THE FIRST IMAGE we see in the documentary film Dancemaker is of a performance of Paul Taylor's 1975 masterpiece Esplanade. Instead of watching the action from the typical audience perspective, though, the camera has sneaked backstage. We are in the wings, nearly blinded by "shin busters," as the stage sidelights are called. We are within touching distance of the dancers, close enough to feel the heat of their sweat as they prepare to pounce into the next mad series of runs and jumps. We hear their labored breathing, their groans, the "oh my gods" as they tumble offstage, out of one wing and into the next. Briefly, the camera flashes the audience's perspective, then hurries backstage again, as if to illustrate the contrast between illusion and reality. "That's the feeling!" exults one dancer as the cast lines up for a bow, chests heaving. Then we cut to Taylor, who is walking to his New York studio, rambling on in his farm-fed twang about finding inspiration in a garbage can.
directed by Matthew Diamond
starring Paul Taylor Dance Company
opens April 16 at Broadway Market
Before turning to film, director Matthew Diamond was a dancer and choreographer. Since retiring from the stage, he has won two Emmy Awards, the Director's Guild Award, and the Humanitas Award for both his television and film work, and this year Dancemaker was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (it lost to Spielberg's Lost Days).
Watching Taylor in this film, we witness all the facets of his benevolent dictatorship. Beneath his sweet, funny, self-deprecating persona lurks a demon. The same man who breaks down when remembering a dancer's death from AIDS, who agonizes over his future, who shares his insecurities about walking across the stage, who awkwardly scratches his head trying to think of new steps, is capable in a 30-second phone call of coldly firing one of his dancers because "she wasn't interesting." We see why Taylor's dancers both worship and fear him: Terrified in the studio of disappointing or infuriating their boss, on stage they
attack his ingenious choreography with almost bestial enthusiasm.
Juxtapositions between extremes like this form the most entrancing theme in the documentary, and the motif is highlighted by Diamond's shooting of rehearsals in black and white, performance excerpts in color. In one exquisite sequence, cinematographer Tom Hurwitz weaves together current scenes of Taylor watching dancer Patrick Corbin rehearse the solo from
Aureole with footage of Taylor performing the role in 1962. Flashbacks between interviews with current and former company members add historical perspective, as do interjections from critics who've been following Taylor's iconographic work for more than 40 years. The film lags momentarily during a funding-for-the-arts speech, but quickly picks up speed again as the dancers tour India, negotiate pay, and stumble out of bed with "ankles like glass," convinced there is "no way in hell" they are going to get through the tour. But they do—and once again the show goes on, both because of and in spite of the powerful and peculiar psychological energy of the choreographer.