We enlist the help of Paul Bilyeu, our senior director of communications and the former lead publicist for dance at The Kennedy Center, for a little dance appreciation 101 about this must-see modern dance company.
1970s Omaha, Nebraska. Not exactly a progressive hotbed of boy ballet students, but there our senior director of communications Paul Bilyeu stood, working his feet through fourth position, a junior high schooler well on his way to a career in the performing arts. He took the class at the insistence of a gal pal who needed a dance partner for the end-of-year recital and discovered he took to ballet like a duck to water.
“I found that I had a natural movement ability and could pick up the steps and technique quickly,” Paul remembers of those early days as the lone male at the barre. “By the time I was in high school, we were three or four boys strong, so we were being asked to dance more and perform in the community. I was a kid, so of course I harbored dreams of being a professional dancer, but I always knew that I never would have done more than be in the back of a medium-sized company. I loved being in the studio, at the barre, but I didn’t love being onstage or performing in recitals … which is somewhat critical to a successful performance career,” he laughs.
The right opportunity met his right skills in Washington, D.C., where Paul landed an internship in public relations at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts eventually becoming the fulltime publicist for all the theater and dance programming.
“That time of my life was a remarkable experience,” he says of his decade-long tenure at America’s national performing arts center. “I got to lead all the PR for Suzanne Farrell’s ballet company, and she was Balanchine’s muse. I was there for the Bolshoi Ballet’s huge U.S. tour in 2000. My time studying ballet came in very handy because I knew the vocabulary and dance history, so I could translate what was happening in the rehearsal studio for the photographers and reporters.” During that time, he also saw the best and most experimental modern dance companies in the world, often in the company of such geniuses as Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Moses Pendleton, Katherine Dunham, Debbie Allen and Bill T. Jones.
“You’re trained in this profession to maintain a neutral mask no matter how famous or legendary the person standing next to you is,” Paul says. “But I’ll confess that outside of Suzanne Farrell, the one dancemaker who had me like oh my God was Paul Taylor.”
That’s because, as far as lineage goes, Paul Taylor had trained under the best of the best: he learned at the feet (and hands) of Martha Graham, the grand dame of American modern dance, and Jose Limon, the great master who would revolutionize dance by incorporating more everyday human movements into his works. Paul Taylor mixed Graham with Limon and a graceful, balletic style to create something unlike anything else anyone was doing. Taylor’s work was funny, breathtaking, contemporary and unabashedly American, even when he honored composers and themes from other nations. Taylor had something to say in a way that no one had seen before; his dances captured the same sensations of glimpsing the humbling expanse of the Grand Canyon, watching the winning run of the World Series and strolling through Times Square all at the same time.
“To see Taylor in person … he was just average,” says Paul. “Average height, average build, average looks. But because I knew who he was, and I had seen so many of his dances that were glorious, hilarious, ingenious works of art, I was in awe.” For the past 20 years, Paul’s had a photo of a Paul Taylor dancer as his screen saver, a photo that was taken during the Kennedy Center days and brought here, to The Straz, to symbolize the best of what the performing arts can be.
“He was a genius for the people,” says Paul. “What I love about the Paul Taylor Dance Company is that once you see a few dances and understand what Paul Taylor was about, you can see his signature so deeply in every dance he made. He was so unique in that he had the ability to make high art that sits so easy on the audience. Everybody loves Paul Taylor dances, even if you don’t like dance. I get it when people say they don’t like modern dance. All art is an acquired taste, and some modern dance is so experimental, so out-there, that it’s really hard to understand. Paul Taylor isn’t like that. His pieces are often beautiful to watch with laugh-out-loud moments of humor. His genius has a universal appeal because it feels familiar while managing to surprise us at the same time. If you’ve ever felt joy in watching kids run around a playground or birds in flight or maybe you’ve taken dance and have a technical understanding … whatever you’ve seen in the world that gives you an appreciation of the joy of motion—that’s what you’ll get in a Paul Taylor dance.”
Paul Taylor died in August 2018, just a year and a half before the premier engagement of his company at The Straz. “So, we’re not that far away from Paul Taylor’s direct lineage,” Paul says. “We’ll have dancers here who learned from the master. Those dancers will be teaching our Patel Conservatory students in a workshop here. We’re getting, most likely, the last class of his direct descendants in this performance at The Straz. So, this is a really important moment for us in performing arts history.”
“And what’s also cool about this engagement is that we’re getting a greatest hits program,” says Paul. “Company B is arguably his most popular work, which looks at the mixed messages of 1940s America set to all Andrews Sisters songs. Piazzolla Caldera is an unforgettable and magnificent tribute to the tango and Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Then there’s Esplanade¸ which is this colorful, joyous celebration that has been a huge crowd-pleaser for 40 years and counting. It’s a magnificent showcase of what Paul Taylor did best.”