The End of the Paul Taylor Era

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Portrait of the Author by Safety Third Productions

Somewhere in the late 1990s I was a scholarship student at the American Dance Festival. I recall Charles Reinhart, then the longtime director of the programgave an opening-day-ceremony speech about how a young Paul Taylor had once been a scholarship student at ADF, and that with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, he had become the Paul Taylor, whose globetrotting company would return that summer to premiere an Academy Award-winning documentary and an eagerly anticipated new commission. He asked his eager audience, “Who among you will be the next Paul Taylor?” In an auditorium filled with hundreds of brilliant dancers, choreographers and performers, I alone stood up. 

In retrospect, it seems I took Reinhart’s speech a bit literally. I’d scarcely choreographed, had the complexion of a pubescent homunculus and was endowed with an utterly unsubstantiated faith in my artistic abilities. That summer, I came to believe that if I pointed my feet really hard and made musical dances to classical music, I was entitled to a photogenic and internationally-touring dance company, a handsome paycheck, and might very well literally transubstantiate into Paul Taylor. My hypothesis had some flaws, but nonetheless, on the basis of Reinhart’s mythologizing, I decided to transfer to an arts high school, eventually got an MFA in Choreography from NYU, and won some commissions from some fancy places. I am, by all accounts, a successful artist.

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But I’m no Paul Taylor. In fact, in the two decades since my summer at ADF, not only have I not become the next Paul Taylor, I don’t know of anyone else who became Paul Taylor, either. There have been any number of undoubtedly successful artists, of course, choreographers whose work has been lauded, who have companies, who receive fancy commissions. But I can’t think of a single choreographer who didn’t already have a stable institutional base of support and regular touring in the ‘90s that has one now. This is not for lack of talented candidates, but rather evidence that two recessions, a housing bubble, a student loan bubble, 9/11 and the Internet has made it impossible for new entrants (in the absence of plutocratic wealth) to maintain a stable, internationally touring dance company. No matter what I thought as a teenager, a touring dance company is not a viable definition of choreographic success.

With every passing year in which I don’t auto-magically become Paul Taylor, I become more preoccupied with how we define the value of choreography expertise. Is a “choreographer” an expert in moving bodies around a stage or an expert in moving ideas around the world? Is “choreography” a craft or a metaphor? What does success look like for the hundreds of new choreographers graduating each year into a field crowded with talent but which is punishingly undercapitalized and in which they will be inevitably undervalued? I identify as a choreographer above all else, and these questions affect me (and my students, my friends, my colleagues, my family) personally. I don’t trust systems that perpetuate present inequities to articulate my value as an artist.

This fall I was named Artist in Residence and Fellow in Public Humanities at Brown University. This appointment — an unwieldily titled one, admittedly — grants me the space, resources and lab time to publicly ponder the future of the dance field, and to create programming that I hope will inform the regeneration of the performing arts sector. This work will result in a number of new commissioned dances, a Conference of Research on Choreographic Interfaces (CRCI) hosted by Brown in 2016, and a new podcast called “High Five Your Phone,” produced in collaboration with such phenomenal folks as Robin Zander, Kevin Clark and Victoria Nece, to be syndicated through The Clyde Fitch Report. In light of these new ventures, I am temporarily pausing my blogging here, but will publish updates periodically.

It seems likely that I will never literally become Paul Taylor. I’m trying to be ok with that, though I’ll admit every day I don’t win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, I feel I’m a disappointment to my teenage self. Nevertheless, the evolution of the dance field (and the performing arts sector as a whole) comes at the cost of stable aesthetic, institutional and ideological norms. We need to dream new dreams, rather than to content ourselves by failing at ambitions articulated by prior generations. Success isn’t the absence of failure. Rather, it is the articulation of realizable hope.

  • Thank you Sydney. I have just realized some much needed hope!!
    This view which moves beyond prior outmoded expressions of quality and success are what’s needed to imagine new forms for our work. Perhaps your research will discover ways to engage and educate, expanding our audiences to include a new dance literate and art curious public.

  • What a great piece and so correct. Thanks Sydney for your extremely relevant observations.

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