At the age of 83, with a reputation as one of the world’s greatest living choreographers and having earned the most prestigious awards the arts can bestow, you might expect Paul Taylor to rest on those laurels. But it’s doubt, not success, that sustains him.
“I see things, and I wonder if I can do that,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s always a challenge; if it’s not a challenge, it’s nothing. And that’s why doubt is a help.”
That doubt has produced a substantial body of work — 139 dances to date. And Taylor continues to create an astounding two to three new pieces a year.
From Nov. 1-3, Boston audiences will have the opportunity to see a mix of his past and present work at the Citi Shubert Theatre as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston’s 75th season. The program, which features three diverse dances drawn from different decades, offers a glimpse into where the famed Paul Taylor Dance Company has been, as well as where it’s going.
“Because he’s been creating for so long and has quite a legacy, it provides sort of a look back into the history of dance in America,” said Gary Dunning, the Celebrity Series’ executive director. “There’s a lot of modern dance, now that we’re in the postmodern phase, and this is how it started and who started it in many ways.”
Taylor began choreographing on a handful of dancers in 1954. The next year he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he spent seven seasons as a soloist. He went on to work with master choreographers Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine; it was Balanchine who set the solo “Episodes” on him in 1959. All the while Taylor was creating dances for his own troupe and developing a distinct style — one that didn’t always sit well with critics.
He privileged everyday movements like walking, running, or even standing still. (“Epic,” his 1957 study in non-movement set to the voice of a telephone operator reciting the time, caused audience members to leave; it subsequently received a review consisting of blank space.) But it was mostly the content of his dances — poking fun at American ideals (“From Sea to Shining Sea”) or depicting controversial themes like incest and rape (“Big Bertha”) — that ruffled the establishment. Graham nicknamed him the “naughty boy” of dance.
“I don’t really try to be subversive,” Taylor said. “I just do what I think I want to see. I thought the dances that I made then were important and would be of value, but the audience didn’t think so. No one would speak to me.”
One piece on the Boston program, “Private Domain,” harkens back to this time in his career. Choreographed in 1969 and inspired by voyeurism, it features large hanging panels that obscure parts of the stage, so the dancers aren’t fully visible at all times. “It’s almost like the audience shouldn’t be there,” explained veteran company member Laura Halzack. “They’re seeing things they shouldn’t see.”
That dark, conceptual work will be followed by “Black Tuesday,” a high-energy crowd-pleaser from 2001 set to songs from the Depression era. But the performances aren’t purely retrospective. They will open with a Boston premiere, “Perpetual Dawn” — a pastoral dance the choreographer describes as being about “the dawn of a new love relationship.”
Taylor was speaking by telephone from his country home on the North Fork of Long Island, where he spends his time when he’s not working with the company in their New York City studio. It is there, gazing out over the Long Island Sound, that many of his ideas for dances are formed. “I love to look at what’s happening around me,” he said. “The little animals and birds and insects, things that move and things that don’t, boats that go by. And I’m just watching.”
He is mostly watching in the studio these days, too, his body constrained by age. But while his rehearsal director sets all the revivals, Taylor remains active in creating new works. He can’t demonstrate much anymore, but he describes the movement in his mind and his dancers interpret it until he sees what he wants. “You show a variety of things, and he’ll say yes or no,” Halzack said. “Or if he wants you to do something very specific, sometimes he’ll take your body and move it.”
I sit there with my dog, and I talk or I make a gesture with my hand,” Taylor said of his process. “Sometimes I get up and push some limbs around to get them in the right shape.” And occasionally he incorporates his dancers’ ideas. For “Perpetual Dawn,” Halzack said she and her partner received the music the day before the first rehearsal so they could prepare some phrases, “and he took the little things that we made and then — poof! — it was like magic; he turned it into something else.”
Taylor says his choreographic approach hasn’t changed much since he started out. If anything he’s more efficient because his dancers, many of whom have been with him for years, are so attuned to his style and “read my mind in a way.”
And he has already begun work on a new dance — “an ugly one,” as he put it, that sounds like a sharp contrast to the cheerful coupling of “Perpetual Dawn.”
“I can’t say much except it should be very unpleasant to watch,” he said with a hoarse laugh. “And you’d be surprised — that type of dance is the dancers’ favorite to do. They like the grotesquerie of it.”
Taylor’s appetite and stamina for making dances is reassuring to his fans. “He continues to turn out new work, and a lot of it is really interesting,” said Dunning. “I don’t doubt he has a few more masterpieces in him.”
But the choreographer is realistic about the future. He has already begun thinking about potential successors. “Plans have been made for what will happen after I’m no longer available,” he said. In the meantime, these Boston performances are a prime chance to see the renowned company while he’s still at the helm.
Then again, don’t expect a retirement announcement too soon. “He’s a very sprightly 83,” Halzack said. “And, you know, Paul’s going to live forever.”