TED2011: Julie Taymor on Creation, Spider-Man, and a Narrow Escape

The TEDsters have generously granted us a press pass to this year’s annual ideas confab in Long Beach, California, and while we’re still processing yesterday’s brain-bending line-up—which ranged from never-before-seen photos of an elusive polar creature, a paean to doodling, and the a capella musical stylings of Bobby McFerrin—we wanted to update you on today’s inspiring talk by designer and director Julie Taymor.

Preceded onto the TED stage by a stunning video montage of her greatest hits (The Lion King, Frida, The Magic Flute), Taymor began by alluding to her ongoing “turbulent times”—as her embattled Broadway extravaganza Spider-Man is poised to set a new record for previews—and then regaled the audience with the story of a transformational experience with Indonesian villagers. In the late 1970s on the island of Bali, she surreptitiously witnessed a tribal ceremony that would inform and inspire her subsequent work.

Wearing “elaborate costumes and extraordinary headdresses,” the village elders danced in the dark while no one (save a crouching Taymor) was watching. “I realized that they were performing for God, whatever that means to you,” she said. “It didn’t matter about the publicity. There was no money involved. It wasn’t going to be written down.” This intimate ritual was followed by an all-night opera that was performed for the town’s residents on a more traditional illuminated stage. “What I gained from this incredible and seminal moment from my life as a young artist was that you must be true to what you believe as an artist, all the way through,” said Taymor. “But you also have to be aware that the audience is out there…and they need the light.”

The story resonated with the Spider-Man musical’s subtitle: Spider-Man’s subtitle: Turn Off the Dark. “It’s an incredible balance that we walk when we’re creating something that is breaking ground, that’s trying to do something that you’ve never seen before, where you actually don’t know where you’re going to end up,” she explained. “That’s the fine line on the edge of a crater that I have walked my whole life.”

Her work always begins with an ideograph, a symbol that embodies the essence of a particular project. In the case of The Lion King musical, it was the concept of a circle of life that evoked a delicately balanced world of lions and hyenas, exotic birds and hungry vultures. This visual shorthand is carried through the production. “When you see men and women walking with a platter of grass on their heads, you know it’s the savannah. You don’t question that,” said Taymor. “I love the apparent truth of theater. I love that people are willing to fill in the blanks.”

Taymor and her creative collaborators approached the iconic comic book and film franchise of Spider-Man by focusing on the telling of the story—“the mechanics, the method”—as much as on the story itself. “I’m one who loves high-tech and low-tech,” Taymor said. With a price tag rumored at $65 million, the production is rife with state-of-the-art technology. “But the fact is without the dancer who knows how to use his body and swing on those wires, it’s nothing.”

The audience was treated to a two-minute video of Spider-Man footage that emphasized the creative team’s intention to mount a production that would suspend not only disbelief but also the forces of gravity. “Circus! Rock and roll! Drama! What the hell are we doing up on the stage?” she asked, laughing. In lieu of a more prosaic update, she returned to Indonesia and told the story of finding herself—clad in thongs and a sarong—stranded on the windy precipice of a live volcano, Gunung Batur. “I realize that I can’t go back the way that I’ve come, so I throw away my camera, I throw away my thongs, and I just follow the line straight in front of me,” she said, jumping ahead to her current professional precipice. “I’m in the crucible right now. It’s my trial by fire. It’s my company’s trial by fire. But when you just stay going forward, you see extraordinary things in front of your eyes.”