Today, we had the absolute pleasure of learning from guest teacher Richard Chen See. I was inspired by the care Richard took to structure the class as a true learning experience and survey of Paul Taylor’s style, theory, and creative repertoire. It was my favorite type of dance class, one in which I feel I exercised my mind as well as my body.
Richard tailored his teaching style to our perspective as academics studying how dance might relate to other fields and life in general. One warm-up exercise had us falling and rising from the floor repeatedly as we rocked on our backs, contracted in a “hollowed out” shape. He used this exercise to emphasize the inquisitive nature of dance. The study of dance applies not only to rehearsed steps in a studio, but to interpreting how people express themselves through body movement in everyday life. It was easy to overthink the exercise by focusing on the exact formation instead of simply the weight transfer from standing position to the ground and back up again.
Throughout class, Richard focused on five key words – form, time, space, vision, and context. He described time as both rhythm and duration. We learned that Paul Taylor would say “Mickey Mouse” to tell dancers to dance on the music because cartoon scores are composed to directly line up with actions on screen. Vision refers to both what you see and your intention. Space refers to how your body creates positive and negative space in relation to the room. Context refers to how the audience places a dance in their historical, cultural, and emotional memory. It can be conveyed through music, sets, costumes, facial expressions, gender dynamics, and much more. It can also be crafted through dance moves that evoke a specific era. We observed this in the swing dance moves throughout “Company B,” a dance set to the 1940s Andrews Sisters hit “Bugle Boy of Company B.” Taylor created the dance amidst the national consciousness around war during the 1991 invasion of Kuwait.
Along with the beginning of “Company B,” we learned the beginning of “Esplanade” and the male adagio, which Richard pointed out was quite rare for the time, from “Aureole.” Richard offered helpful tips on how to master the Taylor style. As a ballet-trained dancer, I have found it difficult to put more weight into my movements to achieve the heavier movement quality that modern dance requires. Richard told us to imagine the floor as soft and porous so that we sink under it, not above it.
I learned that Taylor’s style is influenced by the breath and intention of Martha Graham, the straight, parallel lines of Horton, and the curved shapes of Italian Cecchetti ballet. Taylor is so fascinating, in part, because of his diversity of styles. There is no one Taylor style. “Esplanade” is pedestrian while “Aureole” has much more form. Those with the impression that Taylor’s style is repetitive are likely only seeing the more palatable pieces that are performed more often. They probably have not had the chance to see more experimental and quirky pieces like Party Mix. After Richard’s class, I have a much more well-rounded appreciation of Paul Taylor’s artistic legacy. Taylor truly pushed the boundaries of the concept of performance as a whole, forever defining many foundational aspects of modern dance.