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Paul Taylor brings world premiere to St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 18, 2008 - Paul Taylor is in St. Louis this week to direct the world premiere of Beloved Renegade, a work for 15 dancers inspired by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. The motivation for the dance was Leaves of Grass , a volume of 12 free-verse poems that exalt the body and soul as one.

“Paul had been re-reading Leaves of Grass, and it hit a new resonance,” said John Tomlinson, the company’s general manager. “He was aware of what Whitman did for this country and wanted to pay tribute to him by setting some of his ideas to dance.”

The Paul Taylor Dance Company chose St. Louis for its world premiere because of the city’s longstanding association with the troupe. With the enduring support of Dance St. Louis, the ensemble of 16 dancers has performed here eight times in the last 45 years. “Paul wanted to reaffirm this collaboration, and staging a world premiere in the city is the best way of giving back,” Tomlinson said.

To find the right music for Beloved Renegade, Taylor sifted through his collection of thousands of CDs. He came across Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, a delicate, sensual composition for chorus and orchestra written in 1959. The effortless melody and grace of this score meshes well with Taylor’s choreographic homage to Whitman’s verse. Set and costume designer Santo Loquasto, with whom Taylor has worked exclusively since 1988, has created a scenic painted scrim for the production that complements the choreography without overpowering the dancers’ movements.

The Man

Taylor was born in 1930 in Edgewood, Pa., near Pittsburgh. He trained as a competitive swimmer in high school, and entered Syracuse University on a swimming scholarship. Majoring in art, he focused primarily on painting and sculpture. But after enrolling in modern dance classes in his junior year, he knew that dance was his calling.

In 1952, Taylor moved to New York City, where he received a scholarship at the prestigious Juilliard School. He studied with the great pioneers of American modern dance — Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, José Limón, and Merce Cunningham — as well as with two masters of the ballet world: Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske.

Taylor proved to be a commanding performer, and danced throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s with a variety of modern dance companies, including Merce Cunningham, Pearl Lang and Martha Graham. In 1954, he assembled The Paul Taylor Dance Company, a group whose Minimalist movement experiments became the cutting edge of avant-garde performance art. Taylor’s dances sometimes displayed irreverence toward the earnestness of his modern dance predecessors. It’s no wonder that Graham called him the “naughty boy” of dance.

Taylor was the first choreographer to incorporate ordinary pedestrian movements and gestures into modern dance. “I look at people when they don’t know I’m watching,” he mentioned in a 2008 interview with the Theater Development Fund. “I like to see people’s gestures. A lot of those gestural things that I’ve seen around me — the way people use their hands when they’re speaking — are the grist for the mill. They get into the dances.”

The Dance

In Taylor’s signature piece Esplanade, Taylor deftly juxtaposes everyday movements — walking, running, leaping, and jumping — with the sophisticated baroque melodies of J.S. Bach.

“It is an example of the greatest modern dance,” Tomlinson said. “It’s high-spirited, emotional and brilliant.” Created in 1975, Esplanade is the first dance Taylor choreographed after retiring from the stage. The work shows a higher level of sophistication than many of his earlier pieces. Beginning with Esplanade, the women’s roles take on greater importance, and the company expresses a stronger sense of community on stage.

Principle dancer Julie Tice, a native of Petersburg, Ill., is one of nine dancers performing Esplanade this weekend. During her eight and a half year tenure with the company, she has performed the work numerous times.

“It never gets old. It’s a joyous, athletic piece,” Tice said. “The last section of the piece takes our pedestrian movements to an extreme. You’ll see dancers leaping into the arms of other dancers, or executing baseball slides across the entire expanse of the stage.”

Scudorama, first performed in 1963 for the American Dance Festival in New London, Conn., is described by Taylor as “a dance of death leavened with light touches.” Named after scud clouds, the low-lying clouds that move rapidly toward us before a storm, the dance addresses a concept of fear, tension and impending doom.

The matinee performance will feature Changes, a work that premiered at the San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary last April. Set to the music of The Mamas and the Papas, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this work draws intriguing comparisons between the Haight-Ashbury hippie culture and our world today. 

Sydney Norton is a dance and visual arts writer. She works in the department of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. 

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