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April 2000

On His Toes

Leeds-born ballet choreographer on top of his game

Those in the so called creative professions often face an unusual dilemma: they work doing what they love, but like anyone else holding a job, they can learn to hate what they do. Not Philip Taylor. The 39-year-old British contemporary ballet director and chief choreographer at the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz negotiates the highs and the lows of his calling with the agility and discipline you would expect of a dancer. “Creativity is an insecure place — there are no rules,” says Taylor. “But at the same time, you can’t just say, ‘Anything goes.’ That’s not creativity. You have to look at yourself as you would look at rearing a child. If I don’t discipline the child in the studio, and say, ‘No, Philip. That’s not it. Throw it out. Start again.’ then I end up paying later. At the premiere, or after a few performances when you’ve taken distance, and you’re just watching to see what’s going wrong, you might think: ‘Why on earth did I do that?’ Then you realize that you’ve been dishonest with yourself during the process, and that stings.”

Taylor developed his talent for self-discipline and self-critique as a professional dancer. He studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance from 1977 to 1980, then joined prestigious dance companies in London and the Netherlands, working as a soloist from 1984 to 1992 at the Nederlands Dans Theatre. His role as a choreographer sprang from a performance in 1992, when he conceived and danced his one-man production, Flying Solo, which premiered at the Korzo Theatre in The Hague. After acting as guest choreographer in Stockholm for two years, he was invited to become the ballet director at the Städtische Bühnen in Augsburg. His tenure there ended in 1996, when he left for a new company and prospects in Munich. Taylor’s current challenge is a short-term goal: to rehearse with the Staatstheater company, Bach’s one-hour-long piano piece, the Goldberg Variations (1741), and a work half that length, “Angels That Sing” from The Four Sections (1987) by a living American composer, Steve Reich. The Goldberg Variations is especially complex, comprising two arias and 30 variations, or distinct musical pieces, each ranging from half a minute to several minutes. Taylor’s task, and the art form it represents, has little to do with the way this piece has been choreographed before. To fashion feeling and the human form into a fluid work of art, Taylor employs a creative process that relies heavily on his own visual imagery. The 30 variations, and thus the scenes, vary wildly in content: from a chaotic, frenetic blitz, to a melancholy musical meander, and everything in between. To convey these images to the audience, Taylor listens to the music — then plans, plots, studies and schemes for more than a year. Six months before the dance piece is to be performed, he assigns colorful everyday concepts to each of the variations to evoke vibrant visual imagery, and to spur his will to choreograph. Taylor takes these images into the studio and begins the painstaking process of translating them into dance.

“Certain musical forms, certain musical sounds, create images — whether it’s an image of death, or an image of love, or even an image of the first day of the January sales,” says Taylor. “For example, one of the variations sounds like total and absolute chaos, but chaos with a goal. To me, that is like the first day of the January sales. I said to the dancers: ‘You want that red cashmere sweater which has been reduced to DM 44.50, and that is your goal; but it may be complete chaos to get to it.’ I don’t think that is any different than the music of Bach; he gets to his goal through chaos.”

For Taylor, the ballet, which premieres April 15, forms a complete creative unit: the Goldberg Variations, with its sublime complexity, must fight to find resolution in the pure exultation of “Angels That Sing.” Taylor is an inspired artist whose spirit frets with the desire to exceed the limits of human ability. If that is any indication of how he creates, then surely all the heavens will thunder with applause on that enchanted evening.

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