Paul Taylor – an in depth celebration of the artist who brought light to Modern Dance

Mr. Taylor and members of his company during a rehearsal at his Manhattan studio in 1972. Credit Jack Manning

Feature Article by Bethany McKeand

Journalist, Laura Shapiro, once wrote; “Short course in modern dance: in the beginning there was Martha Graham, who changed the face of an art form and discovered a new world. Then there was Merce Cunningham, who stripped away the externals and showed us the heart of movement. And then there was Paul Taylor, who let the sun shine in.”

Paul Taylor, indisputably an imperative pioneer of American Modern Dance, passed awayaged 88 on Wednesday 29 August 2018.

A devastating loss for the modern dance community, his immense influence on the style will live on through his legacy as one of the worlds most celebrated artists.  

Born 29 July 1930, and raised in and around Washington, DC, the young Paul Taylor displayed little sign of becoming a leading figure in the world of modern dance.

He began studies in painting at Syracuse University in 1949, before unearthing an interest in dance through books in the University library.

Acting on his intrigue into the art form, Taylor transferred to the Juilliard School, regarded as one of the world’s leading performing arts conservatoires, on the Upper West side of Manhattan.

Taylor assembled a small company of dancers in 1954 and began to choreograph his first dance work. It was the beginning of an astonishing career consisting of 147 dance works, most attaining iconic status and performed worldwide.

Despite a late introduction to the dance world, Taylor excelled in both choreography and performance. Alongside choreographing for the troupe, Taylor performed as a soloist for seven seasons at the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1955. Showing unique talent and grace on the dance stage, Taylor was invited as a guest artist to New York City Ballet, where Balanchine created famous solo, ‘Episodes’, especially for him.

This was only the beginning, as Taylor was also hand-picked for roles in works by master choreographers Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. He was considered an extremely valuable performer, and possessed the ‘full package’; with good looks, a powerful physique, and a mysterious yet confident personality.

Taylor was in demand for leading roles up until the early 1970’s when he decided to alter his focus exclusively to choreography, retiring from performance in 1974.

Mr. Taylor directing members of his company at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in 2012. Credit Andrea Mohin
Mr. Taylor directing members of his company at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in 2012. Credit Andrea Mohin

Taylor could not be put into a box. Introduced to the dance world during the 1950s, amidst a period of radical experimentalism for most modern dance choreographers, his style became highly diverse and unpredictable.

His dances were often poignant, athletic and lyrical, for his eloquent dance troupe. However, the themes of each dance spanned a variety of concepts, and cannot be defined in one simple category.

Taylor was known for employing opposing extremes both on and off stage. An introverted and unassuming character offstage, he graced the stage with enthusiasm and confidence. Likewise, Taylor created humorous, light-hearted utopias in his works, as often as he unflinchingly investigated cutting, dark realities.

Possessing a rich talent for communicative choreography, these extremes were not only separated and assigned to different, individual works, but could be found combined in the same piece.

Taylor also became notorious for his extensive range of musical accompaniment. Unusual choices were made in many of his works; from historical and classical scores such as medieval chants, renaissance dances, and classical symphonies; to the more recent Ragtime, Tango, or Barbershop Quartet music; and even sounds such as telephone time announcements, loon calls, and laughter.

The unpredictability of the choreographic components led to great intrigue at premiers of his new works. Collectively, his dance works proved the diverse range of outcomes a person’s choreographic style has the potential to produce.

This new-found creative method, previously unfamiliar in the modern dance world, was a controversial move for Taylor as an artist, and secured him the label of the ‘naughty boy’ of dance, by modern dance pioneer Martha Graham.

This label came particularly after a piece created early in Taylor’s career; Seven New Dances. The work was an early advancement into the world of postmodern dance, and brought the attention of audiences and critics around New York, to innovative artist, Paul Taylor.

Experimenting with postmodern musical influences such as John Cage’s ‘silent’ score, 4’33’’, Taylor created a postmodern response, experimenting with non-movement in a dance work. This in turn received a ‘postmodern’ experimentation of ‘non-writing’ in response from critic Louis Horst, who provided a blank column in the Dance Observer magazine.

The work was a milestone in his career, shaping the future of his choreographic approach, working with both the rich vocabulary of modern dance, alongside interesting observations of postures, gestures, and stillness’s in everyday movements, which paved the way for the future style of postmodern dance.  

The originality of Taylor’s creation led to previously unseen levels of national and international popularity. Other companies began to perform his repertoire, and many of the most prestigious dancers of the time were compelled to perform in a number of appearances for his company, such as Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a number of New York City Ballet principal dancers. Many illustrious performers and future world-class choreographers such as Pina Bausch and Twyla Tharp became Taylor company members.

Taylor continued to expand his audience beyond the theatre, and into the modern media world. He became the subject of dance documentary, Dancemaker, by Matthew Diamond, which received an Oscar nomination, and was considered by Time to be ‘perhaps the best dance documentary ever’.

He was also the author of numerous essays, including Wall Street Journal essay ‘Why I Make Dances’. Taylor wrote an autobiography, ‘Private Domain’, nominated by the National Book Critics Circle at the most distinguished biography of 1987.

The awards continued for Taylor, who received nearly every important honour given to artists in the US. Throughout the duration of his career, Taylor received: Kennedy Center Honors, an Emmy Award, the National Medal of Arts, the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, three Guggenheim Fellowships, MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award for lifetime achievement, Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, New York State Governor’s Arts Award, and New York City Mayor’s Award of Honor for Art and Culture.

Taylor was named one of 50 prominent Americans honoured in recognition of outstanding achievement, and became an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from numerous renowned American arts universities, including The Juilliard School, and Syracuse University at which he previously studied. France’s highest honour, the Légion d’Honneur, was awarded to Taylor for his contribution to French arts, and he was elected one of ten honorary members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company and Taylor 2 (created 1993), toured the globe numerous times, performing his repertoire in more than 540 cities in 64 countries, in theatres and venues of every nature.

It was in 2014 that Taylor made the decision to establish an institutional home for his legacy: Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, after six decades as Artistic Director of the company. He curated important modern dances from past and present for the company to perform, alongside presenting his own works, at the Lincoln Center and other venues.

He appointed a promising new generation of choreographers in order to develop their creative talent, ensuring that the American-grown modern dance style Taylor had worked so hard to build, flourishes long into the future.

Taylor continued to choreograph up until his death and his legacy still shapes the art of modern dance after his passing. He influenced many men and women who have become respected teachers and top-class choreographers including Pina Bausch, Patrick Corbin, David Parsons, and many more.

The dance works he created are now performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Paul Taylor 2 Dance Company, and companies around the globe, including Royal Danish Ballet, Rambert Dance Company, American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  

The preservation of modern dance for years to come was imperative to Taylor, evident from inside the company, as Executive Director John Tomlinson said; ‘we are inspired to carry on his (Taylor’s) vision through Paul Taylor American Modern Dance. Paul planned aggressively for the future to ensure that generations to come can see his genius works along with other masterworks of modern dance, and great works that will be made by the next generation of modern choreographers.”

Hence, Taylor made the careful and justified choice of Michael Novak as his successor, a Taylor dancer since 2010. Taylor prepared Novak for the role as the second Artistic Director of the company, and previously reported; “Over the past decade, Michael has mastered our repertory and steeped himself in dance history. He understands the need to nurture the past, present and future of modern dance. I look forward to working with him and preparing him to assume artistic leadership of my company.”

Novak has pledged to carry on Taylor’s legacy with ‘utmost fidelity and devotion’. Taylor was a well-loved and respected choreographer, not only by those in his company, but dance audiences around the world.