Pat Taylor — Silence, Breath, Home
A conversation with Pat Taylor (MFAIA-WA '18) by Tamara Lynne Wallace
I had a chance to chat with choreographer Pat Taylor, founder and Artistic Director of JazzAntiqua. Pat was a member of my Goddard MFAIA-WA cohort, the core group of artists that I journeyed with through the program. One invaluable aspect of Goddard's MFAIA has been the opportunity for the cross-pollination of ideas between and among the passionate and dedicated artists working in other artistic disciplines. Here's an edited transcript of my conversation with Pat.
I know a little about your influences from our previous conversations, but would you tell me about early influences that shaped your artistic trajectory and your work?
Some of my earliest influences really revealed themselves to me in my portfolio writing, during my final semester at Goddard. Once I identified these influences, I was able to embrace them even more consciously. Two things stand out to me:
My mother was a writer. She was a member of a groundbreaking writers collective called the Watts Writers Workshop. Founded in 1966, the Watts Writers Workshop was created as a response to the Watts Riots. Novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg started the group. He recalls himself sitting in his home in Bel Air during this time of extreme social unrest, and wondering "What do I have to offer?" As a writer, he then thought, "Well, I could teach writing." So he posted something at a community center in Watts, and showed up. He waited week after week until finally people started coming.
These were people from the immediate Watts community and beyond, all with very powerful stories. It was a communal experience, a very passionate experience. I would go with my mother to the workshop sessions, and the various people from the Workshop would come to our house as well. There were intellectuals, there'd be homeless people, there'd be professors, there'd be housewives. There were young writers who were very revolutionary. But there was always this incredible energy to the workshops. People would share. There, you were really held to the task, challenged, supported, and encouraged to be true to yourself.
At that time, I wanted to be a Black Revolutionary when I grew up because I thought it was, like, a career you could have. (Laughs) That's what I told people I would be. I checked out books from the library about the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and James Forman's "The Making of Black Revolutionaries" and more. As a kid, Angela Davis was (and still is) one of my heroes.
The second big influence in my work was when I became involved in a company called R'Wanda Lewis Afro-American Dance Company, in Los Angeles-- a company that did West African dance, Katherine Dunham Technique and jazz. I started when I was 14 or 15 and became a member of their teen company.
It's through this experience that I became aware of a Black dance aesthetic. I didn't call it that, but I would call it that now. There's a grounded-ness, a connection to the earth, and an expansiveness of movement. An urgency and a vitality, coupled with a distinct connection to rhythm. It's the sort of feeling that you could actually be free and feel free in the movement in ways that you may not be able to feel that kind of freedom as a Black person in America. There was a joy and a sense of self-determination.
These two things together contributed to a strong sense of making family, of creating home, of being part of the community. That's how I approach my work, and this influences my current projects, which are fundamentally community based.
did the MFA program in Interdisciplinary Arts shape your artistic work?
One thing about the program I appreciate is how it opened me up to seeing all these connections. Of course you know these things, but you don't stop to think about why you do these things! I was looking through my mom's stuff, and I found 1967 clipping from the Los Angeles Times newspaper about the Watts Writers Workshop; the members were photographed sitting in a circle deep in discussion. I thought, "Yes! This is why you are so drawn to bringing people together in conversation. It's not just an idea that popped into my head - it came from somewhere."
Well, for some time leading up to my practicum and prior to my life at Goddard, I had this feeling I wanted to hold some kind of gathering on a regular basis, a way to engage together in some kind of way. I thought "maybe once a month on a Sunday, like a church service." (Laughs) Even though I can't hold a church service. I could bring together people for brunch or lunch and we could do something together. But I couldn't really define what it was.
Thinking of the practicum semester, I thought I should just do this thing that I'd been wanting to do for so long. But I was skeptical; I couldn't envision myself as standing with scholarly confidence in front of a group of people. But the practicum project was all about challenging yourself. So, I established what I call the Community Salon. I've hosted it 3 times and we're working towards a quarterly schedule.
The salons are intergenerational. The youngest at our most recent one was 15 years old. The oldest was probably in their 70s. I announce the theme/topic ahead of time and folks come and share their thoughts, experiences ideas... and we simply see where the conversation takes us. The themes I put forth come directly from my jazz aesthetic explorations and are ideas I think about when I approach jazz dance. So far the conversations have been about silence, breath and home.
(Laughs) I drive everyone in the dance company crazy with my insistence that we create a warm, welcoming living room-like setting in the theater space where we host the salons. You don't just put out folding chairs! You bring rugs and ottomans, and gather sofas and easy chairs from throughout the building. You have food. It needs to feel just right, like you've come to someone's home. Typically we have 30-40 people, so we have to have room for everyone yet still keep a sense of intimacy and informality.
Some people come with something they know they want to share on the topic, others react and respond, some come to listen. Either way, we're all bearing witness. I want to bring these types of topics to the community for conversation and creative exploration, to not just talk about them in academia - that drives me crazy! There are so many ways that we as artists can engage in the richness and vibrancy of our communities.
Goddard's MFAIA has recently initiated a concentration in Indigenous and Decolonial Arts.
Do you have thoughts on how this connects to your artistic practice?
Recognition has been building over the past several years about jazz dance education in particular coming from a very colonized viewpoint. Educators are questioning how do we recognize that colonization? What do we do about it? How do we acknowledge the roots and original influences of jazz dance in our teaching?
So now we talk about and question the codification of jazz dance, because codification is a European/Western world colonizing concept - the notion that if something cannot be systematized and fit into a set of finite rules - that its not legit or of value. When I was in the undergraduate dance program at UCLA long, long ago, this very reason - lack of codification and what they perceived as the lack of a concrete and definitive history, were the justifications given as to why jazz dance was not taught there.
Jazz dance defies codification. There certainly are methodologies, techniques and styles of great import and influence on the art form. But even within this we find that the greatest emphasis is given to a group of white male choreographers. There are certainly definitive characteristics and aesthetic qualities of jazz dance. Yet, we can't claim that there's only one way, a right way, to do it. That goes against the very nature of jazz when you think about the music from which the dance was birthed. It is contradictory to what makes it most wonderfully special. It doesn't stay neatly within these categories.
I recently attended an amazing conference on jazz dance hosted by National Dance Educators Organization where these concerns were main topics of discussion. I was also fortunate to present a panel with colleagues titled "Breath, Codification and Dissemination of the Jazz Idiom." This recognition among artists, teachers and scholars of the need to be true to this history and roots of jazz dance is encouraging.
For me, it's vital to remain cognizant of its history, and to always stay connected to the historical roots of jazz music and why it came into being. It's birth as a language to speak to the distinct experience of an oppressed and marginalized people, expressing the reality of being Black in America. I embrace jazz dance as the movement in the music, from its early social dance days to the concert dance expressions of today, and the social, cultural and political contexts and implications embedded therein.
Are there other ways the MFAIA program impacted you?
I really appreciated the challenge and the push to examine more deeply the things I was just doing inherently, looking at influences, and what compels me in what I'm doing today. I came into the program knowing what my area of study would be, but I didn't know what would be revealed in that process. The insistence of looking deeper is what I think about when I think about the MFAIA program at Goddard.
Participation in the program gave me the confidence to do that. I wanted to write more; now I have more reasons to write. I had some great breakthroughs. I feel more grounded and assured about my writing. I feel more confident as someone stepping forward and offering to the community "This is my work, this is my philosophy, this is my approach, this is my truth — I invite you, I welcome you in to join in and share."
To learn more about Pat Taylor please visit JazzAntiqua: www.jazzantiqua.org
Pat Taylor is the Artistic Director/Choreographer at JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble in Los Angeles, CA. She blends her love of jazz and blues music, visual art and spoken word with a distinctive historical perspective to create JazzAntiqua's very own brand of "jazz theatre." Taylor's background in Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton techniques, West African, American vernacular and classic jazz dance, along with her love for the collage nature of improvisation, combine to form her signature and approach to movement. She is the recipient of several awards including Mayoral and City Council commendations; a Brody Arts Fund Choreography Fellowship, and grants from the Doolittle Foundation, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, California Arts Council, Center for Cultural Innovation, Francis E. Williams Artists Award and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, among many recognitions for her work. In addition to JazzAntiqua, Taylor's work has been presented at Lehman Performing Arts Center (NY), Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, Glashuset (Stockholm, Sweden), Suncoast Hotel and Casino (Las Vegas, NV), Temecula Valley Film and Music Festival, Ford Amphitheatre (Hollywood), Broad Theatre (Santa Monica), and Los Angeles' Cornerstone Theatre. Taylor holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, with an emphasis in jazz aesthetics. Recent and upcoming projects include residencies with Rhythmically Speaking Dance (Minneapolis, MN), Northwest Vista College (San Antonio, TX), and Peabody Conservatory / Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD).
Tamara Lynne Wallace is an interdisciplinary theatre artist, writer, 2018 alum of Goddard's MFAIA-WA program, and is based in Portland, Oregon. Founder of Living Stages Theatre, she's practiced the socially engaged theatre of Augusto Boal for twenty years in collaboration with local and international communities, receiving grants from Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Humanities. She's currently engaged in writing about the poetics of entanglement: Theatre of the Oppressed, quantum physics, and the material realities of change; while paying mindful attention to her more-than-human rabbit companion, Opal Bea.