The Meaning of Zunch: Paul Taylor "Celebrates 80" at City Center

Classic Arts Features   The Meaning of Zunch: Paul Taylor "Celebrates 80" at City Center
The company celebrates the Dancermaker's 80th birthday at its City Center engagement, running through March 14. Programs include the NY premieres of the vaudeville-themed Also Playing and an untitled Debussy piece, as well as beloved favorites from the troupe's repertoire.


In proposing his famous conundrum "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" William Butler Yeats could well have been writing about the work of Paul Taylor. So towering is Taylor's achievement as a dance- maker that it is all too easy to gloss over his importance as a dancermaker. But Yeats would have understood that Taylor's accomplishment is the result of a manifest unity of vision. A world-class virtuoso, Taylor was his own first remarkable creation. Possibly no other dancer of his hulking size: before or since: has possessed his silken flow or nuanced dynamics. Lincoln Kirstein attempted to persuade him to join New York City Ballet to dance leading roles in Balanchine ballets, but Taylor wanted to build a complete world from the ground up. He performed with his own company for the first two decades of its existence, establishing a standard for dancing of immense physical and imaginative attainment.

For 55 years, Taylor has been a Pied Piper to great dancers, drawing them to his company with the lure of his fecund movement imagination. All Taylor dancers have emulated his insatiable appetite for doing what should be impossible, for persevering against all odds, for challenging the very laws of physics, for conjuring brave new worlds. Taylor even invented a word: zunch: to describe this heroism. "Zunch is the thing," Taylor wrote to his dancers, "that sets the exciting dancer apart from the adequate one. It is the magic that sticks with the watchers after we are done."

If any choreography calls for zunch, it is Taylor's. With its Shakespearean scope in depicting the varieties of human experience, Taylor's repertory requires a company of shape-shifters to do it justice. Linda Kent, who danced with Taylor after a stint with Alvin Ailey's company, was initially concerned that dancing the work of a single choreographer might prove monotonous. But Ms. Kent found that she "never felt cheated." Citing Taylor's back-to-back creation of the tender Roses and the terrifying Last Look, she declares Taylor's world "vast" enough for any dancer.

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Linda Hodes, who had danced with Taylor in Martha Graham's company before joining his, compares Taylor's choreographic world to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. She writes that she "gladly slipped down Taylor's rabbit-hole" for explorations in art-making that were "at times wild and some- what wooly," but always in search of "something as yet unknown." As did many of Taylor's dancers, of Taylor's dancers, Ms. Hodes signed on with Taylor for a life-long ad- venture, becoming the first director of Taylor 2 and continuing today as Taylor's rehearsal assistant for Taylor's singularity is echoed in Ruth Andrien's attraction to what she calls the "off-center quality" in Taylor and his work. A dancer of extraordinary emotional lucidity, Ms. Andrien illuminated some of Taylor's greatest choreography. Possessed of a daring nature, she created the spectacular falling solo in Esplanade and danced herself to death as The Girl in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Both of these dances transform commonplace events into poetic meditations, illustrating Ms. Andrien's observation that Taylor's genius resides in "framing the ordinary in mystery."

For some exceptional artists who had found no other place to live out the vividness of their imaginations, the discovery of Taylor's world meant truly belonging somewhere for the first time. Kate Johnson, a dancer who embodied the Taylor ideal in works such as Musical Offering and Sunset, contends that Taylor's company is an oasis of dignity for dancers in a culture otherwise indifferent to their contributions. Ms. Johnson suggests that even at Taylor's audition she felt "valued" as she never had before. Patrick Corbin arrived at the Taylor Company as a self-described "very angry young man." But stepping into the studio for the first time, he realized that he had found home. He settled into the Company for 16 years, creating an indelible impression with the zunch of his dancing, before embarking on his own choreographic career. Taylor "didn't just change my life," Mr. Corbin avers, "he gave me life."

Other company members echo the idea that Taylor is a kind of Pygmalion to his dancers' Galatea. Linda Kent notes the reciprocal nature of the bond between choreographer and dancer in observing that Taylor "doesn't just want clay: he wants sentient clay." David Parsons, who spent a decade with Taylor before founding his own company, credits Taylor with demonstrating "that you can fashion your own world out of thin air." But equally necessary for his life as an artist, Mr. Parsons asserts, was learning from Taylor "that a simple existence can bring you great wealth intellectually and spiritually." And that, as it happens, is the secret of zunch: the more you give, the more you get. Dancing with unfettered generosity of spirit brings its own kind of wealth : intellectual and spiritual : in response. As spectators, we are also part of the zunch cycle, responding not only to the dancers' physical ardor but to their courage in allowing Taylor to plumb their souls.

Zunch, it seems, passes from generation to generation among Taylor dancers. Current company member Michael Trusnovec is keenly aware of his debt not only to Taylor but to the dancers who have inhabited the stage before him. He writes of the double consciousness he maintains in honoring "the lineage of the roles I dance," while "imbuing these roles with my voice, my life experiences, my pure joy." No doubt, there is a young dancer watching Mr. Trusnovec dance today who will someday honor his legacy in turn.

At the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 50th Anniversary Gala in 2005, the collective generations of Taylor dancers gathered for a celebratory curtain call. Elizabeth Walton, who had created roles in early Taylor masterworks, turned to Taylor with glistening eyes. "These dancers owe their careers to you," Ms. Walton said to him. But Taylor: with a nod to Yeats: would have none of that. "No," he replied, "I owe my career to them."


Visit City Center for tickets and schedule.

Suzanne Carbonneau is writing a critical biography of Paul Taylor to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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