When Paul Taylor was 16, he went bicycling through Mexico.
"It was a real adventure and wonderful people, a culture and traditions that I'd never known anything about," said Taylor, who would go on to become one of the most important and influential choreographers in the United States, in a recent chat at the Guggenheim with dance scholar and writer Suzanne Carbonneau, who is writing a biography of Taylor. "But there were things that happened along the way that made me feel I would never leave [the U.S.] again."
Indeed, that youthful jaunt stuck with Taylor so much that now, at age 77, he has drawn on it for two new pieces that will premiere in his esteemed dance company's 54th season. De Suenos (of dreams) and De Suenos que se Repiten (of recurring dreams) are surreal dreamscapes that refer to such aspects of Mexican culture and folklore as the Day of the Dead, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Deer Dance and the Hat Dance.
"There are hints of Mexican folk dance in these dances, but nothing like the real thing," Taylor explained. Real or imaginary, the dances were so in tune with Taylor's longtime company that, he says, "the whole rehearsal process" for the Suenos pieces took just 21 rehearsal hours, because "the dancers were so quick and enthusiastic."
Taylor's dances are not necessarily simple, but one reason his gestural aesthetic resonates with dancers and audiences alike is that his work springs from his observations of life.
"I look at people when they don't know I'm watching," Taylor told TDF in an interview last year. "I like to see people's gestures," he elaborates. "A lot of those gestural things that I've seen around me--the way people use their hands when they're speaking--are grist for the mill. They get into the dances."
We now take for granted that modern dance integrates and reinterprets everyday gestures, movements, and situations, reflecting our own humanity back at us in a disarmingly universal language. But this now-standard dance vernacular was almost entirely the innovation of Taylor, who began creating dances in 1954 after dancing in the companies of Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham.
The soft-spoken but resolute Taylor still creates around two or three new pieces a year, adding to a body of work that includes more than 125 dance works. That gives him a large palette to choose from in programming a season for his acclaimed Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the company's next "Dream" season--its 54th--kicks off with a 19-piece smorgasbord of works new and old, Thurs. Feb. 28 through Sun., Mar. 16 at City Center.
Among Taylor's recurrent inspirations are recordings by the edgy string ensemble The Kronos Quartet. These inspired last year's Lines of Loss and 2000's Fiends Angelical, both of them returning in this year's season. And the disc that inspired the Suenos pieces was Kronos' groundbreaking Nuevo album, which spotlighted music by contemporary Mexican composers and by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov.
Also new this season is the Family Matinee, a 60-minute program, including a discussion of the dances, which will be offered on Sat., Mar. 1 at 2 p.m. Also new are pre-performance discussions, "Speaking of Taylor," offered each Sunday at 1:30pm at the theatre, offered free to that afternoon's ticketholders. On Mar. 2, New York Post critic Clive Barnes will discuss Mr. Taylor's works with Taylor historian Dr. Angela Kane, Professor and Chair of Dance in the School of Music, Theater & Dance at the University of Michigan, and author of a forthcoming Taylor book. On Mar. 9, Anna Kisselgoff, The New York Times' chief dance critic from 1977 to 2005, will be interviewed by Suzanne Carbonneau, author of a forthcoming biography of Mr. Taylor. Then, on Mar. 16, Peter Schickele (alter ego of the infamous composer P.D.Q. Bach) will discuss Mr. Taylor's scores.
The rest of the season remains a vivid sampler of Taylor's evolving contributions to the form. There's the 1962 classic Aureole, which pioneered one of Taylor's signature contrasts: rough-and-tumble modern dance with seemingly prim baroque music, in this case Handel. He expanded on this successful blend with three pieces set to the music of Bach, all of them represented this season: the landmark Esplanade (1975), set to two Bach Violin Concertos; Musical Offering (1986), a requiem set to the famous Bach score orchestrated by Anton Webern and Frank Michael Beyer; and the magnum opus Promethean Fire (2002), which relates to the events of 9/11, set to three compositions as orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski. Indeed, in keeping with his observational aesthetic, his choreography has not shied away from contemporary issues.
"I have no moral attitude, really--I'm a reporter," Taylor said in the riveting 1998 documentary Dancemaker. Reminded of the quote last year, Taylor qualified that stark statement. "Well, I lie a little sometimes," he said with a chuckle. "I like to think of myself that way. I like to pose questions more than answers. It's reportage rather than journalism. But I can't help but having opinions of my own, and these slip into the pieces."
Make no mistake, Taylor's work is not generally severe or punishing. In fact, even in his boundary-breaking avant-garde period, he was perhaps best known for his wit and unpretentiousness. The sunny side of Taylor has produced a body of extremely popular works with baroque accompaniment, including the aforementioned Aureole and Bach pieces, as well as Arden Court (1981), danced to music by Boyce; and Cloven Kingdom (1976), in which Taylor's choreography reminds us that man is still an animal, to music by Corelli, Cowell and Malloy Miller combined by John Herbert MacDowell.
For his part, Taylor doesn't distinguish so sharply between his works, or look for its larger trends and themes. He's particularly puzzled by the oft-repeated notion that his work is somehow bipolar: playful romps on one side and harsh, sobering dirges on the other.
"That's what's been going around, but I think my pieces have a lot of variety within them--there's a lot of grey in there, not just black or white," Taylor said. As for the larger shape of his oeuvre, he's too much in the present tense for that consideration: "You know, I don't really think about that very much. I make one piece and then go on to the next one. I'm a one-day-at-a-time guy."
Still, a packed season like the company's 54th unavoidably confronts him and his seasoned company with a living scrapbook of past glories alongside the newer pieces. When he revisits the older pieces, Taylor confesses, "I look at them again and I think, 'Gosh, who made that?' And I wonder how it was done."
The Paul Taylor Dance Company's 54rd season runs Feb. 28-Mar. 16 at City Center, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. For more information about tickets, go here.