Maverick Steps

Paul Taylor, at 70, is still exploring the dance frontier

Dance St. Louis' Bliss (the presenting organization co-commissioned "Black Tuesday," with the American Ballet Theater and Johnson County Community College, its first such commission) identifies one of the signatures of Taylor's choreography as "When you are in the middle of a great emotional moment, both musically and choreographically, he all of a sudden does something that is so humorous, and you go 'Wait a minute. What have I seen?'"

After Mazzini's assault, the diminutive powerhouse Lisa Viola comes onstage, and, reminiscent of Taylor's characters in his popular "Funny Papers," dances a murderous jig to the tune of "I Went Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead." The piece shifts toward its conclusion, with Corbin plaintively performing graceful turns and falls and arcs to "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" -- the whole company with hands outstretched into a thin bank of light at the finale.

In a full-dress rehearsal, with no audience to roar its applause, the sounds of the dancers -- sighs of exhaustion, their huffing breath -- are heard throughout the theater. Dancers make their efforts look effortless, but these are workers, hard workers, and Taylor is gentle with them. He lifts himself onto the Fox stage admirably for a 70-year-old dancer whose body has suffered the ravages of his art. He's centerstage again, showing Corbin how to keep his leg straight on a backward roll, working with the elegant Maureen Mansfield on a combination of steps.

With works such as "Cascade," here shown with Patrick Corbin and Maureen Mansfield, Paul Taylor crossed the boundaries between modern dance and neoclassical ballet.
With works such as "Cascade," here shown with Patrick Corbin and Maureen Mansfield, Paul Taylor crossed the boundaries between modern dance and neoclassical ballet.

When he drops from the stage, his landing is undancerly leaden. He heads outside for a cigarette before the company runs through "Black Tuesday" once again. He turns and responds to a question with a lilting will-o'-the-wisp voice.

That night, after a preshow talk and the performance itself, Taylor sits in a patio chair at the home of a St. Louis art patron, displaying a walruslike diffidence toward all of those approaching him with words of praise at the exclusive party.

"I'm really very tired," he confides when a moment is set aside for an informal interview. He rarely travels with the company anymore: "I was on the road for 20 years."

Taylor appreciates comments about "Black Tuesday" and says he liked it fine but notes, "I've seen it so many times."

He gratefully accepts a bottle of Bud from a colleague. Taylor admits that he misses the old battle lines between modern dance and neoclassical ballet. "I try to get it riled up again by saying certain things," he says mischievously, but no one seems to be taking up the provocation. When he grins, the smile lines near his eyes are deep.

In temperament and character he is far from the grandiose personalities that were Graham and José Limón, but he misses their drama: "They were so theatrical. They were theater people, and I love theater people."

More guests hover, waiting to meet him. America's greatest living choreographer tries inconspicuously to light another cigarette.

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