Book Review: Private Domain

Dancing was it. Dancing was what life was all about. If you wanted to be a dancer, you didn’t just want it, you felt chosen to be one… In my case, even before learning to dance, I was positive I’d been ordained to do it.  -Paul Taylor, Private Domain

Back in August (within the last glorious weeks of summer in the city), I had the great fortune of being able to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company performance at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. (See the review here.) It was a gorgeous summer night, and as the sun set and the stage lights shone more vividly, I joined the hushed crowd to marvel at the movement and the music. As a long-time fan of Paul Taylor and his work, it was great to simply see another performance of the company (and for free, at that). But beyond viewing works I had never seen before, it was amazing to witness the massive crowd gathered to watch concert dance – hundreds of seats filled and all focused silently, respectfully on the stage ahead. Though I did not realize going in, it was also exciting to be present for the special celebration of Paul Taylor’s 80th birthday as well as the parting performance for 3 retiring company members.

After the show, I felt moved to finally read the copy of Paul Taylor’s autobiography, Private Domain, that I had picked up at the Strand a while back. And I would definitely recommend doing so if you haven’t already. Published in 1987, the book covers Taylor’s early dance career and the first several years of working with his company. From one anecdote to another, it offers a unique view into the mind and history of one of the most prolific and legendary modern dance choreographers. I absolutely loved learning little details about Taylor that I never knew before, like how he is fascinated with bugs and nature and that for many years he lived in the studio loft that the company rehearsed in. And as a dancer, I definitely enjoyed his portrayals of rehearsing and performing, experiences and feelings that perhaps only other dancers can truly understand. Beyond exploring the artist, it is also interesting to uncover more about Taylor as simply a man – his thoughts, his weaknesses, his humility. And beyond Taylor himself, the book offers a rare glimpse into the early world of modern dance, ripe on the heels of the pioneers and still fighting for acceptance.

Overall, reading the autobiography made me like Paul Taylor even more and made me better appreciate his accomplishments in dance. I enjoyed every bit that I learned about Taylor and was left wanting more. (Apparently there are more books in the making, so my wish may be granted in due time.)

Weaknesses of the book: The writing itself starts out strong then gets a little weak in the middle (perhaps trying too hard to be clever). It also would be nice to hear background on more of his pieces, but the works are not really the main focus of the book.

Why it’s worthwhile: 1) It’s an honest, open depiction of the difficulties of an artist’s life – a poignant story no matter how famous the artist. 2) Especially around the celebration of Taylor’s 80th birthday, it’s great to look anew at such a remarkable artist and learn more about how it all began. 3) Dancers can particularly connect with the difficulties Taylor faced in his early career and feel comforted that they are not alone in their struggles.

Questions of reflection: How does Taylor feel about how his career has progressed since the book was published? What will future books (not written by Taylor) include? What will be Taylor’s greatest legacy? What is my own dance story?

Best audience: fans of Paul Taylor and his work, dancers that should hear how even the most successful artists have had to endure very difficult times

Amazon page (where you can buy the book): Private Domain

More on the author: Paul Taylor Dance Company website

*Also check out my first book review on Daniel Nagrin’s How to Dance Forever

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Dance’s new hero, Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama is all right in my book. Last week the first lady of the country paid tribute to one of the first ladies of dance, Judith Jamison, in a special White House ceremony. (A full article on the event can be found here.) As a brilliant dancer, then a powerful and influential choreographer and artistic director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ms. Jamison is certainly worthy of high praise. Yet how wonderful to actually be singled out and recognized by as high a post as the White House itself! As Jamison will be stepping down from her role as artistic director at Ailey in the coming year, this honor also serves as a parting homage to all that she has done.

But beyond a great tribute to a great lady, apparently last Tuesday’s celebration was also the first in a series of dance shows to be presented by Michelle and her elaborate digs. Earlier this year, the Obamas hosted a music series, with several evenings in the East Wing devoted to a variety of music styles. Now it seems the attention has turned to dance as last week’s ceremony was an inaugural event for dance, with supposedly more celebrations and performances planned for the near future.

And what a way to start! The evening included a workshop for young dancers from around the country followed by an hour-long performance from a variety of top-notch dance acts – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Washington Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, New York City Ballet, Super Cr3w, and one of the leads from the Broadway show Billy Elliot. Though Alastair Macaulay seemed to think the works focused more on skill than actual artistry in his review of the show, the selection seems like a perfectly delectable smorgasbord of dance in America to me. (Much of this can be credited to the evening’s director, Damian Woetzel, former New York City Ballet star and current member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.)

Michelle Obama has really been a strong advocate for arts and arts in education since joining her husband on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the past 2 years, she has spoken many times on the topic and has promoted several artistic events, especially those that included educational opportunities for children. (See articles from 2009 and 2010.) Even though the arts continue to face a grim reality in this recession period, it warms the heart to know that someone at the top recognizes the importance of art and is fighting to at least keep it from being forgotten entirely.

Last Tuesday, a friend of mine noted that Judith Jamison was one of the top searches on Yahoo, a fact that utterly excited her. My reply was that I would be more excited if the whole tribute performance was televised and the show became one of the most-watched shows on TV for that night. She agreed but also rightly reminded me to appreciate baby steps. Indeed, baby steps and little victories. So even though dance is majorly struggling now and there is a long way to go to achieve wide-spread recognition, maybe dance is actually in a good place right now. With the help of Michelle Obama and the promise of more dancing in the White House, perhaps the future of dance is looking a little brighter. 

You’re not going to run into Kyra Sedgwick in the “downtown” dance scene

Last weekend I went to 2 dance shows, 2 very different dance shows and experiences. First up was a show at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX), the first part of a 2-day festival featuring works by new and up-and-coming choreographers. If you’ve never been to BAX, allow me to paint the picture.

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