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A Homebody Whose Dances Travel Well

Paul Taylor likes to stay put when his company hits the road.


Choreographer Paul Taylor has been at the forefront of modern dance for nearly five decades, and at age 71, this veteran figure, who admits to still smoking up to three packs of cigarettes a day, has no plans to retire. Although he stopped touring with his New York-based Paul Taylor Dance Company years ago, he is still the guiding force behind the troupe that has been to more than 450 cities in 60 countries.

His list of awards, honors and accomplishments rivals the thickness of a phone book, including three Guggenheim Fellowships, a MacArthur Fellowship, a 1992 Emmy for the televised version of his dance "Speaking in Tongues" and the National Medal of Arts, presented to him by President Clinton in 1993.

But at the heart of everything is Taylor's work: At last count, he has created more than 115 dances for the company he founded in 1956, including the classics "Aureole," "Esplanade" and "Company B." Newsweek called him the world's greatest living choreographer.

Not bad for a boy from Washington who didn't start dancing until he reached college, where he exchanged an interest in art for dance. Taylor then went to New York City to study dance at Juilliard and joined the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he performed as a soloist. The rest, as they say, is dance history.

Taylor, a bit of a recluse, has had a house on Long Island's north shore for more than 35 years, a place where, he says, many of his neighbors don't know who he is or what he does.

Life there, with his dog, bird and, at one time, a pet pig named Sugar, includes gardening, reading and listening to music. Oh, yes: Taylor also cooks up ideas for dances there.

Last year, the company completed a five-year residency at Glendale's Alex Theatre, and Taylor is in talks with the Music Center to come to the heart of Los Angeles beginning in June 2003.

Until then, fans of this iconic choreographer will have to make the trip to the UC Santa Barbara, where his 16-person group performs a trio of Taylor pieces, including two favorites--"Arden Court" and "Piazzolla Caldera"--and a work new to Southern California, "The Word" (1988). Talking by phone from his seaside home, Taylor discussed his company's upcoming performance.

Question: When you abandoned painting for dance, did you ever dream you would have a company that would still be going strong nearly 50 years later?

Answer: No. I wanted to be a painter, but I didn't think that was such a hot idea [because] I doubted I [would] be very good. I discovered modern dance, and that seemed like a better idea. I never intended to be a choreographer. I just wanted to be a dancer and let somebody else tell me what to do. [He laughs.]

Q: The company tours 30 to 35 weeks a year. How do you decide what dances to tour and why did you stop traveling with the company?

A: I stopped dancing years ago, and there wasn't anything for me to do on the road anymore. I had a 20-year run, so it was about time, I thought. I try to make balanced programs and these pieces just happen to be in this year's repertory.

Q: What do you think is the continued appeal of "Arden Court," a dance you made in 1981?

A: It's a happy dance. There's nothing abrasive about it. The movement, of course, it always goes back to the steps themselves and how the dancers perform. I think the company should get a lot of credit when people like my pieces. I figure if I make the dances really right, nobody notices the choreography--they're looking at the people.

Q: Martha Graham once said, "The body doesn't lie." Is this an operating premise for you as well?

A: I think the body does lie. We have to have a lot of artifice in theater. If you look at animals--and we're descended from them--they're very cagey. Their bodies sometimes do tricky stuff, pretending they feel one way when they actually feel another way. That happens in dance.

Q: Let's talk about "The Word," with its commissioned score by Leonard Bernstein protege David Israel. It's somewhat religious in tone--dealing with schoolboys in uniform, hazing and acceptance. Why did you bring it back? What was the work's inspiration?

A: It's just a general idea I have about organized religion. I'm an atheist. Or a lapsed Episcopalian. I had talked to David, and we had been going up to [New York's] Met Museum and looking at old Byzantine art. But the piece doesn't look Byzantium. We didn't dress it that way. The designer [Santo Loquasto] decided to dress them all alike--like automatons.

Q: What are you trying to say in this piece--beware of conformity, hypocrisy, an overly puritanical society?

A: I'm a little leery of stating my message for each piece, because in a way it seems like cheating. If the dance isn't meaningful in some way to the people that watch it, then it failed. I think of dance as a communication, [but] I like to leave things up to the people that watch.

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