The Everyday Avant-Gardist: Paul Taylor’s First Principles

The budding choreographer Paul Taylor, who would one day become a giant of American modern dance, put on his first show of original works in October 1957. He was 27, and a dancer in Martha Graham’s company. The evening, “Seven New Dances,” was a series of seven short movement experiments. Whether they could really be described as dances was not immediately clear.

In one, Taylor and another dancer remained completely still, in silence, for four minutes and 33 seconds. The inspiration was John Cage’s musical composition, of the same duration, in which a musician (David Tudor) sat at the piano without playing a note. As Taylor’s work progressed, people streamed out of the hall. Afterward, Graham wagged her finger at Taylor and called him a “naughty boy.” One reviewer limited his assessment to a four-inch-wide blank space on the page.

For its program at the Joyce Theater, June 14-18, the Paul Taylor Dance Company is bringing back a work from that evening, “Events II,” along with excerpts from “Images and Reflections,” another experimental piece made the next year. Also on the program: three other early Taylor pieces, “Fibers” (1961), “Tracer” (1962) and “Aureole” (1962); his 1979 “Profiles”; and two new dances by guest choreographers.

“There is something very raw and untamed, almost like a musician’s first album,” about these works, Michael Novak, the company’s artistic director, said in a recent interview. “I’m trying to create a dynamic evening that keeps the conversation about Paul’s work going.”

Taylor wrote in his memoir, “Private Domain,” that “Seven New Dances” put him on the map as a choreographer, distinct from his teacher, Graham, and his near contemporary, Merce Cunningham. Besides creating a bit of noise in the dance world, these youthful experiments served an artistic purpose. They supplied some of the raw material Taylor would use to forge his identity as a dance maker, which he later described as “unpsychological” (a jab at Graham), meticulously composed (a jab at Merce Cunningham’s use of chance techniques), and down to earth (a jab at ballet).

At the time, he was collaborating with Robert Rauschenberg, another young artist in the process of honing his ideas about art. “Events II,” “Images and Reflections” and “Tracer” all have designs by Rauschenberg, some, like a whirring bicycle wheel in “Tracer,” quirky; others, like elaborate masks and body coverings in “Fibers,” faintly menacing; and others, like the simple everyday dresses in “Events II,” pedestrian.

On the Joyce program, these pieces are juxtaposed with “Aureole,” created just after “Tracer” in 1962. Where those first pieces were spiky and enigmatic, “Halo” was fluid, expansive, athletic and lyrical. It embraced physical and compositional beauty, and closely reflected, even appeared to embody, the music. It was a new beginning for Taylor, one that would lead him to enduring popularity. The success of “Aureole” allowed him to quit his job at the Graham company.

Those earlier experiments were soon forgotten. (“Events II” has not been performed since 1958; “Images and Reflections,” since 1961.) It wasn’t until recently that the company revived a few. “Fibers,” dramatic and wild, was brought back in 2014. “Tracer,” which contains the frieze-like poses, small jumps, and elastic, powerful male technique that Taylor would use again and again, returned in 2016.

Presenting these works together draws a line from Taylor’s earliest questioning of the very materials of dance to the embrace of form and beauty represented by “Aureole.” It is also, as Novak said, a way to remind the public that Taylor, too, had been a member of the avant-garde.

“I find it interesting how frequently Taylor isn’t mentioned as it relates to the post-moderns and Judson Dance Theater,” Novak said, referring to the collective of dancers, composers and artists, including Yvonne Rainer, James Waring and Rauschenberg, who came together in New York in the ’60s to rethink the fundamentals of performance. “His name is just not on that list.”

The Judson artists rejected the virtuosity, narrative and dramatic self-presentation of modern dance. “You look at some of these works,” Novak said of Taylor’s early pieces, “and they’re a precursor to Judson. He was a part of that. ”

Because of the popularity of dances like “Aureole,” “Brandenburgs” and “Esplanade,” elegantly constructed and set to Baroque music, the Taylor repertory is often seen as less than radical. But Taylor never really left behind those first lessons he taught himself. “Stillness and posture, gesture – these themes were present in all of his dances,” Novak said.

The use of everyday movement can be traced directly to that first program in 1957. At a rehearsal of “Events II” at the company studios on the Lower East Side, two women appeared in typical ’50s attire: calf-length dresses, pumps. Dresses fluttering in a slight breeze (Rauschenberg’s idea), they stood, turned their heads, crossed their arms, crouched, walked, faced toward and away from each other.

“One of the hardest things to do as a dancer is just to stand still,” said Jada Pearman, who will be performing “Events II,” “and to look natural, not like you’re posing. It’s hard not to look like a dancer. ” Because there is no music to measure time by, the two – Pearman, one of the company newest dancers, is paired with the veteran Eran Bugge – had to follow an internal rhythm. Another dancer, hidden in the wings, assisted by keeping a beat with her hands, almost like a conductor.

Despite the paucity of steps and apparent lack of drama, the duet is strangely moving. The dancers appear to be waiting for something, thinking, preparing to speak.

For Taylor, this paring down was a way of revealing the dancers’ individuality, which he used as an expressive tool. “Undisguised, our individual traits are laid bare,” he wrote in “Private Domain,” “and our shapes, spacings, and timings are established.”

This idea is also illustrated in the surviving excerpts (only three sections still exist, on film) from “Images and Reflections,” made in 1958. They include two solos Taylor created for himself, to be danced here by John Harnage and Devon Louis.

As Harnage and Louis rehearsed these solos, you could see Taylor – a swimmer before switching to dance – exploring the range and contrasting energies of his body. In one, the dancer uses his arms like wings, stretching, curving and twisting his torso in ways that reveal the fluid strength and flexibility for which Taylor was known. In the other solo, the dancer alternates between fast, explosive movement and controlled, almost heroic passages in which he fills the space around him.

“In these pieces you can see Paul’s complete canon of movement, all those shapes, starting to come about,” said Christina Lynch Markham, who is dancing in “Fibers.” “The hardest part is to the Taylor style before it was a style.”

The dancers did much of the initial work of reconstructing the choreography, using archival films – often blurry and dark – and copious notes written in Taylor’s hand.

These notes are a treasure trove that includes both step-by-step descriptions (“rise into fourth position, right arm down”) and stick-figure illustrations. For “Events II” there are two columns, illustrating a series of poses, one for each dancer. Arrows indicate the direction in which the dancer should face, and numbers denote how many counts a position should be held. (Most of these works are not “set” to music in a conventional sense.)

What is almost never indicated, however, is the intention that underpins the movements. “Paul never let you into the mystery of what the movement meant,” said Lee Duveneck, who will be performing in “Tracer.”

For help, the dancers have Bettie De Jong, the senior rehearsal director, who joined the company in 1962. Though De Jong, like Taylor, never imposes meanings, she is an inexhaustible source of information about the dances.

“We get a lot of background from Bettie,” Markham said. “She tells us about the dancers who were in these pieces, their personalities, and how they liked to move.” De Jong also remembers where movements from these early works reappeared in the later repertory, and what they looked and felt like.

The program at the Joyce will reveal a side of Taylor many have never seen. “I programmed it this way intentionally,” Novak said. “The flip Paul made when he created ‘Aureole’ will be amplified when they see what came before.”

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