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‘Dancemaker’ a Celebration of Choreographer and Creativity

TIMES FILM CRITIC

A burst of dance energy jump-starts “Dancemaker” as lithe performers, alive with the joy of movement, throw themselves across the stage in the Paul Taylor-choreographed “Esplanade.” To watch that piece unfold on film is to wonder where it all comes from, the ideas, the energy, the passion. “Dancemaker” lets you in on that, and more.

Nominated for both a Directors Guild Award and an Oscar for best documentary, “Dancemaker” is not content with furnishing a remarkable look at the world of modern dance. Directed by Matthew Diamond, himself a former dancer, it’s also an insightful portrait of creativity itself, a chance to see the highs and lows, the ins and outs of that celebrated process.

“Dancemaker” is the word Taylor uses to describe himself. A former dancer with Martha Graham, he has evolved into a man Newsweek called the world’s greatest living choreographer, a major force in American dance who takes pride in his company’s having been one of the first to offer his dancers enough work to qualify them to collect unemployment.

Genial but autocratic, a gracious gentleman who can be ruthless when need be, Taylor is an ideal subject. His articulate comments go from the humorous (he tells and then debunks a story of being inspired by a record he found in the trash) to the pointed, and he clearly respects Diamond (who previously worked with him on a pair of PBS “Dance in America” programs).

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The choreographer granted the director unrestricted access, and the glimpses we get of the first and succeeding rehearsals (plus the eventual New York debut) of a new work set to Astor Piazolla’s music and called “Piazolla Caldera” are compelling. We see Taylor using his dancers as building blocks in an intense and very human trial-and-error process. “I’m not seeing the dance in my mind,” he admits. “I’m fooling around and trying things.”

Diamond and cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, whose extensive previous work includes documentaries on Bill T. Jones and Suzanne Farrell, beautifully capture segments of numerous Taylor dances (including “Musical Offering,” “Polaris,” “Cloven Kingdom” and “Last Look”) on film, a range that is accurately described by a critic as “beautiful dances and those that scare the daylights out of you.”

Perhaps most poignantly, vintage clips of Taylor fluidly dancing one of his signature roles, “Aureole,” are smoothly intercut with the work of Patrick Corbin, the Taylor dancer who does it with today’s troupe.

But dance is not a one-person operation; as critic Deborah Jowett says onscreen, “the process of creation is an extraordinarily social event, both exciting and debilitating.” Diamond has as much rapport with the Taylor dancers as with the choreographer, and the heart of the film is the push-pull relationship, both agonizing and ecstatic, between the man and those who execute his vision.

“Dancemaker,” to its credit, does not neglect the more troubling aspects of the dance world. Touched on are the relentless rehearsal process, the pain of working through serious injury, the plague of AIDS-related deaths, the intense competition and the agony the whole company goes through when a dancer is fired in a 30-second phone call.

Also examined are the kinds of mind games that occur between dancer and choreographer; dancers relate how Taylor would tell them on the eve of a performance that the piece wasn’t working because of them. Dancers talk about their worries of not being good enough, of when to speak up and when to remain silent, the bite of manipulative comments. The process, says a former Taylor dancer, “is so intimate, so revealing of yourself, and it can be turned against you.”

But, with viewers as well as the dancers, it’s the memory of the glorious side of dance that makes the most lasting impact. Dancers talk about the joy of “falling in love for six minutes” during a Taylor duet, of the choreographer’s gift for “allowing the creative person in you to come out and merge with his.”

“Dancemaker” also gives an almost thrilling sense of how emotionally sustaining this kind of work can be. When a Taylor dancer says, “I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for being in the studio making something with Paul,” you feel that if the choice were yours, you wouldn’t make the trade either.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: a brief glimpse of male nudity but suitable for anyone interested in dance.

‘Dancemaker’

The Four Oaks Foundation presents a Walter Scheuer production. Director Matthew Diamond. Producers Matthew Diamond, Jerry Kupfer. Director of photography Tom Hurwitz. Editor Pam Wise. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202; University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8811.


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