Paul Taylor’s Dances: Mirrors of Human Nature

Nov 25, 2010

You might wonder where Paul Taylor, the world's greatest living choreographer, gets his inspiration for his iconic dances. Instead of fancy, typical dance moves, he simply takes movements as mundane as everyday walking, running and jumping and turns them into high art. However, ordinary human gestures can reveal the true side of our humanity that we have unconsciously or intentionally neglected. Taylor garners his inspiration from the hidden complexity of everyday movement and what it says about our humanity, and in his dances comments on the characteristics of humanity that we either enjoy or loathe.

The choreography of Cloven Kingdom (1976), for example, mirrors humanity's primitive nature. Dressed in tuxedoes (the men) and pastel gowns (the women), the dancers at first waltz with elegance and formality, but their movements change abruptly as the baroque music shifts into discordant percussive sounds. Animal gestures replace the gentle stylized dancing-men hop around like chimpanzees, and sometimes twitch on their backs like dying insects. In the documentary Dancemaker (1998), Taylor talked about picturing the kingdom of mankind as having two different parts: civilized and primitive. Based on philosopher Spinoza's quote "Man is a social animal," Cloven Kingdom prompts us to reflect on our human nature. Is our well-polished surface simply a mask for our wildness deep down?

Taylor's most contemporary work, Brief Encounters (2009), reflects an intriguing characteristic of our society, by showing us people who would rather engage in momentary connections than in long-lasting relationships. A female dancer lays a hand briefly on a man's hip, but the motion is soon withdrawn, suggesting a transient sexual experience. When we're attracted to one other, do we sometimes just get in and get out of the relationship as quickly as we can because we're afraid of getting hurt? Or don't want to be tied down? Or want to avoid becoming emotionally attached? In this piece, Taylor highlights and makes us think about such questions.

In creating Esplanade (1975), Taylor was inspired by a real-life scene of a girl catching a bus. Similar to contemporary visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who both use "found objects" in their art, Taylor uses "found movements" in his choreography for Esplanade. In this work, Taylor prompts us to notice how we often take such pedestrian, everyday movements as standing, running and jumping for granted, by showing us their beauty. As the dancers continuously dart across the stage in an exuberant, uninterrupted flow of movement, Taylor communicates and celebrates the joy of being alive.

In Dancemaker, Taylor referred to himself as a reporter. "I report things as I see them," he said. Honesty is the key to his choreography-being honest with what he sees in the world and truthfully illustrating his observations in his dances. Although Taylor has been creating dances since 1954, the works of this 80-year-old giant of modern dance are never irrelevant or outdated, because his honest observations and truthful portraits of human nature are timeless.

-Mercy Lo is a senior professional-journalism major in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.


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