Dancing to Live Music Together

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 114, No. 6June, 2014

Tom Olcott
Trombonist Tom Olcott is the Recording Vice President of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union's concert department.

Trombonist Tom Olcott is the Recording Vice President of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s concert department.

Paul Taylor’s new commitment to live music came with support and encouragement from Local 802. Is this a new model we can strive for?

It’s time to celebrate live music. As President Tino Gagliardi recently reported in the President’s Report, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has announced that it will once again be performing with live music, starting with its 2015 season. After decades of performing to recorded music, the company has agreed to reestablish its relationship with Local 802. John Tomlinson, executive director of the company, cited the new administration of Local 802 – as well as the desire to continue the legacy of Paul Taylor with its new residency at Lincoln Center – as reasons that performing with live music was essential to the ongoing mission of the newly-formed Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Company. As Tino said, we are excited about this new relationship as well as the progress of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in its new endeavor.

I would like to offer some more background to this story. On March 13, the Paul Taylor Dance Company held a press conference at the David H. Koch Theatre, at which it announced an ambitious new initiative. The company described a comprehensive program that would: 1) create a definitive legacy for the continuing production of Paul Taylor’s distinctive choreography; 2) create opportunities for younger modern dance choreographers; 3) create a forum where the works of other legacy modern dance choreographers (like Martha Graham and José Limón) could be restaged and revitalized; and 4) commit to live music accompaniment to these projects. Executive Director John Tomlinson said at the time, “We are pleased to renew our relationship with Local 802, representing the best professional musicians in the world.”

The company announced that this new vision had a realistic funding base, thanks to Paul Taylor himself. It seems that Mr. Taylor possessed four unseen works by the post-war artist Robert Rauschenberg, which he donated to the company. Those paintings were auctioned at Sotheby’s in mid-May, and the proceeds will be used to fund the project outlined above. And the board of the Paul Taylor company has agreed to match the final sale price in order to add to its endowment. Wow!

Flashback. When the Paul Taylor company appeared at the Koch Theatre in 2012 with recorded accompaniment instead of live music, Local 802 appeared in force with informational leafleting deploring the use of recorded music at a premier Lincoln Center venue.

Flash more back. The Paul Taylor Company performed a two-week run at New York City Center in 2010 and sought to utilize a ragtime orchestra for the opening night performance, then proceed with dance accompanied by recordings for the remainder of that run. Local 802 negotiations were difficult and, from all reports, rather contentious. The orchestra performed that first night, but all other performances for that run were accompanied by recordings.

Flash even farther back. The Paul Taylor Company had hired Local 802 musicians for its orchestra for many years, and then suddenly attempted to replace that orchestra with a less costly nonunion orchestra. The company had purportedly run short of money to afford a professional Local 802 orchestra. The displaced union orchestra members have never regained the work.

That reverse chronology history paints a strange picture and begs the question: why has the Paul Taylor Company made this new commitment to live music?

I can’t fully answer that question. However, my conversations with the Taylor company over the past few years may provide a clue.

For their short spring season in 2013, I attempted to convince the company that even one piece accompanied by a live orchestra would create a productive new environment that could potentially grow into a wider live music presence. The company agreed that live musical performance accompanying its dances was a significant priority, and both Paul Taylor and Local 802 made a good-faith effort to make this happen. Unfortunately, the company could not locate sufficient funding.

At that point, John Tomlinson asked us whether Local 802 could assist in discovering potential donors for our mutually desirable results. Both we and the company wanted live music. Besides being better aesthetically, it would restore the original intent of the choreography, which had always called for live music. It would also provide work for our musicians.

From that point on, I attempted to do just that. I figured that helping the company find money would mean more work for musicians and also a better dance product, perhaps leading to bigger audiences. Moreover, it would send a powerful message that the union is willing to cooperate and help an employer, as long as the end result was mutually beneficial. I believe the Paul Taylor Company came to the same conclusion. Although ultimately the company found its own funding (through the generosity of Mr. Taylor and the board), its new commitment to live music could be at least partially the product of our conversations and friendly attempts to collaborate. What mattered in the end was the ideal of live art and how it results in more satisified audiences, something that both sides can agree on.

The Paul Taylor company’s new initiative is a work in progress, and I surely hope that other dance companies can ultimately take a cue from how this situation ended up. Any company that intends to revitalize its commitment to live music and its relationship with Local 802 can make that vision real. If a simple shift in focus is possible, where Local 802 can collaborate and contribute to new attitudes and ambitions like those of the Paul Taylor company, then maybe – just maybe – there is a new and innovative space that Local 802 can occupy, to the benefit of our art and to our hard-working, amazingly talented members.