Over Christmas break I continued to expand my dance history knowledge with Paul Taylor’s autobiography “Private Domain.” This is one of the few dance autobiographies that I was able to read cover to cover. A lot of the dance autobiographies I have read focus more on what dance they did and when and can be quite monotonous to get through. Not Paul Taylor’s. He proves that dancers are not only creative movers but also thinkers and writers.
I personally get a kick out of reading about his first encounters with some of the greatest choreographers of all time, including Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp.
Here is an excerpt from his book describing his first meeting with Martha Graham:
“A small dot in the distance, she’s dressed in red and is carrying her own lighting equipment – a red parasol that filters the bright day, casting down a flattering shade of pink. I change directions to get a better look. Closer up, what has seemed like a smooth regal glide turns out to be sort of lurching swagger. Her face features a crimsoned mouth artfully enlarged, and she’s wearing sun glasses. Behind them the eyes – the eyes! – the eyes are dark and deep-lidded, and there’s something very wise and undomesticated in them, like the eyes of an oracle or an orangutan. That is, they look as if they’ve seen everything that’s to be seen in this world.” – Paul Taylor, “Private Domain”
And here is another excerpt about Twyla Tharp:
“She’s a little person with enormous magnetism and push – a brash but loveable Munchkin. ‘You’re cute,’ I sometimes say. ‘You’re friggin’ nuts, I’m big,’ she’ll reply defensively. She has a smart-aleck way of expressing herself. If you judge by the way her pale face seems about to ignite itself, it has the look of an underfed and slightly sour marshmallow before roasting. And, although it’s galling to admit, I suppose that in matters of yet-to-be-popular dance directions, we share a certain kind of unreasoned ambition.” – Paul Taylor, “Private Domain”
For a someone who is not a trained writer, Taylor seems to have mastered the art of descriptive writing with very little aid. The way I feel when I read his writing is very similar to the way I feel when I see his company perform: in tune and in awe. But having the prestige his company has today didn’t happen without some sacrifice.
Taylor’s book also takes us into the not-so-sunny-side of being a dancer, including little pay, hunger, homelessness, injury, depression and addiction. Taylor has fought many battles throughout his performance career, including sprained ankles, stomach ulcers, a deadly form of hepatitis and an addiction to pain meds. The last two chapters of his book describes his last dance performance in Brooklyn where he was so sick and worn out that he collapses on stage. The second to last chapter is very dark and ominous as Taylor walks us through everything that happened that evening leading up to his collapse. He didn’t know it at the time, but this would be his final performance.
Thankfully, the book doesn’t end here. He ends it on a positive note, talking about his transition from performer to choreographer as he begins teaching movement from a chair which will evolve into one of his most well-known pieces Esplanade.
You can learn more about the Paul Taylor Dance Company and view its touring schedule online at www.ptdc.org.