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Change is a constant in Paul Taylor's life. The renowned and gentlemanly choreographer, during a phone interview from his Long Island, N.Y., home, softly tells the reporter that "I wish you could see the colors turn," as the surrounding foliage displays its seasonal splendor.
It's no idle boast when he says he considers his 17 dancers to be "the strongest modern dance company in the world," proof positive being the 50th-anniversary tour they're currently on, which will include performances on the Big Island, Oahu and Maui.
For local dance enthusiasts, what makes this Hawaii visit particularly special is that a different program will be presented on each island, chosen from the 43 active pieces out of the 120 Taylor has done throughout his illustrious career.
The three works the Oahu audience will experience Wednesday will be his 1976 work "Cloven Kingdom," "Eventide" (1997) and "Promethean Fire" (2002), a piece the New York Times has called maybe his greatest work ever.
In speaking with Taylor, it's obvious he'd rather let his art do the communicating than talk about it. When asked if he ever revises his earlier pieces when performed in later years, he says in a matter-of-fact way: "I don't fiddle with them in general. But sometimes, because of changes in the cast, a step here and there may be reworked.
"The music, however, is very important to the creation of the dance. In determining what kind of dance the rep needs, I look for music to fit there, whether it's a dark one or a light one, entertaining or an opener or closer."
For his acclaimed "Promethean Fire," for instance, it's the music of Bach. From that starting point, Taylor says, "we speak through the dance -- as for the words, the program notes are meant to be only a hint for the audience. ... People see what they want to see; some are more perceptive than others. But the dance has to be a dance, the main thing being the steps and movement. If they enjoy that, it's a step in the right direction. If others want to interpret it, put the gestures together, that's another layer of enjoyment.
"We're just doing (this tour) to give back to this country. In touring all 50 states, it's a way to not only keep working, but to show our appreciation of being Americans."
EVEN THOUGH Taylor says "this year's been good" to him and his company, he adds that "it's not as good as it has been."
The company's executive director, Wallace Chappell (a former artistic director of Honolulu Theatre for Youth in the 1970s), who took the job in March of this year, concurred. "It's tough for everybody in the arts," he says by phone from his New York office. "Even though Paul's is a well-known company, even revered in a lot of circles ... it's been very challenging to find funding in such a current volatile environment. It's not like we're in a recession, but it's very changeable, with changes in giving patterns from foundations and such."
Still, in celebration of 50 years of Paul Taylor dance, Chappell says the tour will be on temporary hold come March, as the company will perform an expanded repertory in City Center in New York, "with 17 revivals and two new works."
"The tour's gone great guns, and it'll go around the world over the next two years. The company's still in great demand, so that means the performance fees will come in steadily."
WHEN WE caught up with senior dancer Lisa Viola, a former Hawaii resident who's been with the company since 1992, she was in her hotel room in Opalika, Ala., where they were going to perform that night at a nearby high school.
The 40-year-old woman of Filipino and Japanese parentage was born in San Francisco and began taking dance classes at 3 years of age. She was 4 when the family moved to Hawaii, where she studied "mostly ballet, tap and jazz," she says. "I took dance classes at Punahou School and also did the kids program at the Honolulu City Ballet."
Viola usually comes home for Christmas. "My mom was born on Kauai, and I'm part of a family of eight kids. I still have aunties and uncles there, plus an older brother and his family on Oahu."
"The desire was always there," she says about dancing. "I knew I was going to be a dancer as I was growing up. Ballet was the thing. I went to New York at age 15 (in 1979) to study more, but then I found out I didn't have the right body type for ballet. That was devastating!" she says with a laugh.
"So I started pursuing more modern dance classes and auditioning more for modern dance. After performing with some companies doing a contemporary dance repertoire, I found the Taylor school years later."
Viola now finds herself an occasional teacher herself, whether it's at the New York school or while on the road, as she will be at Mid-Pacific Institute during the company's off days here.
"Although I don't choreograph, I'd love to go to other companies and set a Taylor piece on them," she says. "Once Paul makes a piece, a lot of ballet and dance companies want it for their own repertoire, and I'd like to help teach it to them.
"Being in this company is a nice thing. It's hard to believe all these ideas came from one person. He challenges us emotionally -- whether it's dark or light, each piece has its own vocabulary -- and his dances are not the kind that can be done on automatic pilot."
While Taylor himself was reticent to elucidate more on the dances that will be performed here, Viola was more forthcoming.
"'Cloven Kingdom' is the oldest of the three. There's basically no story line, but it's based on the Spinoza quote that 'man is a social animal.' The curtain opens on a ball-like setting, where we see women in long gowns and men in tuxes. It's very hoity-toity as the people move elegantly. But, in working off the Spinoza quote, Paul puts in more animalistic movements as the piece progresses.
"'Eventide' is a beautiful piece, very lyrical, involving several couples. While Paul doesn't like to give synopses, we come to know that each couple represents one couple in different aspects of a relationship. It has a beautiful, powerful ending.
"'Promethean Fire' is the newest of the three. He always tells us it's about passion, bottom line ... and it's the first time in recent years that he uses all his dancers at once, at the beginning and end of the dance's three sections.
"It's powerful, and when we've played it here in the States and overseas, it moves people tremendously." It's a piece Taylor created soon after Sept. 11, 2001, and Viola says it feels like how it was being in New York at that time. "The images, to me personally, are of death and rebirth, of having to go on."
That feeling of "going on" still spurs Viola as she gets older. "With new dancers coming in, who seem younger and younger to me, hopefully they can learn from my experience. Dancing's still a challenge to me, and the work is very physical."
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