taylor will just shrug. ” ‘I don’t know,’ he’ll say, I’m just making something pretty.”
PAUL TAYLOR DANCE COMPANY
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Granada, 1214 State St.
Cost: $38 to $48 general, $21 UCSB students
Information: (805) 893-3535, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu, www.granadasb.org