NEW YORK — Paul Taylor has been making dances since the mid-1950s, when he was a young performer with choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham.
Unlike the intensity of Graham or the abstract musings on the nature of dance by Cunningham, dance as Taylor sees it can be about any subject and performed in many styles. The repertory he has created since forming the Paul Taylor Dance Company ranges from lush and lyrical works to others that examine the customs and politics of contemporary society.
A recent evening at a performance by the dance company displayed his notions about dance, past and present. His latest piece, "Oh, You Kid!" enlivened the company's New York season last month and now is part of the repertoire touring the United States.
Set to American popular music from the ragtime era, "Oh, You Kid!" would be bouncy theatrical entertainment, except for one disturbing image: Taylor has inserted a chorus line wearing the white pointed hats and masks of the Ku Klux Klan, interrupting the otherwise sunny recollections of America at the turn of the 20th century.
In a vaudeville-style presentation, "Oh, You Kid!" unfolds beneath a second proscenium arch erected at the rear of the stage to include a soft-shoe number in Taylor's off-kilter patterning; a hysterical recollection of the American women who imitated the exotic Asian performers at the world's fairs; and a ballroom segment.
A vignette from the early silent films - with a heroine tied hand-and-foot to the railroad tracks by a villain cackling with glee and a preacher conducting a wedding for a goofy bride and groom - is a reminder that live performers would soon be pushed off the stage in the 20th century by moving pictures.
One Taylor program opened with the flowing, abstract movement of "Roses" (first performed in 1985), set to Richard Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," then flipped in mood to "The Word" (which premired earlier this year), a chilling portrait of a totalitarian society.
A menacing work about 11 schoolchildren dressed in dark knickers, shirts, and ties, who enact a lock-step ritual directed against one of their number, "The Word" is a choreographic reference to William Golding's novel "Lord of the Flies." The evening ended with "Oh, You Kid!" - evidence of the breadth of the Taylor spectrum.
The repertoire for the tour also includes Taylor's "Piazzola Caldera," last year's hit about the smoldering passions of the tango; the frothy "Offenbach Overtures" (1995); and one of Taylor's signature works, "Cloven Kingdom" (1976).
"Fiddlers Green" (pictured above), Taylor's other New York premire, uses selections from "John's Book of Alleged Dances," by contemporary composer John Adams.
While Taylor no longer stars in his works, he can be seen in the studio with his company in the film "Dancemaker," a candid look at the intertwined lives of the choreographer and his dancers.
Nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary film this year, "Dancemaker" shows the rehearsal process for the making of "Piazzola Caldera," takes the viewer into the studio, and is capped off with the work's opening night.
"Dancemaker" is pervaded with the sense of family that ties Taylor to his young dancers as a powerful father figure.
The film offers historic glimpses of Taylor as a performer in some of his most popular roles, juxtaposed with several of the current dancers in the same parts, to give a fascinating visual account of how movement transforms over time.
The acclaimed choreographer's provocative autobiography, "Private Domain," which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1987, will be reissued in May.
Paul Taylor on tour
Paul Taylor on tour
'Dancemaker' documentary film (opening dates):
April 16 Austin, Texas
April 23 Seattle
April 30 Scottsdale, Ariz.
May 1 Pittsburgh
May 21 Cleveland
June 11 Miami Beach
The Paul Taylor Dance Company
April 14-18 San Francisco
April 20 Santa Cruz, Calif.
April 22 Escondido, Calif.
April 24-25 Glendale, Calif.
April 27 Glen Ellyn, Ill.
April 29 Buffalo, N.Y.
May 1 New London, Conn.
May 6-9 Detroit
June 7-13 Santiago, Chile
(Check local papers for more listings.)