Maintaining a modern dance company in these present, fiscally unwelcoming times is like doing daily, bloody battle. This simple, sad fact is definitively illustrated in the course of Dancemaker, a documentary about the eminent choreographer, Paul Taylor. There is, first and always, the concern of money, especially in New York City, where everything from lighting to musicians to stage space is exorbitantly priced and union-controlled. Taylor is presented as that lucky soul who early on decided that dance was his metier and was then blithely able to rise to the height of the profession. His considerable paternalistic qualities have been extolled by everyone from his dancers to even the very publicist of Dancemaker, but, in truth, he's far from a genial old softie. With a mixture of rue and fondness, older dancers reminisce about the time he fired them all on the spot just minutes before a performance. When told of a possible picket line forming outside the theatre over his use of non-union musicians, he practically licks his chops at the welcome prospect of confrontation.
Taylor's musical taste has always been impeccable, bracing, and doubtlessly a large part of his appeal. He brought a clean classicism to the dance, marked by a uniquely American form of bright, kid-next-door sexuality. His works were considerably less steeped in the grimly serious aura of High Art promulgated by Head Priestess Martha Graham. His dances were always flavored with an eccentric wit and goofiness that Twyla Tharp was later to take up and to the limit. They have a grinning buoyancy akin to the energy of Gene Kelly at full, youthful steam.
The film is at its most rewarding (and revealing) showing Taylor in rehearsal, trying to come up with a sexy routine for his new season. You see the tentative, feeling-it-out-first moves that initiate a conception. You hear his simple words, 'I have no idea what I'm going to do. You start with nothing.' That first rehearsal eventually culminated in the lushly exotic, Sicilian-flavored Piazzolla Caldera, which had an ecstatic reception at its premiere at New York's venerable dance temple, City Center.
Director Matthew Diamond is himself a former dancer/choreographer, which accounts for the deep empathy and perfectly chosen camera angles. It's only a pity that, apart from one tantalizing glimpse, Taylor's sprightly Andrews Sisters-inspired Company B, a work that seems to sum him up, isn't given in its entirety here. As interviewed, his dancers are uniformly bright and highly communicative, conveying a blend of awe and requisite forbearance in regard to the Master. Their very real sacrifices and often elusive rewards are much in evidence, as well, as you are made aware of the tragically short professional life of a dancer and see the picaresque way they live, from drafty rehearsal halls to first-class hotel accommodations while on tour. Die-hard scandalmongers will be disappointed with Dancemaker, as it's tactful to a fault regarding Taylor's private life. One senses the formidable presence of a loner, above all. It would, however, have been interesting to see more of his life as an isolated, gifted child and eventual rise in the tempestuous environs of the Graham Company. But, overall, this is a pleasingly full portrait of an important American artist, struggling to work in an ever-endangered field, the very fact of which is a scandalous indictment of present-day government's indifference and abject system of priorities.