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A reluctant icon: A documentary by Northampton filmmaker Kate Geis illuminates the creative process of the very private dance master, Paul Taylor



Documentary filmmaker Kate Geis experienced a certain satisfying symmetry in her life while making her film “Paul Taylor: Creative Domain.” She had been a fan of Taylor and his company since she was introduced to his work as a child, so it was especially gratifying, she says, when, years later, Taylor agreed to let her make a movie about his creative process.

The film, which details the creation of a single dance by the legendary choreographer, now 84, premiered last year at the Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center in New York City, where it held the honored closing-night slot. It will receive its Pioneer Valley debut Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, where Geis is on the board of directors. The screening will be preceded by a reception at 5:30 p.m.

Geis, 45, is the owner of tvgeis, a video production company, based in Northampton, where she lives with her husband, Doug Benton, a chemical engineer, and their 7-year-old daughter, Tess Geis-Benton.

She says she learned to love dance as a child, while living in what was then the Soviet Union.

“My parents were in the Foreign Service,” Geis said in a recent interview. “We used to go to the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. That was pretty incredible to experience that as a child.”

During that time, it had been her father’s job to bring American artists to the Soviet Union and take them around the country for exhibits and performances. Among them: the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

“My dad started telling me how incredible they were, how important he was to American modern dance. So I was tuned into him,” Geis said. “Whenever we were in a place where the company was coming through, my dad and I would go see them. I’ve always been keyed into the company and interested in (Taylor’s) work.”

Geis says she never forgot the excitement of seeing the Taylor company and the awe his masterful movement stirred in her. So, it seemed that life, in a sense, had come full circle when, years later, she not only met Taylor, but convinced him to let her make the documentary.

That was no small feat. Taylor is famously private. Since founding his company in 1954, Taylor has allowed only rare glimpses into his creative process. Geis is one of just two filmmakers to receive Taylor’s blessing to do a feature-length documentary about his work (In 1999, the PBS American Masters series aired Matthew Diamond’s Oscar-nominated “Dancemaker” about Taylor. The opening moments of Geis’ film are taken from a shorter film, “Paul Taylor: An Artist and his work,” made in the 1960s by the late Ted Steeg.) In the New Yorker last year, Liz Wolff, curator of Dance on Camera at Lincoln Center, wrote about Geis’ film: “It’s the first time Paul Taylor has allowed you to see inside the creative process.”

On location

Geis’ 82-minute film progresses from the very first moments when Taylor and his dancers meet to begin the creation of the dance, “Three Dubious Memories,” to its debut performance in 2010. It features details of the choreography and the rehearsals as well as multiple interviews with Taylor and the dancers featured in the piece — a dance about memory that, in the film, Taylor likens to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film classic “Rashomon,” in which witnesses to an event remember things differently.

Rehearsals took place Aug. 27 through Sept. 28, 2010, at the company’s headquarters at 551 Grand St. in New York. It was a challenge, Geis says, to know when would be the best times to shoot.

“We knew we couldn’t shoot every day,” she said. “Not knowing necessarily what he’s going to be working on, it’s a little bit of luck. ... We managed to get enough of each of the representative sections (of the dance) to show the flow of the story.”

Interviews for the film continued into 2011; while some were planned, Geis says, others were done on the fly.

“That’s the nature of making documentaries,” Geis said. “Things happen when you least expect them.”

In the trenches

Although she couldn’t have known it back then, Geis was on her way to becoming a Taylor documentarian early in life.

In 1978, after her parents divorced, she and her mother moved to New York City. There, when Geis was in high school, her mother used a tax refund to buy her a video camera and, Geis says, she was immediately hooked.

“I used to videotape people; that’s how I made extra money in high school.”

She went on to study radio, TV, film and political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and, after graduation in 1991, returned to New York where she snagged a job as a production assistant on “Saturday Night Live.” Typing up the comedy writers’ scripts was among her duties.

“Many of them were still writing on legal pads,” Geis explained. “I put them into television format.”

It was also her job to deliver script changes to the week’s special host.

“I got to meet Paul McCartney and a lot of my heroes,” Geis said. Among them were Jeff Goldblum (I liked him very much, he was very sweet); John Goodman (He is a very nice man. He was such a professional, a great guy); and Alec Baldwin (He was a regular and just loved the show. Alec was the kind of person who’d show up and he’d just be a cast member for the week. He knew it that well).”

Geis, who has since won two New York Emmy Awards — one as a producer, one as a cinematographer — says her work on SNL prepared her well for a career as a filmmaker.

“It was like grad school for me. You learn how to work in a stressful environment at high speed because everything has to be done by 11:30 on Saturday night,” she said. “It makes you focus in a way that is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. It’s kind of like running a race and you just have to get it done and get it done well and right.”

More jobs in TV followed, and in 2002, through her work as a freelance producer at Channel 13 in New York, she met Robert Aberlin, a banker who was interested in producing films. Together they produced “Lessons of September: One School Remembers 9/11,” about students and staff at the Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, where Aberlin was the director of finance.

Geis was thrilled, she says, to learn that her co-producer was a longtime member, and former chairman, of the board of directors of the Paul Taylor Company.

“I thought it was cool — a small-world sort of thing,” Geis said.

When Aberlin discovered that Geis was a Taylor fan, the two began attending performances together.

Then in 2009, serendipity struck: At a board meeting for the company, Aberlin learned that Taylor’s second company, Taylor 2, was looking for a filmmaker to make a fundraising video — a job that ultimately went to Geis and Aberlin.

“We made this fun, seven-minute, fundraiser video. They showed it at their gala and it ended up making them a lot of money,” Geis said. “They were surprised by how well it did.”

Cold feet

The video caught Taylor’s attention, and he agreed, if somewhat reluctantly, to let the two producers make a film about his creative process. Taylor got cold feet just before filming was to start, and told the producers that he had changed his mind. Eventually, however, Aberlin was able to convince him to proceed, Geis says.

“Paul doesn’t enjoy being interviewed, He is a solitary artist. He enjoys his time creating and being on his own and feeding his own creative spirit,” she said. “We get so much of him by seeing his dances. He doesn’t need to talk as much as he needs to show you.”

Since its debut last year, the film has been well-reviewed; The New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay wrote, “We’re shown what the camera has seldom been able to record: a great choreographer at work on a new piece, ‘Three Dubious Memories.’ ”

Geis says she is rarely starstruck, but being in Taylor’s presence was a particular thrill.

“I knew I was about to work on something that was an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.

And it mattered greatly, she says, how he felt about the finished product.

“I feel a great responsibility; I want the subject to feel like they’ve been seen, heard,” she said.

When she showed the film to Taylor, she says, he told her he liked what she had done.

“I asked him if he felt like it (the film) was authentically him. And he said yes. ... To have that reinforcement is part of what makes it feel like we did good,” she said, with a laugh. And my dad is pleased, too,” Geis added. “It’s a nice full-circle thing.”

Kathleen Mellen can be reached at kmellen@gazettenet.com.



Tickets to the 6:30 p.m. screening of “Paul Taylor: Creative Domain” and the 5:30 reception on Jan. 30 cost $11.54 in advance, $15 at the door (cash only). To reserve, visit ericcarlemuseum.org and click on “programs and events.” A Q & A with producers Kate Geis and Robert Aberlin and Lenox musician Peter Elyakim Taussig, who wrote the music for the dance, will follow the screening. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is at 125 West Bay Road in Amherst.