Dance Archives

Paul Taylor, Playwright

A theater critic’s take on one of the greatest theatrical figures of the past century


In 1976, when a Broadway production of my adaptation of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End was in the offing, the producers asked me who I would like to see choreograph the piece. And I said, “Paul Taylor.” I had seen Esplanade, which was then brand-new, and I thought Paul Taylor should choreograph everything.

I don’t remember who gently disabused me of this notion. It might have been our general manager, or one of the associate producers, or Grayson Hall, who was slated to play one of the lead roles. Taylor, everyone concluded, was too busy and too deep in his own work to take on any outside projects. I was more than disappointed — just a few steps short of heartbroken. “Look at it this way, Michael,” I remember the gentle disabuser telling me. “He has his own work, he has his own incredible imagination, he has his own company. He doesn’t need you. He doesn’t need a Broadway show. He doesn’t even need Brecht and Weill. He’s Paul Taylor.”

And that was true, though I have always regretted the confluence that didn’t happen, and wondered what Paul Taylor’s encounter with Brecht and Weill’s musical theater would have looked like. Encounter? No, collision, for Paul Taylor, who died on August 29 at the age of 88, never encountered any of the musical selections or the narrative motifs he took on without remaking them, forcing you to rethink them. Whether his touch was light or heavy — and it could be appallingly heavy at times — nothing he touched was left unchanged. And the change has lasted, which is the sure sign of a world-class master.

Esplanade, I should explain for the uninitiated, is performed to music by Bach, the most formal and form-conscious of composers. And to this highly formalized music, Taylor sets no formal dance steps of any kind. His Bach is made up of what the dance world calls “pedestrian movement,” a term that may sound dismissive (I personally would prefer the phrase “colloquial movement,” although this is not my area of expertise), but which simply means that every move in it is one that people take in everyday life: walking, standing still, running, skipping, sliding, falling. The dynamic tension between the hieratic music and the “pedestrian” event creates a dance poem, paying tribute to the hidden order of ordinary things, or the innate beauty of the everyday. Some of Esplanade’s sections are somber; others are extremely funny. The last time I brought a criticism student with me to see Esplanade, he said, “I never realized Bach could be funny.” That’s a perfect instance of the rethinking Taylor brought about.

The colleagues who overruled me and decided not to approach Taylor about Happy End were right, of course: He did not need me, Brecht, Weill, or Broadway. All he needed was some music — Weill alone might have served his turn — and an image or a story to set his imagination going. The range of music and the breadth of imagery that he worked through is incredible, even for a creator who worked for nearly seven decades. Few of the twentieth century’s artists, other than Picasso, have tried as much or succeeded as often. There were, inevitably, mishaps along the way, too. You don’t turn out as many masterworks as Taylor did without leaving some flawed projects behind. (Taylor aficionados cringe when I remind them of the season that contained both Minikin Fair and The Sorcerer’s Sofa.) But they are easy to overlook because the masterworks are so numerous: Arden Court, Diggity, Danbury Mix, Speaking in Tongues, Last Look, Polaris. That is not even the tip of the iceberg — hardly a bare corner of it.

I once told a friend associated with Taylor’s company that I was thinking of writing an essay about Taylor as one of America’s great playwrights, continuing the themes of Eric Bentley’s famous essay projecting a similar role for Taylor’s mentor Martha Graham. I will never write that piece now (unless this is it), but several points that would have gone into it seem to have stuck in my head. One is the extent to which, in Taylor’s work, the comic and the tragic are tightly bound up together. He was one of the few choreographers to use humor as a full element in his work. Masterpieces like Snow White and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) mix the painful and the painfully funny in ways that we are more likely to associate with Chekhov than with modern dance.

The sometimes-fevered oscillation of music on Taylor’s programs, alternating various eras of “high” classical composition with pop tunes from the American Songbook’s past, likewise trespasses into this funny-tragic realm. The skids and pratfalls of Bach are counterbalanced by something like Company B, set to Andrews Sisters recordings from the World War II era. What happens on the forestage in this piece is generally good-natured, funny, and lively, but every so often, people disappear behind an upstage scrim, and you see them walking stiffly, in a shadowland, in the opposite direction from the movement downstage of them. Inevitably evoking that war’s many deaths, the piece was also created at the height of the AIDS plague, and its never-underlined balance of the somber and the splashy gives it a power that haunts my memory. (I’m not the only one to have felt it. Originally created for Taylor’s junior company — hence the piece’s punning title — it garnered so much acclaim that it soon became part of the main company’s regular repertoire.)

Very few of the countless pieces Taylor left behind have the kind of narrative fulfillment typical of a conventional play. Their fulfillments are compositional and physical; dance, after all, is an art that takes place in the body. Nor is characterization (“the soul of the drama”) a strong element with Taylor. In its place are the strong personalities of his lead dancers, an extraordinary succession over the decades. But ours is a time in which many playwrights have themselves given up the conventional satisfactions that we used to associate with the word “drama.” What Taylor created was, first and foremost, a theater, enlivened with narrative touches just as it was enlivened with movement and visual surprise.

Thankfully, there is no likelihood of Taylor’s creations being lost, as so much of Graham’s work has been — a result of her resistance to videography. Like a canny playwright preserving his scripts for a later time, Taylor made sure everything was recorded and archived — the same impulse that led him to invent a structure to keep his company going after his retirement. This piece of playwright’s practicality means that the magic land of his vision will be accessible years from now, just as Shakespeare’s is accessible centuries after his death. That it should be so is heartening. In a time when we seem to be losing everything of value, how very lucky we are that Paul Taylor was here — and that he resisted all temptations to do anything except make his own important and delightful dances and sustain his own company.