“Dance is like poetry. Poems don’t always spell everything out. They leave room between the lines.” - Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor is one of the dance world’s most elusive and admired choreographers. I spoke with Kate Geis Director, Producer, Editor about her film: Paul Taylor: Creative Domain. She is an Emmy-award-winning documentary producer, she began her career in New York producing programs for WNET, Channel Thirteen, History Channel, A&E, and Metro TV. Over the past 20 years her subject matter has been a diverse exploration of people’s lives: Saturday Night Live’s set design team, the last checker cab driver in New York, public school principals, Eric Carle, and Paul Taylor. She was introduced to ballet as a child going to the Kirov in St. Petersburg, Russia with her foreign-service parents. She grew up in New York City and graduated from Northwestern University. Previous dance projects include profiles of Miranda Weese, Albert Evans, Patrick Corbin, Terry Dean Bartlett, and Taylor 2.
L’Etage: What was your journey like getting to this project?
Kate: First was the introduction to Paul Taylor. My father, Bob Geis, was a public affairs officer with the United States Information Agency, we lived in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) from 1975 to 1979 and during that time my father hosted the Paul Taylor Dance Company on a tour of the then Soviet Union. I was nine years old and Taylor was my introduction to American modern dance.
Twenty-three years later I was making documentaries for WNET/Channel Thirteen in New York. My boss, John Denatale (Director of Local Programming), introduced me to his good friend Robert Aberlin, who was on the board of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Robert and I ended up making several projects together, starting with a film about 9/11 called Lessons of September. In 2009 he asked me to help him make a short fundraising video about Paul Taylor’s outreach company, Taylor 2. It was a very successful fundraising tool for the company and it opened the door to making this film.
Robert and John Tomlinson, the Executive Director of Paul Taylor Dance Company, were initially able to talk Paul into this project, but two weeks before we were to begin filming Paul backed out. He doesn’t enjoy being interviewed, having a camera in his studio was not going to be comfortable for him.
But Robert talked him into it by saying we would only come for the first day… thankfully he let us stay and come back for 12 more days in the studio.
L’Etage: Why did you make this film?
Kate: In 1998, Matthew Diamond’s brilliant documentary Dancemaker was released. The film had the huge task of telling the story of Paul Taylor, his company, his dances, his life as a dancer and choreographer. In 2010 when we began filming Creative Domain Paul had just turned 80. He was prolific as ever, making two new dances a year. Because Dancemaker had already covered so much ground we wanted to show Taylor in this stage of his life and focus our story solely on how he makes a dance. An artist like Paul Taylor doesn’t “retire,” creating new work is what sustains him, and it is so inspiring to watch him work. He has often referred to himself as a “reporter,” he is commenting on the human condition. By allowing us into his studio we are in a very personal space with him, he is now the subject with the audience watching him.
L’Etage: What do you want the audience to come away with after seeing this documentary?
Kate: On a personal level I hope the audience is inspired in their own creative endeavors, and from there to become a follower of Taylor’s work. For audiences who have known him for a long time the film will give them new insight into him but for people just being introduced, I hope it inspires a new interest in his dances and his company.
L’Etage: Who influenced/mentored Paul Taylor to be an iconic creative?
Kate: In one way, the way that makes Taylor iconic I think is the uniqueness of his vision, his subject matter, his way of seeing the world. In his training he was taught and influenced by the greats, Martha Graham, José Limón, George Balanchine, Anthony Tudor, Doris Humphrey, the list is long, so many choreographers liked the way he moved and wanted to work with him.
L’Etage: Since Paul started out as a swimmer, how does water inspire his creative process?
Kate: I don’t know if it does today but when Taylor started dancing he came to it with a swimmer’s body. He writes in his autobiography Private Domain that the training lengthened his muscles, and made them lose their “snap.” If I think of a dance that has a swimmer’s languidness it’s his solo in Aureole.
Some other thoughts from his autobiography:
“I didn’t know it then, but the swimming made a good introduction to the equally, if not more, demanding discipline of dancer’s never-ending training. The meets weren’t unlike stage performances in that they called for delivery of the goods at set and unavoidable times, and they also caused opening-night jitters.”
L’Etage: What do you believe the future of dance is and its contribution to society?
Kate: That’s a big question.
Dance is something we all participate in as human beings, whether as civilians or practiced artists, through social dancing, exercise, self-expression, or as the audience. Dance is a non-verbal expression of our humanity, that is why it crosses boundaries of all cultures and can still be appreciated.
Dance that we experience firsthand, without the filter of the camera, cinematographer, director, and editor, is thrilling because it is immediate and ephemeral, we keep only the feeling and moments of it in our minds after we experience it.
And a dancer keeps the muscle memory of it.
Now the ability to share dance that is either made for the camera or is simply archived is thrilling because the potential of it to continue influencing culture won’t slip away.
Our experience of dance in the future will continue on these paths of the immediate and the pre-recorded one. The breadth of these modes, the reach of dance to continue to communicate is first in the movement, and from there in how it crawls and “shares” out into the world.
L’Etage: What do you believe Paul’s Legacy will be?
Kate: His legacy will always be his dances… “Esplanade,” “Cloven Kingdom,” “Aureole,” “Piazzolla Caldera,” “Promethean Fire,” the other 137 dances he has made, and the next dance he is about to make.
I think his legacy will continue in the over 150 dancers he chose who make up the Taylor family, who carry on the oral and physical tradition of his work, setting his dances on current dancers, other dance companies, and dancers who have not yet been born.
Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance is a door that he opened to bring back masterworks, and to support the work of new choreographers. This year his company will be performing dances by choreographers like Doug Elkins and Larry Keigwin during their Lincoln Center season in March. His legacy has also become to support the work of other modern dance choreographers, past, present, and future.
Opening at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on Friday, September 11 with a national release to follow in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and other major cities.
Watch the trailer:
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