Paul Taylor's choreography is a lot like the man himself. Big, but nimble. Robustly physical, but smooth in execution. Simple in vocabulary, but extraordinarily complex upon close examination.
In other words, perfect fodder for a film documentary called "Dancemaker." And, given the fact Taylor is the most decorated choreographer of his generation, it neatly resulted in an Academy Award nomination. It had a limited release only last fall, but WQED/WQEX will air "Paul Taylor: Dancemaker" at 9:30 tonight. It's a PBS "American Masters" special.
It's a special of special interest to local dance audiences, if you will. Taylor is a Pittsburgh native, born here in 1930, though he grew up in Maryland. His company has frequently appeared with the Pittsburgh Dance Council and will be returning, most appropriately, in April as part of its 30th anniversary season.
Three stories unfold simultaneously during the course of the film. The first deals with the birth of a choreographic genius and what made him the man he is. The second follows the life of the company itself, like a snapshot in time. The third portrays another birth, that of Taylor's tango-inspired premiere, "Piazzola Caldera" (also to be seen on the PDC program in April).
The Taylor episode follows his childhood in Maryland, where he lived with foster parents, and documents events that turned him into the "ultimate loner." He is consequently called the "master of the dark and the light," and that is never more apparent than in a choice array of his works. First and foremost, the viewer is treated to three Taylor performances of the elegant solo in "Aureole," juxtaposed with the current company interpreter and lead male dancer, Patrick Corbin.
There also is the playful "Esplanade," with its dysfunctional family picture in the middle, the lovely "Airs" and the simian "3 Epitaphs." In "Cloven Kingdom," a commentary on formal and primitive society, the men comically posture in white tie and tails, while juxtaposed with their real counterparts at an evening reception during the company's tour of India.
The company members make the most of their allotted segment by dancing their hearts out for Taylor in rehearsal and performance. They also speak frankly on the difficulties of working for the master choreographer -- their constant desire to please, the resident insecurities, the way in which Taylor will pull out a stronger performance by using grating criticism. They know the performance is primary, that there are many others who are ready, willing and able to take their place. In fact, Taylor fires one of the women during the filming because she never reached her potential. Some of the dancers actively voice their resentment in the film.
But Taylor has his own pressures, mostly money-related and always creatively driven. "I get my energy from being afraid," he says. And that is what sustains him, especially when he faces the uncharted territory of a new piece.
He begins his work on "Piazzola Caldera" with a quote from the recording notes. Astor Piazzola's music is the "flawed confusion of human beings, worn away as if by acid by the labor of hands impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and urine ..." Taylor smiles, tugs the rims of his glasses and says, "I don't believe we're going to get all that, but it's a starting point. It won't all be ugly, but here it's about confrontation."
And they begin the process together.
It ends, as it must, with a tantalizing preview of the premiere, a rarity for dance lovers, who most often don't have recordings or books to use as reference. So this is a must-see for anyone who wants to attend April's Taylor performance and all those who want a backstage glimpse of an extraordinary American dance artist.