Paul Taylor and the economy of gesture

A scene from Paul Taylor's "Esplanade."

CBS News

A giant of modern dance, Paul Taylor died on August 29, 2018 at age 88. The following profile by correspondent Eugenia Zuckerman was aired on "Sunday Morning" on March 12, 1995:


With over 100 dance works spanning four decades, it would be hard to pick just one that defines Paul Taylor, but "Esplanade" comes close. To see "Esplanade" performed is to witness the stunning athleticism and irrepressible lyricism that define Paul Taylor's work.

Esplanade (part one) by Paul Taylor by Company | E on Vimeo

First performed in 1975, it is still recognized as a masterpiece, one of many.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company has been seen in over 300 cities at home and abroad. His modern dances are in the repertories of leading ballet companies around the world. He has received countless awards and honors, including a MacArthur "Genius Award" and a Kennedy Center Honor.

But for Paul Taylor, the greatest joy is not in the praise for work already done, it is in the work of the moment.

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Taylor (rear) watches over a rehearsal of his company. CBS News

"You've said that you've always trusted your own imagination – what did you mean by that?" Zuckerman asked.

"Well, I don't have any reason not to trust it," Taylor replied. "I mean, I've made some real lulus. Terrible dances at times, I know. But for the most part, dances always seem to me intimately limitless and so rich in possibilities that I don't see how anyone could run out of ideas. [That] seems a very funny idea to me."

Taylor's imagination is romantic and hopeful, but it encompasses the harsh, the hurtful and the perverse. It is the world as he sees it, not necessarily as it would like to be seen.  

Zuckerman asked, "The business of pleasing an audience – in other words, the enjoyment for the audience – do you think about that when you're choreograph?"

"No, I just hope for the best. I can't figure audiences out. There's so many different people in an audience, and they all, I assume, have different tastes. And I think it's kind of a lost cause to try to make a piece to please an audience. I've never tried to do that. I can only try to please myself and hope for the best.

The ferocious intensity of many of Taylor's works is all the more striking when the man who crafted them is such a low-key and unassuming gentleman.

Taylor shuns the limelight. He is happiest in the seclusion of his Long Island home. There, a small church from the "Dance in America" set of his "Speaking in Tongues" is a guest house. The ocean is his backyard.

Does he get good ideas for dances there? "No. No. I try not to think about that when I'm here!"

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Paul Taylor on Long Island. CBS News

Zuckerman asked, "When you come here, do you find often that you just feel more still, or..."

"I think stillness is one of the hardest things one can do," said Taylor. "As a dancer, it's very important, the quality of stillness, and there are few dancers that do it very well, I think."

Stillness was an early hallmark of Paul Taylor's work. In 1957, he presented a concert called "7 New Dances." One piece, called "Epic," was danced by Taylor himself. The score, as such, was a telephone tape announcing the correct time.

In another, Taylor stood; a woman sat. Neither moved for three minutes.

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In one of his "7 New Dances," from 1957, featured Taylor dancing to a telephone recording; in another, he and his partner were motionless for three minutes. CBS News

One review was simply a blank column.

Such economy of gesture is essential to understanding Paul Taylor. He wants his dances to reflect everyday movement, natural movement--walking, running, skipping, jumping, things you see in the street.

But for Taylor, the dancer must take these pedestrian movements beyond what seems to be humanly possible; making the ordinary becomes the artful.

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Paul Taylor demonstrates moves for his dancers. CBS News

"What is it that you look for in a Paul Taylor dancer?" Zuckerman asked.

"Well, I look for somebody I like, you know, because I'm going to have to work with them presumably for quite some time," he said. "And I found that my life is a lot more pleasant if I can work with people I truly like and admire.

"It's a great joy if I feel I've helped someone along the way, someone I like in their profession. That's nice."

This season, Taylor called upon company dancers to submit their own choreography. He wanted their work to be seen. He reworked the dances into a full-length send-up of the comic strips called "Funny Papers."

"They would let me do anything I wanted with their beautiful choreography, so I took bits and pieces and sometimes whole sections with the idea that it all had to be a unit, an overall thing," Taylor said. "And the music, again, was the instigator here – used really dumb pop music. I mean, really, the bottom of the barrel!"

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A scene form "Funny Papers." CBS News

One of the contributors to "Funny Papers" was dancer David Grenke: "Something that I've come to realize with Paul is what makes him a genius is at those times when he doesn't know what he's doing, when it just comes spilling out. The reason he's the genius to me is because of his instincts. And that's what it comes down to, is his instincts are phenomenal."

Zuckerman asked Taylor, "What is it in dance that still fascinates you and always did?"

"The unknown. The moment just before the curtain goes up and what is going to be there. What can be there? What new world? What new paths? I think of dance and dancers as being a giant thing. They're bigger than life. I think they should be. And they're special people."