Arts & Culture » Dance

Remembering Paul Taylor

by Brian Bromberger

Despite his natural talent, Paul Taylor didn't discover dance until his 20s.
Despite his natural talent, Paul Taylor didn't discover dance until his 20s.  

In his autobiography, Paul Taylor wrote that the vital statistic of his life was "an insatiable itch to communicate to the world at large," a goal he fulfilled as one of the greatest modern dance choreographers of the 20th century. Along with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, he established the parameters of modern American dance as an art-form. With his contemporary Alvin Ailey, he helped popularize it, as well as inspiring such contemporary choreographers as Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp. He created at least two new dances a year, for a staggering total of 147 pieces, performed by his own troupe and groups worldwide. A visionary genius, he was as essential to modern dance as Balanchine was to ballet. He extended his field to new and unimagined heights. He died on Aug. 29, at 88.

Despite his natural talent, Taylor didn't discover dance until his 20s. He was born in Wilkinsburg, PA in 1930. His father was a physicist, and his mother, a widow with three children, ran a boarding house. They separated when he was four. He had an impoverished but creative childhood, loving fantasy to the point he conceived an imaginary companion named George Tacet, whom he would later credit as a designer of several of his dances. He attended Syracuse University as a swimmer. His athleticism became an essential component of his dancing, which he discovered at school. He studied dance at Julliard for a year. He joined as a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, developing his distinctive style on his six-foot, lithe, muscular frame. He started choreographing, there forming an artistic relationship with Cunningham's designer, artist Robert Rauschenberg, as well as with his partner, artist Jasper Johns, who made the costumes. In 1955 he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company as a gifted soloist, and in 1959 danced for Balanchine's New York City Ballet.

Balanchine offered him the title role in his "Apollo," but finding ballet too confining, Taylor decided to commit his life to modern dance. Gleaning much from Cunningham and Graham, he began to rely more on his own people-watching skills, even using a homeless man as inspiration for one of his ballets. In 1962 he devoted himself to his own Paul Taylor Dance Company, which became one of the first troupes to tour internationally and conduct a much-anticipated and heralded annual three-week season at Lincoln Center. In 1974 hepatitis and ulcers ended his own dancing. He could now channel his creativity fully into choreography, commencing a golden age of brilliant dances, still part of the standard repertoire 40 years later.

His early dances in the 1950s, especially duets, were experimental, almost minimalist, pushing dance past boundaries, stripping it down to its bare essentials, influenced by Cunningham and the avant-garde music of John Cage. Starting in the 1960s, Taylor relied on more classical scores and movement featuring the poetic lyricism he became known for, starting with 1962's "Aureole" set to Handel; "Big Bertha" (1970) featuring St. Louis band machines; "Esplanade" (1975) to Bach, with its emphasis on limber acrobatics like tumbling and skipping; "Runes" and "Cloven Kingdom" (1976); "Le Sacred du Printemps (the Rehearsal)" (1980); "Sunset" (1983), with music by Elgar alternating with loon calls; "A Musical Offering" (1986); "Company B" (1992), set to the music of the Andrew Sisters; "Promethean Fire" (2002) to commemorate 9/11; and "Beloved Renegade" (2008), his last success.

Common to all these works was Taylor's dedication to story, as each dance followed a narrative, encompassing the full mood range of the human condition from passion to despair/death. Other works reveled in comedy, with no issue exempt from his complex imagination. His ability to combine humor and pathos was unmatched.

After the inventive peak of the 1980s, his hits became less frequent. He wrote his autobiography "Private Domain" in 1987 - an apt title since even his friends found him illusive and reclusive at times, He was gay but never came out publicly. He drops oblique coded hints about his sexuality in "Private Domain" that most LGBTQ people will decipher. The Washington Post obituary mentioned he had a companion, George Wilson ("Babe," featured prominently in the memoir), a deaf mute, for 50 years, first as a lover then as friends, until his death in 2004. Doubtlessly much of Taylor's sexual energy was sublimated into his art. In his later years, the deserving accolades flowed: a genius MacArthur Foundation grant, France's Legion d'Honneur (1990), the National Medal of Arts, and in 1992 the Kennedy Center Honor. Perhaps sensing the end, in May he named Michael Novak as the troupe's new artistic director.

For those who want to learn more about Taylor, the DVD of "Paul Taylor Dancemaker," a film by Matthew Diamond nominated for an 1999 Oscar as Best Documentary, is highly recommended (including Taylor performing his own "Aureole"), as is his autobiography, considered one of the best dance books ever written. At the conclusion of "Private Domain," he observes how dancers today are more responsive, "since they no longer feel like echoes of us, and now they speak to the audience in their own tongues." If this is true, it is because Taylor's iconoclastic choreography gave them that language.

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