The last movement of Paul Taylor's landmark modern dance piece "Esplanade" unspools before the audience with pure exuberance as dancers catapult across the stage.
But through the lens of filmmaker Matthew Diamond in "Paul Taylor: Dancemaker," we are privy to the extraordinary effort that such fluid abandon would seem to belie. Dancers dash into the wings with labored breaths and grimaces, their bodies glistening with sweat. From the camera's backstage vantage point, we hear the whispered counts and exhortations as dancers coach one another. We hear the solid smack of flesh hitting the floor, and the grunts and groans of adrenaline-charged dancers.
Diamond's compelling 90-minute film, nominated last year for an Academy Award for best documentary, is a fascinatingly candid and intimate look at the man many consider the world's greatest living choreographer. It is also a mesmerizing look at the world of modern dance, a powerful warts-and-all portrait chronicling a year in the life of the famed choreographer and his troupe.
Though "Dancemaker" saw only limited release in theaters, it is being televised this month on PBS's "American Masters" series (check local listings) and has also been released on video. It is a must-see for anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the dynamic art form of modern dance.
Diamond shows Taylor as a loner with a wicked sense of humor and an appreciation for both the spiritual and the perverse. He is something of a father figure to his dancers, able to capture their devotion and elicit their absolute best. But he also constantly tests their commitment and wounds them with devastating criticism.
"It's an awful responsibility," he says of his role, "but it's what I do.
"I get my energy, I think, from being afraid," he confesses, "being afraid to choreograph, being afraid to fail." This attitude expresses itself not only in occasional insecurity and indirection but also in creativity. The result has been more than four decades of some of the most memorable work in modern dance.
The film traces the wide range of Taylor's repertoire, from archival footage of the avant-garde experimentation of his early days as a dancer with choreographer Martha Graham, to the process of creating one of his most recent works, the sizzling "Piazzolla Caldera." Along the way, we see the rigors, travails, and rewards of being a part of that process.
Says longtime troupe member Patrick Corban, summing up working under Taylor: "I wouldn't trade anything in the world for an hour in the studio with Paul making something."
A filmed glimpse of the dancemaker is all the rest of us get - grab it.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society