Dramatic changes are underway behind the scenes of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, one of the world’s most popular modern dance troupes.
Since its founding in 1954, the company has performed nothing but works by prolific dance maker Paul Taylor. With more than 140 dances to his credit, Taylor is considered by many to be America’s greatest living modern dance choreographer.
But his company’s appearance at the Lied Center of Kansas on Tuesday night may be local audiences’ last chance to see the company perform an entire evening of Taylor pieces. The troupe is changing its mission.
No longer will it exist solely as a showcase for Taylor’s work.
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“The mission up to now was to promote Paul Taylor’s work,” said executive director John Tomlinson. “But the new goal is to become a premier institution for American modern dance, a place where upcoming generations of contemporary choreographers are nurtured and showcased, where masterworks and new works of the genre are preserved and presented, and where the American modern idiom is exposed to large audiences.”
Some may compare this new plan with what the Martha Graham Dance Company has been doing for the past several years — performing Graham works alongside classic and newly commissioned pieces.
“But the difference is the Graham company didn’t do this when Martha was alive,” Tomlinson noted. “They didn’t have Martha’s leadership. We’re counting on Paul to establish a pattern and a road map for us to make this happen. He has a brilliant artistic eye, and he’s curating it all.”
Last spring, in its annual New York appearance at Lincoln Center, the troupe piloted its new initiative. Under the moniker Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, it juxtaposed Taylor’s works and watershed pieces by other choreographers performed by guest companies. In the next phase of its redirection, the company will commission and perform new works by contemporary choreographers. But only if Taylor deems the new works good enough.
Though his troupe is continuing to tour the country performing Taylor’s choreography as usual, presenters nationwide are already asking about the inclusion of the new commissions as they prepare to promote the Taylor company’s appearances in their cities next season.
Wisely, Taylor is reserving judgment, despite pressure from his marketing experts, who say they can’t effectively “brand” Taylor’s reinvented company until he makes a decision.
It is not uncommon that a dance company commissions a new work from a choreographer and, even though the artist has created admirable work in the past, the new piece is not up to the expected caliber. Nonetheless, the work is presented, as it’s often too late in the process to retreat — costumes have been made, tickets sold. Taylor is not going to let that happen.
“We commission the choreography with a contract that says there will be an evaluation in the studio before it gets produced,” Tomlinson said. “So what happens is the choreographer makes the work, Paul sees it, they have a little discussion, and then Paul determines whether or not we produce that work for the Lincoln Center stage.
“So there are no costumes built, no scenery, no lighting. Paul looks at the piece first and then decides if we want to invest in all of that, or if we just want it to be an exercise that was done in the studio, show it in a workshop, and be done with it.”
This week the company will perform three acclaimed Taylor pieces: “Equinox,” a complexly crafted, 1983 pure movement work set to Brahms; “Beloved Renegade,” an affecting 2008 work inspired by Walt Whitman; and “Piazzolla Caldera,” a tango-inflected, 1997 joyride.
Watching the dancers rehearse last month in New York, I was struck by how much responsibility they assume for taking care of the Taylor repertory. Though rehearsals are overseen by Taylor’s longtime assistant Bettie de Jong, lots of discussion occurs between run-throughs, as everyone contributes ideas about counts, spacing or the mechanics of a lift.
I spoke with two of the dancers: newbie Christina Lynch Markham, who joined the company in 2013, and veteran James Samson, a Jefferson City native, who said, “I’m third down the line,” referring to how the company always lists the dancers in order of seniority.
Lynch Markham loves the athleticism of Taylor’s choreography.
“You have to be able to jump high and then throw your body flat on the ground and roll around very quickly,” she said. “You have to be able to love the floor and love the air at the same time.”
In “Beloved Renegade,” Lynch Markham performs a role she describes as either Whitman’s mother or a dear friend mourning his death.
“Paul never tells you exactly who you are. You have to figure that out through the movement and talk to the dancers who have performed the role before you. There’s a lot of sadness in my character. She’s constantly beating herself, her legs, her chest, and grieving. She has this competition with the angel of death to try to sway Whitman to not go into the next life,” Lynch Markham said.
Samson figures prominently in a new documentary, “Paul Taylor: Creative Domain,” released earlier this month. The film follows Taylor as he creates “Three Dubious Memories,” a 2010 work in which Samson originated the leading role.
“I’m kind of the storyteller of the dance, the choirmaster Paul calls it, I’m my own character,” Samson said. “I don’t dance with anybody else. So it was a very special time for me, working with him one-on-one. It’s almost easier that way, not so many cooks in the kitchen.”
A graduate of Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in Springfield, Samson began studying dance as an 8-year-old when his mother, an accomplished social dancer, put him in tap and jazz classes at the Jefferson City Dance Academy.
“My teachers always told me I looked like a Paul Taylor dancer, but I really didn’t know what that meant,” he said. “So when I had the opportunity to go to New York the summer after I graduated college in 1993, I took Taylor classes and everything felt so wonderful on my body.
“In dance it almost has to be that way. You find your niche, what feels good on you, and that’s it. For me, it was Paul Taylor.”