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The Dancemaker 

Paul Taylor steps into Glendale

Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
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Photo by Lois GreenfieldWITH EACH NEW DANCE, PAUL TAYLOR STEPS FURTHER into the public domain. He seems to be everywhere these days: on billboards, in bookstores, on marquees. Fans know exactly who he is when he saunters out of the Alex Theater in a brown tweed jacket and tie. The formal clothing is not usual, but the air of gentility is. More than any other contemporary choreographer, he exudes a fascination with manners. Few have made as great a distinction between our public and private behaviors; few have observed as keenly the natural, almost anthropological, tradeoffs between our primitive and civilized selves. His eye, his wit, his skill at transferring observations into patterns and shapes and movements have earned him a global reputation. But he's never been as popular as he is right now.

One look at the Alex Theater's audience sneaking approving glances at him tells you that he's captured their imaginations. They feel they know him -- from Dancemaker, the engrossing film directed by Matthew Diamond that last month was up for an Academy Award, and from his dynamic autobiography, Private Domain, which has gone into numerous printings since its first publication in 1987. They know him because the Paul Taylor Dance Company has visited Los Angeles for years, and because for the past three weeks, Taylor and others associated with his company have been teaching, rehearsing and performing in L.A. as part of a new five-year residency at the Alex Theater. That's right. The Paul Taylor Dance Company is now officially a resident of Glendale.

On Saturday and Sunday, April 24 and 25, Taylor will present two recent works at the Alex: Piazzolla Caldera, which was central to the Dancemaker movie, and the ragtime-inspired Oh, You Kid!, which was co-commissioned by the Alex Theater, the Kennedy Center and the American Dance Festival.

Oh, You Kid! seals a partnership with the Alex Theater's executive director, Martin I. Kagan, whose idea it was for the Paul Taylor residency and who procured the funding from California Presenters Initiative. It is a very big deal. So big, in fact, that Taylor, who rarely travels with his company in the United States, flew out from New York to work with 14 Los Angeles­area student dancers chosen to participate in a weeklong intensive workshop. Opportunities for any young dancer to work with a master these days are few and far between. Aware that they might be intimidated by him because he is a "known" choreographer, Taylor made his sessions with the kids private.

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I had the opportunity to watch early rehearsals of Taylor's 1962 masterpiece, Aureole, prior to his arrival. Led by Taylor's associate Sharon Kinney at Conjunctive Points studio in Culver City, the rehearsals of Aureole were eye-opening. I realized that while I'd seen lots of Taylor's work over the past decade and a half, I'd never been given the opportunity to see the same piece over and over again and to have it sink in enough to really ponder how he uses music, shape, characterization. Kinney reminded me that Taylor had been a swimmer and that Aureole is very close to swimming.

"The space is almost viscous, you have to push through it and use your arms to guide the body," she said. "Think also of reflections in water, and how one pulse can set off a series of waves."

FOLLOWING THE REHEARSALS, TAYLOR GRANTED THE Weekly a rare interview.

Aureole is one of your signature works. I get the impression it came out of you full-blown. Did it feel like the opposite of work?

Yes. I think whoever makes a dance, a book or a painting hopes that at some point it will tell you where it needs to go next. So that in a way if you get something started, it begins to make its own rules, and that's very nice, because it's nice to be told what to do instead of bossing it. But with me that doesn't happen so often.

Sharon Kinney says that nine-tenths of all dancers aren't right for Aureole --- even if they are good dancers --- but that it is excellent training, because it's so specific.

If the arms are dropped down by several inches, it means something different. Isn't it strange? I mentioned to the dancers about the use of the head for certain times and certain steps and about lifting it to a light and not dropping the face down. An aureole is the light around something, like a halo or the aureole of light that's surrounding the moon or a planet. Where the face is angled in the context of the whole dance can make you feel differently and see light in different ways.

You talk about composition and light -- do you see yourself as a painter?

I see the proscenium stage as a canvas in a way, a three-dimensional canvas, a framed space like a painting might be, except not flat. I love the proscenium arch, and I love that separation between the audience and the stage. When the curtain goes up, there's still a kind of invisible separation.

I studied painting. I don't think I could have ever been a real painter, and I gave it up eventually, but it's very important to me the way that the bodies make a composition in the space. And I work very, very minutely, down to the inch, with the dancers in their spacing. I find it very noticeable if they're a little bit off. And if I do want it imbalanced, it's in order to make some kind of tension. I use the depth in the stage for tension. The upstage corners can usually be used in very different ways, emotionally almost. You can get ideas emotionally across through patterning, sometimes, depending on the context. All these things -- I guess you could call them painterly ideas that apply to painting as well as to the stage.

Emotional corners.

Yes. Upstage corners -- they're the farthest away from the audience, and they're the opposite of stage center. That's like the showoff place. If you want something a little mysterious sometimes, you can put it way up in the corner and maybe light it not as bright. There are all kinds of connotations that perhaps are subliminal to the audience, to the viewer, but nevertheless can be used as part of your tools.

What was the evolution of Oh, You Kid!?

I ran across these discs from a group called the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra run by Rick Benjamin, and he has, by remarkable luck, thousands of the original orchestra scores of this ragtime music that was written in the late 19th century to around 1910. I picked certain ones and structured a sort of vaudeville show with different acts. There were a lot of dance crazes then, some with animal names like the Kangaroo Hop and the Grizzly Bear. I took liberties with them.

[The title is] a slang term of the time. I wanted something slangy, because it's not like high art. It's just an entertainment. Hopefully.

Is there a master plan for your L.A. residency?

Oh, there is a long-term plan, and it's been very carefully put together in this series of events with the aim of working up to longer and longer performance runs. We always want to reach as many people as we can. We've toured for so many years with this effort to get modern dance out into the communities. And I'm happy to be here.

Often, when someone says he wants to reach as many people as possible, it means a load of commercialism and self-conscious marketing.

I make dances not for the public. I don't know what the public wants. The public is different people at every performance. They all have different tastes. I would hope they like my work, but of course I know they won't all like it. So I end up trying to make something I think I'd like to see. It's a matter of one person's taste, and it's not a democracy. I am not trying to give something for everybody. I mean, that would be hopeless. It's very indulgent in a way, but I don't know what else to do.

OH, YOU KID! and PIAZZOLLA CALDERA | Performed by the PAUL TAYLOR DANCE COMPANY | At the ALEX THEATER, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale | Saturday, April 24, 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 25, 2 p.m.

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