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Paul Taylor (1930 - )

By Mary Wegmann

Beginning with his move to New York City as an untrained dancer at the age of 22, Paul Taylor launched a career as a dancer and choreographer that has inspired modern dance.  What he lacked in formal training in his youth, he quickly gained through his classes at Juilliard, and through his work with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.  His choreography, an exhilarating combination of hurtling leaps, pedestrian motion, and prolonged stillness, challenges his audience to engage with both the light and dark aspects of human relationships.  Hailed for its distinctively American form of modern dance, the Paul Taylor Dance Company quickly became one of the busiest touring companies in the United States and abroad.  At the age of 82, Taylor continues to inspire generations of dancers and choreographers with his unique choreographic style and wide-ranging musicality.


Paul Belville Taylor, Jr. was born in Edgewood, Pennsylvania months after the September, 1929 collapse of the stock market that lead to the Great Depression.  Not long after his birth, the family relocated from Pennsylvania to Washington D.C., where Taylor’s parents divorced.  His mother supported her four children, of whom Taylor was the youngest, by managing restaurants.  Although Taylor idolized his mother, she was often occupied by work and unable to care for him.  As a result, Taylor moved frequently during his teenage years, initially living on a farm with a foster family before moving in with his sister’s family and then attending boarding school.  From the beginning, Taylor’s transitory home life and childhood isolation led him to develop a rich inner world, one that was occupied by imaginary playmates and influenced by the natural environment.

Intending to delay entry into the demands of adulthood, Taylor attended Syracuse University on swimming and art scholarships from 1950-1952; it was not until his sophomore year that he discovered dance.  A latecomer to the art, Taylor was exposed to the form through touring dance companies and library books on Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, and Barbara Morgan’s photographs of Martha Graham.  He created his first work, Hobo Ballet, in 1952, after which he left Syracuse to pursue dancing more seriously.  Louis Horst, Doris Humphrey, and dancers from the Graham Company provided Taylor with his first serious introduction into the life of a dancer at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut.  It was during this initial foray into the art form that Martha Graham caught sight of the inexperienced dancer and invited him to join her company when he arrived in New York. 

Taylor compensated for his late introduction to dance by filling his days with courses at Juilliard and his evenings with classes at Graham’s school.  Classmates took him to see Merce Cunningham’s Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, after which he began to skip occasional classes at Juilliard to attend classes at Cunningham’s studio.  Following his year at Juilliard, Taylor pieced together a living in dance with the Graham and Cunningham companies, small stints with other choreographers, and on Broadway.  By adopting and rejecting various techniques and movement theories of other choreographers, Taylor began to explore his own choreographic voice with five or six of his classmates.  These pieces were performed irregularly in makeshift venues with James Waring’s co-operative, Dance Associates.  In 1954, Jack and the Beanstalk was the first of these pieces to be performed, with sets and props designed by Taylor’s friend and collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg.

While Taylor continued to take on commercial work and dance with the Graham Company, he began to increase his focus on his own choreography.  For his evening length work entitled 7 New Dances in 1957, Taylor wanted to create a new dance vocabulary based on pedestrian movement.  Incorporating stillness and eliminating traditional dance movement in these works unexpectedly exposed the dancers’ individuality in a way that intrigued Taylor.  This minimalist approach to movement, exemplified by Duets, in which Taylor and his partner stood on stage in complete stillness and silence for four minutes, proved more interesting to the dancers than the audience.  Louis Horst’s infamous review of this piece in Dance Observer, four inches of blank space followed by his signature, created a name for Taylor in the then small world of New York dance.  This experience caused Taylor to return to the concept of movement as communication; if he created his dances in isolation, without considering how they would be received, his message would not penetrate the audience.  Subsequent performances began to reflect the development of Taylor’s simple but dynamic movement vocabulary and quickly captivated audiences.

In 1962, the American Dance Festival commissioned Aureole.  Set to music by Handel, the steps for Aureole’s cast of five are simple, varied primarily by speed, direction, and order.   The widespread appeal of this work persuaded Taylor to devote his time fully to his choreography and company and to hire manager Charlie Reinhart, with whom the Company has travelled across the world.  The same year marked the end of his tenure with the Graham Company.  Over the course of his seven years with her Company, Graham created major roles for him in Clytemnestra in 1958, Alcestis in 1960, and Phaedra in 1962.  In 1974 at the age of 44, Taylor retired from dancing after the New York premiere of American Genesis, allowing him to concentrate fully on choreography.  Prior to his retirement, Taylor often took on leading roles in his own work; by eliminating himself from the performance, he was able to reexamine his choreography and experiment with new structures and dancers.  Esplanade, a work from 1975, was the first of these well-received works.

Taylor is often lauded for contrasting light and dark emotions and relationships in his choreography.  Themes in his work range from war to sexuality to mortality to religion to loss.  Inspiration for his choreography comes from his surroundings; he strives to expose the beauty and intricate expression of natural body language through his dances.  Mixing the pedestrian movement with sweeping steps and hurtling leaps, Taylor’s dancers occupy the stage in an unassuming yet all-encompassing way.  Open, spiraling torsos and fully extended arms and legs have come to define Taylor’s movement vocabulary.   Fluidity is paired with stilted walking, running, and posturing of the body.

Taylor explores the tensions and harmonies that develop when movement conflicts with music, often instructing the dancers to move faster or slower than the musical tempo or to propel their bodies through silence.  His unconventional choices for musical accompaniment range from Renaissance dances, classical symphonies, and scores by John Cage to ragtime, tango, and barbershop quartets.  As diverse as his music choices are his collaborations with visual artists and designers.  Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Gene Moore, and Alex Katz have designed costumes and sets for Taylor’s work.  Jennifer Tipton is the principle lighting designer for the company.  Following him into adulthood, George H. Tacet, Ph.D, Taylor’s childhood imaginary friend and pseudonym, is credited for costume and set designs for which Taylor wishes to conceal his responsibility.

The MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Kennedy Center Honors, National Medal of the Arts, and the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts are a few of the awards and recognitions Taylor has received in his five decades as a choreographer.  Since 1954, he has made 137 dances, many of which are still in the repertory of his own company and Taylor 2, a second company of Paul Taylor dancers formed in 1993.  Companies around the world perform his choreography, including the Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  By creating scores of his choreography in Labanotation, producing archival films of his dances intended to aid in reconstruction efforts, and building the Paul Taylor Dance Company Archive, the Taylor Foundation is a leader in dance preservation and is ensuring that Taylor’s work will continue to challenge and inspire future audiences. 

Mary Wegmann is an archivist interested in the documentation, preservation, and access of time-based art. She received her MSIS from the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin and is working with the Dance Heritage Coalition as a Project Archivist in the Bay Area.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Jacobson, Robert. “Taylor Made.” Ballet News August 1984: 24-27.

Kane, Angela. “Paul Taylor.” Fifty Contemporary Choreographers. Bremser, Martha. New York: Routledge, 1999. 207-212.

Reinhart, Charles L. “A Birthday Remembrance.” Dance Magazine July 2000: 41-43, 66.

Taylor, Paul. Paul Taylor Dance Company- The First Fifty Years. New York: Paul Taylor Dance Company, 2004.

Taylor, Paul. “Portrait of the Artist as Two Young Men.” Dance Magazine January 1993: 64-69.

Taylor, Paul. Private Domain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987.

Tobias, Tobi. “A Conversation with Paul Taylor and George Tacit.” Dance Magazine April 1985: 54-60.

Online Resources

Paul Taylor Dance Company website: http://www.ptamd.org/

Paul Taylor biography: http://ptamd.org/artists-dances/paul-taylor/

Paul Taylor Why I Make Dances: http://ptamd.org/artists-dances/paul-taylor/why-i-make-dances/

Moving Image

Paul Taylor: Dancemaker. Dir. Matthew Diamond. Docurama, 1998. DVD. Video - Paul Taylor: Dancemaker- Conversations from Penn State: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs3B-Bzo_HM

Video from the American Dance Festival- The Choreography of Paul Taylor: “Company B”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNZ54eD36wk&feature=endscreen&NR=1

Video from the American Dance Festival - The Choreography of Paul Taylor: “Promethean Fire” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HG9LqO6Cuo8