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Private dancer.

He chews gum hard and heedlessly, like a bobby-soxer. He snows journalists with phony myths about how his dances are dreamed up. He tests his dancers' commitment by demanding that they cancel their Christmas holiday plans at the last minute to report to work, and when they protest he fires them en masse.

One might conclude from the evidence at hand that Paul Taylor is a spoiled adolescent trapped in a tall man's body. But there are no easy conclusions to draw from Matthew Diamond's essential dance-umentary Dance-maker beyond what we already know--that Taylor is the most inexhaustibly inventive and audience-friendly of American choreographers.

First as a performer and then as artistic director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which he founded in the mid '50s, Taylor has been a major figure in the dance world for the past four decades. A onetime Martha Graham dancer who would later offend his former boss by hiding his dancers' faces under shrouds, Taylor would draw his inspiration instead from such modernist painters as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His moods are as varied as the music (Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Andrews Sisters) to which he sets his masculine, liquid, and often rollicking gestures, yet his pieces are all informed by a rich, recognizable vocabulary of emotions that seduces even the most prosaic of viewers.

Dancemaker--now nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature--traces the evolution of a new Taylor ballet, Piazzolla Caldera, from rehearsal hall to premiere, stopping to chat up its creator and just about everyone in his immediate solar system: dancers (present and past), chief assistant, business manager, stage manager, designers, critics. In marked contrast to Jerome Robbins, who could be a beast, or Twyla Tharp, who can be a pill, Taylor exudes an affability and a vulnerability that seem to get the best out of his company.

The genial pose turns out to be a mask that conceals God knows what. As dance critic Anna Kisselgoff observes: "Paul can sound very sweet, but then you have to wonder what it is he is really thinking about." We never find out. There are tidbits about his farm-to-prep-school upbringing, but we are able to glean no muse, no lovers, no hidden key to his art. And the G word never comes up either, although there's an artfully worded allusion to "someone in Denmark" who broke Taylor's heart.

A former dancer himself, director Diamond excels at putting us in the thick of the process, from mid-performance huffing and sweating (recalling the backstage voyeurism of Robert Altman's TV filming of the Broadway dance musical Black and Blue) to in-rehearsal klutziness and uncertainty. One riveting moment sees Taylor working out a movement with dancer Francie Huber, whose eyes burn with concentration as she tries to ape and anticipate his every gesture. There is a wonderful rehearsal shot that shifts our gaze away from the foreground dancers to capture the intensity required for two dancers in the rear to hold a pose, staring into each other's eyes.

One of those dancers, the comely Patrick Corbin, would appear to be Taylor's new heir apparent after the death of company star Christopher Gillis. The camera movingly captures Taylor as he reckons with the toll that AIDS has taken on his company. In analyzing Taylor's output, however, Diamond misses the mark. Noticeably absent is any appreciation of the sheer wit and joie de vivre that distinguishes much of his work--how often have you heard a dance audience howl with laughter?--or any understanding of the qualities that Taylor looks for in his dancers. Dancemaker transcends its star focus to be a compelling document of the unique fears, aches, and rewards of a dancer's life. Amid the ensemble hubbub, however, its subject remains an enigma: a man alone, chewing gum.

Stuart is theater critic and senior film writer for Newsday.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Stuart, Jan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Mar 16, 1999
Words:643
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