Although neither a pioneer nor a radical of American modern dance, Paul Taylor is still one its pillars, with a keen eye for both the light and dark side of human nature.
Born in 1930 in Pennsylvania, Taylor initially set out to be a painter. He enrolled to study art at Syracuse University but was made restless, essentially, by watching paint dry (“You had to wait for one colour to dry before you could apply another,” he moaned). So he switched his energies first to swimming, for which he had received a scholarship, and then to dance, for which he received another scholarship – to the Juilliard school in New York. Unsure whether to present himself as a slippered ballet-dancer or a barefoot modern, he hedged his bets and auditioned in socks.
Despite having begun dance at the late age of 20, he had an abundance of ambition, energy and talent. After intensive training in modern dance with Martha Graham, José Limón, Doris Humphrey and Merce Cunningham, and in ballet with Antony Tudor, Taylor was soon performing professionally – briefly with Cunningham (in 1954); occasionally on Broadway, notably for Jerome Robbins; once for George Balanchine; but most importantly with Graham’s company (1955-62), where he was one of her leading dancers.
Taylor’s choreographic debut, Jack and the Beanstalk (1954), was not a success. “The audience just sat there,” he recalled. “No boos, no clapping, nothing.” But his Four Epitaphs (1956) began attracting attention (its short version, Three Epitaphs, became a signature piece), and his concert of 1957 was notorious: it included a minimalist solo to a speaking clock, another where Taylor’s “set design” – a nervous dog called Duchess – kept trying to sidle off, and a four-minute duet that contained no movement at all. Most of the audience left, Martha Graham called Taylor “a naughty boy” and the evening gained a famous review by Louis Horst in Dance Observer: four square inches of blank paper.
Though these conceptualist experiments prefigured those of the 1960s Judson Dance Theatre, Taylor went no further in this direction – indeed, when he left Graham in 1962 to devote himself to his own company, his first piece was “naughty” in the opposite way. With its pretty costumes and chirpy Handel score, Aureole was intended to upset the high-minded modern dance contingent. Instead, it became a perennial hit, especially with ballet companies, much to Taylor’s chagrin.
Taylor went on to become the most established figure in American modern dance. Neither a pioneer nor a revolutionary, but certainly one of its most idiosyncratic, critically lauded, and widely loved choreographers. He stopped dancing in 1974, after a dramatic collapse on stage; but today, at 80, he continues to choreograph with vigour and curiosity.
Apart from dance, Taylor’s two other lifelong companions have been George, a deaf-mute he rescued from a bar brawl in the 1950s, and the cigarette.
Watching Paul Taylor
Taylor’s early experiments are uncharacteristic of his main body of work, which has three fundamental features: first, it’s concerned with steps, kinetics, the body in motion; second, it’s as much interested in subject matter as in form and phrasing; and third, it veers unpredictably between dualities – comedy and tragedy, lyricism and violence, rage and joy – sometimes within the same piece. It’s as well to keep that last point in mind if you haven’t seen Taylor’s own company: other troupes have mostly taken up his more lyrical or bittersweet side; it’s worth remembering Taylor has a much darker, angrier side, too.
Taylor enjoys observing people – he has described himself as a kind of reporter on human behaviour, less interested in expressing his feelings or imagining worlds than in revealing how people are. Famously, at company auditions, he always looks at how applicants walk. His portrait of George W Bush in Banquet of Vultures (2005) came from the same insight (according to Taylor, Bush’s walk gave him away as “a total phony”.)
The range of his subjects and moods is vast, from cosmic visions (Orbs, 1966, Syzygy, 1987) to period pieces (Company B, 1991, set in the second world war; Black Tuesday, 2001, set in the Great Depression), from lyrical musical visualisations (Aureole, 1962; Arden Court, 1981) to devastating depictions of religious zealotry (Speaking in Tongues, 1988) or physical and psychological brutality (Big Bertha, 1970; Last Look, 1985).
A key work in Taylor’s career is his masterly Esplanade (1975), which was inspired by the sight of a woman running for a bus. From entirely ordinary movements – walk, run, fall, jump – Taylor constructs a startlingly virtuoso dance that speaks eloquently of the human condition.
Robert Rauschenberg – whom Taylor met while they were both working as window dressers at Tiffany’s – designed most of Taylor’s works in the 1950s and early 60s. His two most long-standing collaborators have been costume designer Santo Loquasto and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.
Taylor once sent anonymous threatening letters, made from cut-out newsprint, to five New York dance critics.
In his own words
“Dance, I think, consciously or unconsciously symbolises life. And it reflects the human condition, or it can. It tells us the joys, the sorrows, the fallacies, the idiocies, the brilliance, anything human.” – Interview with Jeffrey Brown, PBS News 2007
“I feel I’m a reporter … I don’t do autobiographical dances.” – Interview with Robert Greskovic, Wall Street Journal, 2010
“I actually try to forget a work once it’s created so I can start afresh. I challenge myself to create something I haven’t done before. There are, of course, resonances of the old in the new.” – Interview with Paula Citron, Globe and Mail 2011
In other words
“Taylor’s greatest works put the primal forces – fear, joy, procreation – on a pedestal. But you never see them coming. He lulls you with common human movement swirled into exquisite patterns, entrances you with reassuring displays of form and order, and then oh! A flash of love. Sex. Life. The door flies open on the human heart.” – Sarah Kaufman, Washington Post 2010
“Taylor makes his point, or points. First, life is mysterious; everything has some sort of weird underside. Second, life in groups … is more mysterious … Personal dramas may surface, but they are soon absorbed into the collective action. We are all grist for a great big mill that we don’t understand but that keeps on turning.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker 2003
“There are four Paul Taylors. One choreographs dark pieces, another creates light comic works, a third favors homemade rituals and the last seems to invent pure-dance pieces inspired by music … The spillover from any of these aspects into another is, in fact, typical of his work. It is common to find an ostensibly comic Taylor piece reveal its nightmarish side, while the dark brooding dances often achieve their impact through grotesqueries of human shape that would elicit a chuckle in another context.” – Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times 1989
“I think I can see some of Taylor’s swimming background in the dance style. The way the dancers move makes the air seem, I don’t know, thicker than just space.”
“. . .”
(A non-response to Taylor might have been apt in the 50s; not any more.)
Mark Morris is perhaps the closest of current choreographers to Taylor: take a look at Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato for example, and you can see the bloodline to Taylor’s Esplanade, among other pieces.
Now watch this
An excerpt of a TV documentary about Paul Taylor
Aureole (1962), performed by the Royal Danish Ballet with Rudolf Nureyev, 1978
First movement of Esplanade (1975) [the other movements are well worth watching too]
Company B (1991), performed by Miami City Ballet
Piazzolla Caldera (1997)
Black Tuesday (2001), a Depression-era piece
Promethean Fire (2002) – often interpreted as a response to the 9/11 bombings
Where to see Paul Taylor next
See the Paul Taylor Dance Company website for performance dates.