The lord of modern dance

At 70, Paul Taylor, the most successful modern-dance choreographer ever, is still going strong. Maybe it's because deadlines are his only muse...
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With 65 companies worldwide performing his work at one time or another, Paul Taylor has to be the most successful modern-dance choreographer ever. He used to be a pretty extraordinary dancer, too, although he just says: "My style was a don't-bother-me-I'm-busy style. That is, I didn't play to the audience."

With 65 companies worldwide performing his work at one time or another, Paul Taylor has to be the most successful modern-dance choreographer ever. He used to be a pretty extraordinary dancer, too, although he just says: "My style was a don't-bother-me-I'm-busy style. That is, I didn't play to the audience."

John Percival, who writes in these pages and often saw Taylor dance, is more specific. "He was amazing because he had this physical bigness, he just straddled the stage. And on top of that, he had a sensational smoothness of movement."

He celebrated his 70th birthday on 29 July, and still has his rangy tallness and swimmer's shoulders (he was on his college swimming team). The only noticeable change is a moustache, perhaps to fill the gap between his mouth and his nose which he (wrongly) always believed was too short. Apart from his birthday, the year has been marked with a Légion d'honneur from the French, despite his rabid Francophobia; and a world premiere, Fiends Angelical, at the Jacob's Pillow festival in July, where they also organised an exhibition of his artwork - witty assemblages made out of found objects. Since last year, moreover, his company has been touring extensively as official American Cultural Ambassadors, in which capacity they are arriving in London.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company's last visit was 10 years ago, when the Queen came and tapped the Royal finger in time to Company B, the season's hit, set to the wartime songs of the Andrews Sisters. Taylor, who was in attendance, has a couple of good stories about that occasion, including the moment, when preparing for the Queen to sit next to him, he gallantly held down her Sadler's Wells tip-up seat, only to find a catastrophic mistiming caused the Royal bottom actually to sit on his hand.

He will be coming again with his company, although these days he normally prefers to stay put, here in his Long Island home. Long Island is full of discreet little lanes, but Ellen, his publicist, is driving and we eventually arrive at a modestly ample and individualistic wood-walled building. Inside are more of his sculptures, furniture he has made from driftwood and display cases of insects, his lifelong passion. Outside, a veranda overlooks a luxuriant garden that leads down to his own beach. Amid the greenery, you can see a pond with jokey plastic flamingos, and a small building, which is actually the scale-model of a chapel, salvaged from the film version of Speaking in Tongues, and big enough to serve now as a guesthouse.

Speaking in Tongues is one of Taylor's weirdly sombre pieces, about small-town bigotry. It entered the Paris Opera Ballet's repertoire, and Nureyev danced the central role. Nureyev also danced Taylor's role in the much earlier (1962) Aureole, a sight which Taylor found excruciating. "He didn't do it right at all, and I don't think he really tried either, to tell the truth. I mean it was nice of him to come and I liked him and everything, but some ballet dancers assume that just because they can do ballet, they can do anything. And that's absolutely not true, it takes specialised training."

Aureole is the piece most closely associated with Taylor, performed by countless companies, and that came to irritate him. "Because as the years went by, it remained the thing that people wanted to see, and I had made other dances which I felt were more accomplished." His range sprawls unnervingly wide and you sometimes wonder how certain pieces could be created by the same man.

There are his lyrical works like Aureole, often to Baroque music, with a heart-stopping humanity and sweetness and grace. Then there are his sinister works, his bug works, his comic works, his wacky works, and still others, like Piazzolla Caldera (1997), coming to London, which uses Astor Piazzolla's music to evoke the confrontational sexiness of tango. Also coming is the narrative 1980 Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), which he says is like a jigsaw puzzle, slotting references to Nijinsky's original Sacre into a classic gangster-movie story.

But in fact, most of his pieces don't fit into single categories. Cascade (1999), which completes the London bill, may be set to Bach but that does not make it a simple repeat of the Aureole mould. "Cascade leans towards the lyrical, but there are other, darker moments. Most of my pieces are a combination of a lot of things." He wants to show the murky shadows as well as the sunshine. "Entertainment is important, and of course, you want people to feel happy. The darker pieces are not meant to make them feel bad, but maybe to remind them of something they already know."

On the other hand, he is pragmatic enough to know that he can't completely alienate people, if his dancers are to have an audience. His genius has been to tread the fine line between accessibility and artistic integrity. He located this early in his career, in 1957, thanks to his first full-evening concert, 7 New Dances, while moonlighting from being one of Martha Graham's leading men. His choreography for it was remarkable for its minimalism and "found" movement, gleaned from the street: all of which prefigured the tenets of postmodern dance a few years later.

One item, Duet, lasted four minutes and had no movement whatsoever. "Like a white painting, I thought," says Taylor. "Standing still is not easy to do forcefully - we had to practise a lot." (He laughs, although in fact he is telling the truth.) But all he saw were turned backs stampeding for the exit, and later found a review from Louis Horst, which famously consisted of four blank inches and the initials LH at the bottom. So he changed tack.

"Well, the whole thing was such a flop. Also I really love to move. I had been trying to go back to basics and once I'd learned from that I wanted to go on with movement." But strands of that same street movement have returned in later pieces, such as his popular Esplanade, where Taylor builds beautiful and affecting sequences out of simple walking and crawling.

Straight after London, the Company will premiere a new piece in Philadelphia, then Taylor will make a piece for American Ballet Theatre in April, choreographing it first on his own dancers, then transferring it. (It will enter his own repertoire in May.)

Now, he is established and comfortable enough to afford a school in New York and a second company, Taylor 2, presenting smaller pieces, workshops, lecture demonstrations. Immensely prolific, he likes deadlines: "A real inspiration! The only muse!"

He has a droll and gentle manner. But beneath you sense an assessing watchfulness and a high-powered intellect, which is what his brilliant 1987 autobiography, Private Domain, reveals, vividly written and taking you on a journey into an unusual, fantastical mind. His voice drifts vaguely like a dandelion clock. He escorts us back to our car and his smiling courtesy hardly falters when Ellen reverses at top speed, only just stopping short of crashing into his front room.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company at Sadler's Wells (020-7863 8000), Tue 7 to Sat 11 Nov. Pairs of tickets are on offer for Tuesday night's performance for the first five readers to call the box office, quoting 'The Independent'.

'Dancemaker', an Oscar-nominated documentary about Paul Taylor, will be broadcast on Channel 4 on 25 Nov