Backstage with the "Naughty Boy" of modern dance

This article was written for by filmmaker Kate Geis, who did the documentary "Paul Taylor: Creative Domain"

Iconic choreographer Paul Taylor works with young dancers in New York City.
Whitney Browne
I was introduced to Paul Taylor when I was about nine years old. My father, Bob Geis, was a Public Affairs Officer for the United States Information Agency in Leningrad in the late 1970s. And he hosted the already famous Paul Taylor Dance Company on a tour of the Soviet Union. He was in awe of the choreographer and wanted me to understand how important and ground-breaking he was in the world of modern dance.

Many years later, in 2002, I produced the documentary Lessons of September about how the Poly Prep school community coped with losing 10 alumni and a teacher on 9/11. My co-producer, Robert Aberlin, served on the Paul Taylor board at the time and invited me to see a performance. And seeing Taylor's dancers felt like coming home again.

Dancers under the tutelage of Paul Taylor seen rehearsingpany seen in rehearsal.
Whitney Browne
Taylor's work is emotionally deep. It grabs hold of you and does not let go. Part of the reason is that you don't know why it has this effect on you. On one level, his dances are very accessible - the action and characters are clearly drawn, lively, and human. But the emotions that drive them range from what feels like almost pre-human rage, jealousy, vanity, sexual desire, tender care, romance and pure joy.

In 2009, Robert called offering a chance to film "Taylor 2," Taylor's smaller company. We spent a weekend in Syracuse documenting the incredible community outreach this troupe of six dancers does and the film turned into a surprisingly successful fundraising tool for the Company. Apparently this pleased Mr. Taylor, and eventually led to an opportunity to do a film about Taylor himself.

Dancemaker, a magnum opus film about Paul Taylor's life, his extraordinary dancing for Martha Graham and George Balanchine, and Mr. Taylor's ground-breaking role in the evolution of modern dance, had already been made. Directed by Matthew Diamond, it is one of my favorite documentaries of all time.

My film, Creative Domain, needed to look at the next chapter in Mr. Taylor's life. We decided we would focus solely on Taylor's creative process, because that material is so rare. Robert did the delicate work of convincing Paul to agree to the film, and Paul ultimately approved that I and Tom Hurwitz, the cinematographer for Dancemaker, could make the film.

A crew was hired and we were ready to go. But then Paul had second thoughts. He became wary of having a camera present. A few days before we were to begin filming, he agreed to let the camera in, and ONLY for the time when he explained a new work to the dancers.

And then the good news: once the camera was in the mix, Paul became so involved in the creative process that he seemed to forget we were there. We tried to keep the production low-key; when Paul was in the studio we tried to be invisible. Only Tom Hurwitz and soundman Peter Miller were in the studio while Paul was choreographing. Robert Aberlin and I stayed in a small room off the studio with the door cracked open to watch Paul's process.

On days that Paul was not in the studio, rehearsal assistant Andy LeBeau and the dancers would rehearse the work that Paul had created the day before. This time, the camera could get right up close to the dancers. For visual continuity, the dancers agreed to wear the previous day's sweaty dance clothes all over again.

Iconic choreographer Paul Taylor works with young dancers in New York City.
Whitney Browne
Paul Taylor is at a point in his life when he still very much needs to create -- creating is his purpose. But when he's not creating he is content to be on his own. He has a sun-flooded apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side and a home in Mattituck, Long Island, where he does the more cerebral parts of his creative work. For "Three Dubious Memories," for example, Paul took about two months to put the dance together in his mind before he even started work in the studio.

The more energetic and interactive part of Paul's creative life happens at the studio with his dancers. This part is more verbal. But Paul shares only what is absolutely necessary to give context for the dance, and occasionally the intention of the movement. The Taylor dancers are artists in their own right so they quickly take on his choreography.

Paul chooses dancers based on the quality of their movement, and who they are as human beings. In fact, each audition begins with Paul watching a dancer simply walk. A consummate observer of people and movement, he says he can tell a lot about a person from their walk.

Mr. Taylor is often viewed as an enigmatic artist. But as I filmed him at work, I realized that his dances reveal a great deal about their creator. Amy Young, a dancer who appears in our film, explains that his dances provide "the insight we have into him." In Taylor's work, we have a lifetime of dances to better understand all the forces at work in a creative mind.