Monday, September 7, 2015

Creative Domain, a film on Paul Taylor's process

James Samson working with Paul Taylor
So much goes into creating a dance, but we rarely see this painstaking process. Instead, most of us saunter into the theater, plop down, possibly scan the program, and expect to be entertained, enlightened, and/or challenged. Then we are quick to judge; the impatient ones sometimes can't even wait until the house lights go up before proclaiming their already firm opinions.

Kate Geis' new film, Paul Taylor: Creative Domain, follows choreographer Paul Taylor as he built the dance Three Dubious Memories, which premiered in 2010. A surprising amount of time is devoted to Taylor working in the studio with his leads: James Samson, Amy Young, Sean Mahoney, and Rob Kleinendorst, plus the chorus. We watch the very first day in the studio working on this piece as Taylor reads the casting assignments. Because he typically creates just two dances a year, being cast—or not—can have great bearing on a dancer's studio time. It's also an honor to be included (although no one is cast in everything), and the dancers give their thoughts about this selection process.

We then watch rehearsals—in some, Taylor prods the dancers into supplying poses and transitions—on into production meetings, and finally the premiere. By dissecting certain sections and interviewing the dancers and creative team involved, we gain understanding about the motives and motifs within the dance. It's fascinating, and we are shown just how painstaking it is to create a complex 20-minute plus dance. 

We also receive a broader view of daily life at the company. Morning class, physical therapy, personal relationships (well — one, in any case, as Amy and Rob are married; they partner here—somewhat unbelievably—for the first time), and the fluid, respectful relationship between Taylor and his dancers. Taylor also talks at length about his working process, including nuts and bolts about structure (he shows his notebook of diagrams and schematics), influences (or, as he winkingly acknowledges, a stolen idea from Tudor, whose work he greatly respects), choosing and working with the music, and his two basic approaches to the body in space—2D, his flat "Grecian" style used for the chorus, and 3D, with more plasticity and dimension, for the leads.
Amy Young and Rob Kleinendorst
Composer Peter Elyakim Taussig sent in his composition for Taylor's consideration, and against the odds, it was chosen. We meet Taussig as he sits in a bucolic field with his computer, working. Two longtime collaborators—costume/set designer Santo Loquasto and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton—discuss their contributions to the process as well. And Bette de Jong, Taylor's rehearsal director since the early days of the company, reveals how the choreographer uses his dancers like shades of paint; sometimes he typecasts, as he did with de Jong while she dancer, using her long limbs and inner tension in dramatic ways. 

This casting-to-type is evident as we watch Samson in the role of Chorus Master. His stature, gravitas, and clean-cut looks underscore a kind of unerring steadfastness essential to the role (and not dissimilar to several other roles either choreographed for, or inherited by, James, whose physique is similar to Taylor's as a dancer). Young, who retired last year and is intensely missed for her warmth and adaptability, similarly possesses an archetypal openness and fortitude. In this dance, she is betrayed by her mate, who bonds with Mahoney's character, and she becomes enraged, and empowered. Young also touchingly discusses how she used to be disappointed to not be chosen for dances, and rather than reacting petulantly, embraced the gifts that Taylor did offer, which seemed to lead to more involvement, or at least more appreciation on her part.

Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz focused his lens on close-up shots of Taylor and the many interviewees (Geis allows these tight shots to linger long enough to allow unspoken sentiment to come through). He also takes us into the rehearsal—in, above, and among the dancers. 

The film's premise makes sense, and covers lots of ground while tracking a very specific arc. However, presumably by virtue of timing and chance, some of the company's finest dancers are nearly invisible—Laura Halzack, Parisa Khobdeh (both of whom were injured at least during part of the shoot; Khobdeh offers some of the most poignant comments, nonetheless), Francisco Graziano, but primarily Michael Trusnovec, one of the foremost interpreters of Taylor's oeuvre in the history of the company. He is interviewed briefly, and in the final scene we see him begin to work with the choreographer on the next dance (to Arvo Part), but we are deprived of any substantial dance segments with him. If only Geis would film a sequel revolving around a dance with these missing artists. One can dream, but in the meantime, Creative Domain is a worthwhile dive into Taylor's process, and among his gifted company.

Paul Taylor: Creative Domain (82 mins, directed by Kate Geis; executive producer Robert Aberlin; presented by Paul Taylor Dance Company and Resident Artist Films), screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center starting Sep 11.

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