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The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators
(1998), Jean Morrison Brown (Editor)
Private Domain: An Autobiography (1999), Paul Taylor
Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in
Contemporary Dance (1997), Ann Cooper
.Dancemaker is destined to be required watching for anyone with an
interest in modern dance. Its chronicle of the Paul Taylor Dance Company is, despite a few
bothersome aspects, a well made, eminently watchable and enjoyable documentary, using
standard techniques - new and archival footage, talking heads. That it is so well done
makes its principal failure, though not a fatal one, annoying. While the film does allow
some of the warts and a bit of controversy onto the screen, it is, nonetheless, so totally
worshipful of Taylor that it takes on the tone of propaganda.
At least a couple of times we are treated to the claim that Taylor is the greatest choreographer of modern dance. Why is such an absolute assertion necessary? It immediately raises questions in the viewers mind. What about Taylor's teacher, Martha Graham? And is Mark Morris chopped liver? Isn't it good enough to be one of the greatest, without laying claim (and opening a meaningless argument) to being number one? Once the claim is made, too, it puts the filmmaker on the spot to prove it in his film, an impossible task.
Now that that is off our chest... The portrait presented is of a great creative artist, in a collaborative art, who has built a company around himself to serve that art. Particularly interesting are scenes where Taylor works individually with one or another of the dancers, creating the dance through interaction with the dancer, changing and developing the movements. One of the dancers says that Taylor "creates a dance on you": the dancer for Taylor is like a musical instrument for a composer, with the key difference, of course, that the dancer is a living person, not just, say, wood and catgut.
If, on the one hand, the company exists as the expression of the art of its choreographer, it is also a community of people and attention is paid in the film to the bonds amongst the dancers, Taylor, and all the others involved. At the same time it is an autocratic community, with Taylor having total authority; the term "father" comes up more than once. When Taylor brusquely fires dancers who no longer are serving his purpose, the dysfunctional aspects of such a family are revealed and, indeed, the entire "family" metaphor comes into question. Families, after all, are about staying together, not ejecting the less-than-perfect.
The film is full of wonderful dancing. The opening shots from the wings of Esplanade convey some of the astounding energy of this dance - leaping, twirling, rolling dancers with their heavy breathing fully audible on the sound track. The Herculean physical demands made of the dancers' bodies is a running theme in the film, including some cataloguing of how their bodies are truly abused in the process. Ah, what we do for art!
There is a remarkable piece of film of the dance Aureole, a segment for solo male dancer. Archival clips of Taylor himself dancing the part are intercut with clips of current dancer Patrick Corbin doing the same dance. Not only is it fascinating to compare the performances, but the viewer can literally see the historical continuity, the steps of the dance being passed from generation to generation. This brilliant bit of editing alone would justify the entire film. Unfortunately, it is tarnished when, at its ending, cutting short that lovely moment of conclusion, the soundtrack blares out a ringing telephone and there is a quick cut to the next scene. Aesthetically poor choice here.
There is another wonderful scene of the company dancing at a gala performance in India when the sound system goes down. While the camera shows the technicians dealing with the crisis backstage, we can see from the wings that the dancers continue dancing and don't miss a beat.
The shots of Last Look are annoying. The idea was to show the dance from the dancers' point of view. While the success of that communication is questionable, the screen picture is cutting off heads and feet and jerking all over the place. A lot of self conscious camera work and editing, but no way to watch a dance.
The film notes, as a complete portrait would need do, losses to AIDS, and Taylor's Musical Offering, a requiem piece. Taylor speaks of his overriding theme - a "sense of romance, of possible love, in face of the realities of people and experience." And later he says, "The law of nature - we move on, we separate."
- Arthur Lazere