He loves the sea--"It's beginning to be spring," he said delightedly by phone last week--but that doesn't mean he's retired. Quite the contrary. The modern-dance master, whose troupe alights in Tucson on Tuesday for a single show at Centennial Hall, is in the middle of a robust 50th anniversary season. (Tucson's FUNHOUSE movement theater also offers up modern dance this weekend; see below.)
"Oh, yeah!" Taylor exclaimed when asked if he's continuing to work. He no longer tours with the troupe--"I usually send them off, and I get to stay home," he chuckled--but he hasn't stopped choreographing.
Right now, Taylor's 16 dancers are wending their way through a rigorous 50-state tour. And while they're dancing plenty of Taylor classics, including 1975's beloved "Esplanade," they're also dipping into brand-new Taylor.
His most recent dance, the 2004 "Klezmerbluegrass," was a highlight of a critically acclaimed three-week New York season in March. The new work is one a trio of dances on the Tucson program, which also includes 2002's "Promethean Fire," less than three years old, and "Offenbach Overtures" from 1995.
"Klezmerbluegrass," danced to a Margot Leverett score that cheerfully blends Eastern European Jewish tunes with Appalachian melodies, is "in celebration of Jews integrating in this country 350 years ago," Taylor said. The idea for the large group work, he added, came from the music. "It's a combination of klezmer and bluegrass. I listen to a lot of music by American Jews."
The dozen dancers dress cheerfully in bright red dresses or tights trimmed with blue. At least one New York critic found the piece "pretty and sweet" but "rather bland," but another praised it for its "genuine human feeling" and "flashy and athletic" dancing.
"Promethean Fire," composed in 2002, has nine dancers somberly dressed in black, dancing to Bach works in a minor key. It was widely interpreted as a response to Sept. 11, but, Taylor said, "I always thought it would be more universal." He acknowledged that it touches on tragic themes, but it's also about "coming back again."
"Offenbach Overtures" is a satiric piece to the music of Jacques Offenbach, Taylor said, with dancers in comical hats and boots, the women sporting red net skirts.
("Esplanade" is not on the Tucson concert bill, but the UA Dance Division will perform the work April 28-30. Set on the student dancers by a Taylor rep, the students debuted their rendition in March.)
Born in 1930, Taylor didn't come to dance until he was a young adult. But by the 1950s, he was a soloist with Martha Graham's troupe, and he also danced with Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine. While he was performing classic modern dance with Graham, in 1954, he began his own troupe so he could delve into the avant-garde. He once, famously, staged a piece with no movement at all, and a critic famously responded by running a review with no words.
Eventually, Taylor left such difficult experiments behind and embraced joyful movement, particularly the movement of everyday life, but his eclectic background has always ensured that his dances are deliciously varied. Showered with every prize the dance world can give, from the MacArthur to the French Legion of Honor, Taylor nevertheless acknowledged the choreographers who came before him.
"Everybody has influences," he said. "Graham was certainly an influence in the early days. And I admire Balanchine's work. But each generation has to find their own way."
Tucson's homegrown FUNHOUSE movement theater moves into its sixth season with Nightlight, a modern-dance concert at the UA's Stevie Eller Theatre this weekend.
Known for the musicality and the accessibility of their work, co-artistic directors Lee Anne Hartley and Thom Lewis present just two public concerts a year, one the popular fall show at Reid Park. On this go-round, they're premiering three dances indoors.
Hartley's "By the Light of the Moon," inspired by the poetry of W.B. Yeats, is danced to Irish music. Lewis' "Appearance and Apocrypha," set at the sea, has waves metamorphosing into people. But his "Hard Cheese" does a 180-degree turn away from these lyrical pieces.
It's a comical dance about rats, Lewis said last week. His six dancers wear rat tails and ears, but "no big snouts," he specified, and dance to the likes of David Byrne and Les Tambours du Bronx. Lewis and Hartley typically cherry-pick their performers from the best of Tucson's modern dancers, and the costumed rats include Amy Barr and Jamie Jennette of NEW ART, Nicole Stansbury and Lindsay Spilker of O-T-O, Katie Rutterer and teenage wonder Max Foster.
Foster, who studied last summer with the Joffrey in New York, gets a solo in "Appearance and Apocrypha," a work that asks, "Can you trust what you see?" Lewis said. Combining community dancers ages 11 to 74 with the pros, the piece also features Lewis in a duet with Julia Miller, and Nathan Dryden paired with Barr.
The narrative "starts with a boy fishing. He snags a chest in the surf, opens it, and music and light come out," Lewis said. Septuagenarian actress Roberta Streicher is a "bruja (witch) who walks out of the ocean. The waves turn into people and she leads them out of the sea."
Hartley's Yeats work depends on the phases of the moon, with the full moon representing "when life is full and wonderful, the dark moon when life is hard, and the cradle of the crescent what they (people) have learned." Hartley herself takes on the role of the Victorian Moon, dressed in "about 40 yards of chiffon in lavender, blue and white."
Sherry Mulholland, Yvonne Montoya and 17-year-old Tavia Womack portray a trio called the Mess of Shadows. In a separate sequence, 16-year-old Kiona Brown dances the part of a lover, Dryden a son and Jennifer Neuser a mother. With Womack, Brown and Neuser heavily steeped in ballet (Neuser runs the eastside Rincon Ballet), the movement actually is "kind of a mix of modern and ballet," Hartley said.
The music, by The Chieftains, Dead Can Dance and Secret Garden, has a "real Irish feel."
With a growing youth outreach program, school residencies and bigger audiences, the company is getting "better and better," Hartley said. The troupe has won numerous arts grants and racked up several picks in the Tucson Weekly's Best of TucsonTM; Lewis, formerly with 10th Street Danceworks, won the Mayor's Art Award in 2002.
"We're making a new long-range plan," Hartley said, "and we want to do touring."