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THE HERITAGE that Paul Taylor absorbed while growing up in the modern dance scene was astonishingly productive and clear. He was a third generation pioneer in this fast developing cultural landscape, which first included the likes of Isadora Duncan and Denishawn and later Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. What Taylor himself will bequeath as a legacy--and the guy seems far from through--is one of the richest and most creative collections of work in 20th century dance. He came as a pioneer; he will leave as a master.

What did Taylor himself take from the past? He took up dance while studying art on a swimming scholarship at Syracuse University. Coming to New York, he studied with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, and Merce Cunningham, as well as taking some classical classes at Juilliard from Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor. He formed his own troupe in 1954, but also danced in the companies of Cunningham and Pearl Lang before becoming a leading dancer with Graham from 1955 to 1962. During his Graham years he took part in the 1959 New York City Ballet collaboration between Graham and Balanchine, Episodes, with Balanchine creating a special solo for the 28-year-old Taylor to Webern's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30.

IT WAS quite an apprenticeship, embracing virtually the whole spectrum of theatrical dance styles that then existed. And, of course, Taylor found time to make his Broadway debut, dancing for Jerome Robbins in the musical Peter Pan. Interestingly, his own first choreographic experiments--influenced perhaps more by Cunningham, John Cage, and the painter Robert Rauschenberg than anyone else--were very un-Graham-like explorations into minimalism, including one dance, memorably mocked in print by Graham's musical mentor Louis Horst, involving Taylor standing stock still on a bare stage wearing street clothes. But Taylor soon moved away from such nonkinetic experimentation, developing a fluid movement vocabulary usually put to thematic ends. So, to some extent, he could be regarded as a Son of Graham. But his interests, musical and dramatic, were far more widely based than hers. And theatrically Taylor had his feet fiercely planted in the cultural mix of his day in a way that Graham, with her emotional excavations of myth and legend, had deliberately avoided.

Then there was the Taylor use of dance images and constructs: that antelope lope (his version of a pas de chat) or those intersecting lines of dancers moving at differing tempi, and indeed myriad small but unmistakable signature moments, the kind of stylistic quirks that enable us instantly, almost instinctively, to distinguish between a Picasso and a Braque.

A major difference between modern dance and classical ballet is that, while classical ballet assumes that choreographers are virtually a breed apart from dancers, modern dance encourages choreographers to emerge from its ranks. The basic concept here is that you choreograph in order to dance, and many of the greatest modern dance choreographers--Graham, for example, and I think Taylor himself--envisaged themselves first as dancers, with choreography as initially only a means to that end. Therefore a major part of Taylor's legacy can be expected to come from the dancer/choreographers, sometime members of his company and as varied as Twyla Tharp and David Parsons, who have been subject to his influence.

YET HOW about the preservation of his own repertoire? You can't fossilize a dance repertoire, but you can pickle it in a love that maintains its ongoing existence. And Taylor's own dances need not be restricted to Taylor's own company. Other dance troupes, many of them classical ballet companies, have found Taylor's work to be user-friendly. To see American Ballet Theatre dance Black Tuesday may be slightly different from seeing Taylor's own dancers in the same work, but it is surely sufficiently alike to maintain the same essential spirit, and to offer, I would say, the same essential experience.

The 50th Anniversary of Taylor's own company joyously offers a body of work here-including a small, precious dazzlement of masterpieces--to be maintained. There is also, perhaps as significantly, a way of dancing-not a Taylor technique but surely a Taylor idiom. Taylor's ballets have a particular manner to them; his choreography expresses a personal charismatic character. That, in its totality of work and less tangible image, is the Taylor legacy.

Balanchine thought ballets were like butterflies that could not be kept from one generation to the next. But he proceeded to build the largest repertoire dance has ever seen and helped to assemble the apparatus to keep it alive for generations. Let us only trust that the Taylor company, in one form of another, will also long outlast its founder and begetter. There is choreographic genius here that must be kept alive.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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