The most interesting thing about Matthew Diamond’s Oscar-nominated documentary on choreographer Paul Taylor is not its incisive portrait of backstage life— though it certainly offers one— or the compelling biographical information it shares about a major figure in American dance. Its triumph is the way it renders the dance world as a complicated place full of dramatic conflict between opposing forces. Art and money, workers and management, passion and practicality: all square off in this 98-minute trip through a year in the life of one of the world’s best modern companies. No buildings explode, but emotions hit the boiling point, and when the sound system suddenly fails at a crucial point during a command performance in India, the backstage drama keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Taylor himself is a piece of work, an almost Mephistophelean figure in a big, square body who for more than 40 years has been exacting from dancers amazingly articulate performances. His choreography veers between the lyrically luminous and the depraved, sometimes in the same work. He let Diamond, a former dancer and choreographer who’s spent years directing sitcoms and TV specials while getting to know his artful quarry, follow his process from the first day of rehearsal on a new piece (the sultry Piazzola Caldera). The dancers welcomed the filmmaker into their private conversations (and in one case even into the shower).
“I get my energy from being afraid,” Taylor confesses early on. “Afraid to fail.” Colleagues who’ve been watching him for years— his manager, his rehearsal assistant, critics like Deborah Jowitt and Anna Kisselgoff— talk to the camera about his genius and his accomplishments. Former company members reflect on his difficult personality.
Editor Pam Wise’s cutting— fast, precise, rhythmical— keeps us riveted even in the casual, conversational sections. She brilliantly interweaves shots of the young Taylor dancing in his early works with images of the patriarch, visibly moved, as he watches artists who could be his grandchildren perform them. The current dancers are beautiful, smart, and astonishingly diverse, especially the men. When this company holds auditions, hundreds of hopefuls compete for a single spot, despite
grueling tour schedules and the emotional roller coaster of life with an insecure genius.
“I’m a hick, basically, and proud of it,” says the choreographer, who looks these days like an aging adman trying, and failing, to quit smoking. “I’m a terrible spy. I watch people. I have no moral attitude, really,” he tells a listener. “I’m a reporter, I report things as I see them.” And Diamond, with great wit and clarity, does that too.