When the Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to South Florida next week, it will do so for the first time without its founder, a legend of American dance.
Paul Taylor, widely considered one of the greatest of all American choreographers, died in August at age 88 of kidney failure.
He was a trailblazer, an entertainer and a true master of his craft. The dances he created over a 50-year span were filled with invention, humor and social criticism. Always using a distinctive choice in music, Taylor developed a unique style using natural, everyday movement that made the music come alive onstage.
“If there one thing that I truly, truly, truly love about the Paul Taylor Dance Company, it is how tight-knit we are as a group and how much we trust each other,” said Michael Novak, who took over as artistic director after Taylor’s death. “There really is a pact. These are people who I trust implicitly, and that kind of honesty and openness has been a great asset to this transition — whoever it would have been. I think that the type of culture that Paul Taylor built in his company helped facilitate this process.”
The company, which will perform on the Duncan Theatre’s Modern Dance series March 22 and 23, will present three of Taylor’s dances, including his 147th and final work, Concertiana, set to a score by the contemporary American composer and teacher Eric Ewazen.
In the days before the shows, there will be other events celebrating Taylor’s life, including a screening Wednesday of Dancemaker, a 1998 documentary about Taylor. The screening will be hosted by company rehearsal director Andy LeBeau, who will join a post-screening Q&A hosted by Mark Alexander, director of theaters for Palm Beach State College.
The following night, Thursday, the theater will host the screening of another documentary about Taylor, Creative Domain (2013). Novak will host the screening and take part in a Q&A with Alexander. Finally, on March 23, one of the company’s principal dancers will conduct a master class for intermediate and advanced dancers.
When choreographing, Taylor would often start with one minute of music that he wanted to get through on that day which the dancers had received a copy of the day before, Novak said.
“He would typically start with the pattern work and the transitions on and off the stage and from there, Paul would add the actual dance steps. He would often demonstrate different dance steps, and after watching the dancers doing them, he would say ‘I like that’ and ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘Why don’t you skip here?’ or ‘Jump or chassé there,’” he said. “Later, he added gestures or arm movements but he always had a map planned out of what he wanted and where he wanted it to happen … The dancers understood and called them their landmarks.”
Novak added that Taylor always worked chronologically, starting at the beginning of a score and working straight through to the end, though he was known to vary his rehearsal structure in response to his creative impulses. Sometimes he would start a day of new choreography with individuals in solos or duets; other times, he would start with an ensemble section.
In his last work, Taylor featured the younger dancers in the troupe by creating a suite of vignettes that included solos, duets and trios among a large ensemble. He used William Ivey Long, a longtime collaborator, for the costume design. Novak will appear in Concertiana along with several other senior company members.
“In retrospect, I feel happy that (‘Concertiana’) was the last one,” said company member Eran Bugge, who grew up in Oviedo and studied at what is now the Orlando Ballet School. “The music is so spectacular. It’s just so luscious and beautiful … It’s just soaring music and some of my favorite Taylor dances are set to soaring music.”
Other works scheduled for the Duncan Theatre’s program are Dust (1977) and Esplanade (1975), one of his most enduringly popular works.
Dust was the first Taylor dance Bugge learned “and it has a special place in my heart,” she said. One of Taylor’s darker works, it was inspired by George Wilson, a deaf-mute who was Taylor’s companion. “Paul was inspired by George and his community and the joy in that community. He didn’t see him as disabled … It is one of the reasons that Paul was a master of gesture and was very demanding about specificity of gesture … Everyone in the dance has a moment of physical affliction.”
Taylor often increased the physical challenges in his dances, said Bugge, adding that he “enjoyed seeing struggle.
“He would make movement that was almost too difficult to accomplished. It was interesting to watch that, over the years, as dancers got stronger and more technical, he would make it harder. He would change it … because he was interested in seeing the struggle, not in seeing you accomplish it.”
Dust, set to the Concert Champêtre of French composer Francis Poulenc, “has a lot of really unique movement to it. It’s really in its own little world – its own little language that I feel he never re-created in another dance.” The costumes — “nude unitards with colorful, handpainted bursts of color that juxtapose malady with beauty,” she said — are as distinctive as the set, which consists of a “giant braided rope that hangs a little off-center. It’s an obstacle we have to dance around all the time. We never touch it.”
The other dance, Esplanade, is choreographed to two violin concertos by J.S. Bach and is generally accepted as one of Taylor’s greatest works and a classic of modern dance.
“‘Esplanade’ is just a joy,” Bugge said. “I love dancing it and people love seeing it over and over again … It doesn’t have a narrative but it has so many human moments to it that people can make such an emotional connection to it.
“Paul said that there isn’t a single dance step in it,” she said. “It is all pedestrian movement, but obviously, it is elevated to a point it seems that no pedestrian could do it.”
In 2015, Taylor launched a new challenge for the dancers in his company. He revamped his annual season at New York’s Lincoln Center under the heading of “Paul Taylor American Modern Dance,” presenting not just selections from his vast repertory but also the works of Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon, Donald McKayle and Trisha Brown.
It was after last year’s season that Taylor called Novak, a nine-year veteran of the company, to come in for a meeting.
“Paul was a very quiet man and as an artistic director, he was very selective with his words,” Novak said. “I would almost say that no news was good news with Mr. Taylor. So, when I received a phone call that he wanted to have me over, I had no idea what it was in regards to. I did not expect him to name me his artistic director-designate at all. No one knew that he was looking …
“And also, he didn’t phrase this as a question, it was a directive — that he had been giving this a lot of thought — and he had decided that I was the one to take over the company once he was gone,” Novak said. “It came completely out of the blue. It took my breath away.”
One other thing that Taylor was adamant about: That Novak continue dancing even while running the company.
“I intend to fulfill that wish as long as I can, as I am a dancer at heart,” he said.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company will perform Friday, March 22, and Saturday, March 23, at the Duncan Theatre, on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth. Both shows are at 8 p.m.
Screening of Dancemaker, 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 20; with Andy LeBeau and Mark Alexander; free admission
Screening of Creative Domain, 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21; with Michael Novak and Mark Alexander; free admission
Open master class for intermediate and advanced dancers, 11 a.m. Saturday, March 23.
For tickets and further information, call 868-3309 or visit duncantheatre.com.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected as of March 18 to remove a reference to choreographer Ruth St. Denis. Paul Taylor American Modern Dance has not presented works by St. Denis.