“Modern dance is a bottomless pit of possibilities and I have only scratched the surface” (Paul Taylor)

This year’s DANSOX Summer School was, of course, conducted online. At a time when the coronavirus has made us acutely aware of our bodily fragility, I was particularly struck by a focus on the corporeal in these seven lectures, the first two concentrating on American choreographer Paul Taylor, the second of which is discussed in detail here. All of the lectures remain available on YouTube via the St Hilda’s website.

I must confess to not having heard of Taylor – but was relieved to hear from the webinar that followed that I was not alone. As well as Alastair Macauley’s guest lecture, I highly recommend his obituary of Taylor in the New York Times – the comments are a joy to read and show how highly regarded Taylor was in his native land.

Parisa Khobdeh, a Paul Taylor dancer, gave a fascinating insight into his early life as a swimmer and visual artist and how this formed his particular body as a dancer. She spoke eloquently of his artistic development in dance and of the challenges he set himself, as well as her own personal and professional development. From age 22 to 38, she discovered herself as a dancer with him and his influence on her continues beyond his death (in 2018).

Born in 1930, Taylor had the opportunity to learn with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and was influenced by both Balanchine and post-modernism. Khobdeh spoke of his emphasis on angularity and movement from the back, illustrated by his solo from Junction (1961). There were also excerpts from Eventide (1990s) where Taylor shows his interest in pedestrianism, and Promethean Fire (2002).

After Seven New Dances, using John Cage’s 4’ 33”, when people walked out of the theatre, Taylor changed his approach, and Aureole (1962) is a white ballet in lyric form with clean lines and curves but with an emphasis on an earthbound, natural world. This was his first major success, revolutionary in his use of classical music (Handel) for modern dance. Although he considered himself an atheist, Taylor described his solo in this piece as a prayer.

Taylor’s creative development was maintained through imposing limitations on himself, via structure, space or music. A duet from Musical Offering illustrates his interest in the Archaic, imposing 2-D images and language to develop a social character-driven lyrical dance with different movement language shapes. This piece was inspired by finding wooden figurines in New Guinea. In Lost Look (1985), the most dystopic piece he choreographed, there is a duet where mirrors are placed as obstacles in the dance space to reflect the narcissism of the characters. Khodbdeh spoke of the challenges of dancing in this ‘grotesque’ piece – a bastardised lyric form. In his thematic, story-driven pieces Taylor explored the obstacle of ideas.

We were next treated to 5 different lectures of recent dance scholarship. Marcus Bell discussed the Tragic in the work of Pina Bausch and the influence of history on her post-war German dance company at the time of AIDS in the early 1980s. Joseph Kay offered a fascinating take on music and dance notation form. Gabriela Minden on W H Auden and Rupert Doone and Megan Smith on John Haskell brought in elements of English Literature – drama, poetry and the novel – to look at dance and the use of corporeal power.

Finally, our own Susie Crow’s discussion of the ballet class, from her recently completed doctoral thesis, brought us right back to the present, suggesting that today’s restrictions on space for dancing give an opportunity to look for performative inspiration from a wide range of online sources, to play with minutiae, and to enrich our understanding of dance movement via inner sensation not merely through an external mirror or screen.

Susanna Reece

23rd August 2020

You can watch all the DANSOX Virtual Summer School presentations Susanna mentions, as well as some previous DANSOX lectures, on the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building YouTube channel here

Find out about the ongoing work of Dance Scholarship Oxford DANSOX and how you can support it here