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No Pain, No Gain

Dancemaker glosses over the life of Paul Taylor

Choreographer Paul Taylor's not a happy man. His dances are filled with anger and sadness -- even his happiest, everything-is-beautiful ballet has a family scene where everyone reaches out but nobody touches. His couples break up in the end because that's the way life is, Taylor says. We break up, we move on, we leave.

Matthew Diamond's documentary The Dancemaker doesn't tell us anything we can't see from watching Taylor's work. It doesn't show the dancer behind the dance. It doesn't show who he is. Why did he start dancing? Why did he leave Martha Graham? Why did he lose his temper and fire his entire company? Why did he yell and scream that they were too fat and no good when his dancers walked off stage?

This is a happy, fluffy Biographylike episode with moments too mushy for a Lifetime Intimate Portrait. All we hear is a bunch of gay guys talking about how Taylor helps them get in tune with their bodies and how when they hear that Taylor's casting a ballet they just pray to God that they're in it! It's a big lovefest. And that's nice. It's a tribute to Taylor, but it's not a documentary.

Director Diamond choreographed for The Washington Ballet (among others), so he knew what he was doing when he picked and shot the dance scenes. Impressively, most of his shots are from the wings, where he closed in on the dancer's breath over the music and where a girl can be seen hawking a loogie on the floor to wet her feet.

The dancing is break-your-heart beautiful, especially that of Taylor in his younger years. One of the best moments moved back and forth between a dancer in Taylor's current company practicing the same routine Taylor did years ago. The new guy is good, but not nearly as good as Taylor was. They're doing the same steps, but there's something indescribably different when Taylor does it.

"Sometimes it's hard to get the dancers to do the mayhem and the [despair] because they haven't lived it," Taylor says in the documentary. "You have to choreograph it into them -- they can't dance it."

That's the indescribable difference between the dancers. Taylor's better because he has felt the pain. But what happened? What hurt him? They briefly hint at a relationship that didn't work and that his parents divorced and he didn't see his dad, and his mom found it inconvenient to have him around. So she sent him to a foster home in the country. More is needed about him. The film says, "He let life beat up on him." What happened?

"It won't all be ugly," Taylor tells a dancer in the studio. "But here it's about confrontation."

What's Taylor confronting? Sometimes his dance experiments worked, sometimes they failed. No matter; his feet made their way back to his studio and kept dancing. Why did he need to dance when his dancers were unpaid?

The film is called The Dancemaker, but it strays from the subject until it becomes a documentary about Chris, the guy Taylor hoped would take over the company but died of AIDS. Or suddenly it's a documentary about Jill, the girl Taylor fired because it was no longer interesting to work with her.

There was no need to watch the dancers pack their Nyquil and Imodium A-D for their trip to India. We didn't have to view them opening their paychecks or snapping tourist shots in front of the Taj Mahal. And they really could've cut the part about a union orchestra picketing a performance.

It was moderately interesting when the dancers talked about their injuries -- cracked feet, torn calves and bruised bones -- because Taylor's dance style looks painful. There's a lot of jumps in the air that land hard. He makes a lot of moves that hurt. One lady who danced with him can barely walk now. But the film just glosses over that without talking about his injuries. When did he stop dancing? Why did he stop dancing?

Taylor, who has been called the greatest living choreographer, deserves a documentary that examines all the aspects of his life. Even the pain.

The Dancemaker.
Directed by Matthew Diamond. With Paul Taylor, Francie Huber, Patrick Corbin, Andrew Asnes and Heidi Berest.

Unrated.

 
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