Where are the Margot Fonteyns?'
Josie Appleton, Spiked Online, 22 September 2006
I am sitting outside a Starbucks in Ealing, west London, talking about the decline of Britain's classical dance.
Changes in the teaching regime have crept in over the past decade or so, leaving British dancers floundering next to their international peers.
This isn't for lack of young British talent.
One problem is the virtual ban on teachers touching students. Child protection policies now mean that male tutors touching female dancers is "virtually prohibited"; students need a letter from parents in order to permit limited touching in certain circumstances; and classes must be observed "to make sure that there's no indiscretion".
Ballet positions confound our natural habits and instincts.
Children cannot be coaxed into these positions by words alone: they have to be shown.
His hand becomes a child's foot, as he demonstrates the difficulty of teaching how to place an arched foot flat on the floor. "Place your foot flat."
The hand resists and he forces it down. "Relax." After persuasion, the fingers relax. "Now stretch your toes out." He pushes the fingers apart. 'there - do you see? Your foot is flat."
The teacher should be "on their hands and knees", moulding children's bodies "like plasticine". Only by guiding, supporting, pushing, can young dancers discover the positions into which their body can be placed.
It's crazy, says Taylor, that touching in dance is seen as physical abuse.
Touching is "a very natural part of the human process". Teachers are touching not for perversion, but for art, to bring out the expressive possibilities of a child's body. Taylor knows this from bitter personal experience. He lowers his voice, and his normally fluid sentences become more hesitant.
Another of Taylor's laments is the non-judgemental current creeping into ballet. Just as touching is now banned, so too are the physically punishing regimes that were once the mainstay of ballet training.
Every person has a sense of their own limits that is below that which they could actually do. It is in the zone where things seem uncomfortable and impossible, and there is an element of struggle and of pain, that we improve ourselves. A good teacher will take their pupil into that zone, "beyond what you think are your limits".
The pressures of a classical ballet regime leave an indelible mark on individual character.
Taylor seems to have transferred his control over the movement of his body to his control over words. His language is exact. "Precisely", he nods, when you have understood something; 'that's not the word I would use", he corrects. He seems to control the emotional pitch of his points, too, rising in passion gradually and then becoming more reflective. And he is pained - absolutely pained - by what is happening to ballet.
"Political correctness" is such an inadequate phrase though. "Poison" is another phrase Taylor uses, which perhaps is more accurate. This is about the poisoning of the relationship between generations of dancers. Teachers no longer mould and develop their students as they themselves had been moulded and developed. The right-wing press sometimes caricature PC as just about being soft, but it's about more than that: it's about the corrosion of a relationship of shared artistic purpose and trust.
The punishing and the tender aspects of the ballet relationship should go hand in hand; teachers push pupils just as they care for and inspire them.
Now, instead, suspicion of teachers goes along with phoney affirmation of students. Taylor says that young dancers are often told that they are all as good as each other, which does them no favours at all.
The interview is over and the tape recorder is off, and Taylor is trying to impress upon me again the importance of touching in ballet. He sweeps his arms, talks about pulling your leg into your hip and holding your arms so, and head so, and back so. He builds to a crescendo: "Do you understand?!" I nod. Well, no actually: I can't imagine what it would be like to mould my body into such positions, which is the whole point about the need to be shown.
Thankfully, he doesn't offer to show me.