"Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, August 1994, Long Island, New York."
The butterfly was on the bookshelf in a little wood frame. There was glass on both sides so that you could see both sides of the wings — the vibrant dorsal pattern of tortoiseshell browns and oranges, and the pale underside, a veining of oyster and cream. I asked my friend, an accomplished writer, where she'd gotten the butterfly. "Paul Taylor. It was a gift." He'd caught it, mounted it, and framed it. Just like one of his dances.
Paul Taylor's autobiography of 1987, Private Domain, is full of the phylum Arthropoda — butterflies and moths, spiders and scorpions, mosquitoes and roaches (roommates in his first Manhattan rentals). Also in abundance are creatures of the treetop and the creek bed. "I'm crazy about anything that flies, crawls, or slithers," Taylor writes. So it's no surprise that the dance regarded as his first work of art, 3 Epitaphs, crawls and slithers, too. It was "intended to be lyric and lovely," Taylor explains in his book. "When it begins to look too pretty, however, I switch its Debussy music to some lugubrious Southern band pieces and change the lyrical movements to leaden ones." Sheathed, gloved, and hooded in black jersey, the dancers look as if they're climbing out of a primordial soup. Their skulls are massed with discs that could be amphibious suckers or a primitive cluster of blind eyes. It's as if Taylor's oeuvre begins at the beginning, with man barely bipedal, a quirk or joke of nature.
Premiered in 1956 — dance Number Four on a list that now numbers 127 — 3 Epitaphs is an inky piece of DNA, a sensibility already encoded. "I believe in Darwin," Taylor told The New York Times in 2001, "and the natural world." This belief of his, a love of the phenomenal world objectively observed, liberated Taylor into a choreographic realm previously unexplored. Just as Martha Graham, Taylor's indirect mentor and choreographic mother, created a distinctly female dance theatre of dark fates and archetypal egos, Taylor would be the Eagle Scout with the chemistry set, the class clown who eats the earthworm, the scientist seeking odd specimens, and sometimes Huck Finn in his unblinking eloquence.
When he set out to make his first dances, Taylor wasn't sure what he wanted to do, so he focused himself by deciding what he didn't want to do. His choreography, he wrote, "would be antipersonality, unpsychological (no Greek goddesses), would achieve a specific effect (no Merce dice decisions), and would have a style free from the cobwebs of time (no ballet)." From there he began to look at people, how they moved in banks, theatres, on the street. He began to play with stillness, noting how postures tend to get blurred "and so it's necessary to surround each with stillness." He had the Graham technique in his body, but he shed her grave baggage, and pushed that misterioso plastique into the playground, taking little arcs and steps from (yes) ballet, but more important, filching charismatic movement wherever he found it, whether in the farmyard, the sports stadium, the dance hall, the anthill, the dog run, the two-reeler, the zoo, you name it.
At a recent outdoor performance of Taylor's work, the program note read, "Fifty-three years after he made his first avant-garde works, he has a collection of 125 dances." Not a repertory of dances, mind you, but a "collection." The word offers a unique window into the endlessly engaged, kinetically alive imagination of this artist. There is no sense of obligatory subject matter in Taylor's theatre. He reaches for what attracts him, amuses him, and in some cases for what repulses him. "Like in butterfly collecting," he's written, "the idea is to net the best beauts for scrutiny." Even religious faith, sacrosanct to so many, is just another beaut to be studied, as Taylor has done in both Speaking in Tongues and The Word.
And when he does choreograph something lyric and lovely, Taylor is sublime. Aureole, premiered in 1962, was the first work in a wing of the collection that today includes Airs, Arden Court, and Roses. To the music of Handel, costumed in white, it's as airy and skippery as the cabbage white butterflies that danced through Taylor's childhood summers. An aureole is the luminous circle of light surrounding the sun. In this dance I think it also suggests the mammality of man, nursed at the nipple — the milky purity in which we're born. Notice how the steps of Aureole seem contained within a Leonardo-esque bubble, rarely reaching beyond the radius created by fingertips and toes in a natural extension. Even the magisterial adagio Taylor created for himself, so much of it balancing on one foot, seems to wind and curve inside a sphere of space. Taylor could be quoting Hamlet: "What a piece of work is a man! ... in action how like an angel!"
As is Taylor's way, however, he isn't in thrall to just one view. In 1977, as if looking to the underside of the same speech — "And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" — he would explore the human body in its affliction, mortality, in a dance called Dust.
Taylor has been compared to Picasso for the distinctive imprint his work bears. He's been compared to both Mozart and Balanchine for his versatility and fecundity. In writing about Taylor technique, Lincoln Kirstein invoked the poet William Blake, who had to "invent his own system or be enslaved by another man's" — and Taylor's system (his choreographic calipers) often captures the same social hypocrisies, spans the same Manichaean extremes, as Blake's. But these comparisons miss a key element of Taylor's genius, and that's the plain American eye and ear of it. For artistic stature, compositional power, the existential honesty of his vision, and his simple lyric rapture, I would compare Taylor to the poet Robert Frost.
Frost once called himself a "bursting unity of opposites," which is Taylor to a T. He wrote knowingly of nature, the momentary idylls, the humming machinations behind the picture postcard. His poem "Design," about a spider, a moth, and a flower — "Assorted characters of death and blight / Mixed ready to begin the morning right" — could be the epigraph of many a Paul Taylor dance. And think, too, of the way both artists make so much out of so little. In a recent essay in The New Criterion, the musicologist Dan Brown observed of two Frost masterpieces, "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods," that neither one contained a single metaphor or simile. Instead of such artifice, the poems employ strokes that are "a hyperbole, a joke, a bit of unwonted diction, a gem of compression, and a little tonal funning … each supplies, in its own way, the energizing otherness that metaphor brings to a poem." This description is equally true of Taylor's beloved masterpiece of 1975, Esplanade, set to the music of J. S. Bach, and famously made of schoolyard steps — hops, skips, falls, crawls, tags, slides, stops, rolls, running leaps into waiting arms, full of flying swing-set skies. This is Paul Taylor — Homo sapiens, in excelsis.
Laura Jacobs is the dance critic of the New Criterion and a writer at Vanity Fair. Her collection of dance criticism, Landscape with Moving Figures, was published in 2006.