Paul Taylor, 1930–2018
The choreographer who found light in darkness
Paul Taylor was the most eclectic of the trio of American choreographers who broke through the strictures of ballet to create 20th-century modern dance. His works could be radically experimental—in one of his first pieces, 1957’s Duet, Taylor and a female dancer sat motionless to a silent score by composer John Cage—or surprisingly traditional. In 1962’s Aureole, for example, performers fuse techniques of modern dance and ballet, to the music of Handel. Taylor’s ability to capture the highs and lows of the human experience in movement made him a titan of dance, an equal of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Hugely prolific—he created 147 works over six decades—Taylor routinely dismissed questions about his creative inspirations. His only muse, he said, was “the clock. Ticking.”
Born near Pittsburgh to a businesswoman mother and a physicist father, Taylor relocated with his family to Washington during the Depression, said The Washington Post. There, his mother helped manage the Brighton Hotel. When his parents’ marriage collapsed, Taylor, often left alone, entertained himself by collecting bugs “and observing the odd parade of humanity that checked in and out of the Brighton.” He studied painting at Syracuse University and joined the college swim team, but discovered dance at age 20 and transferred to New York City’s Juilliard School. Taylor’s natural gifts—his 6-foot-1 height, sculpted swimmer’s arms and torso, and bold and graceful movements—put him in demand among modern choreographers. He danced for Cunningham, Pearl Lang, and Graham, who often cast Taylor as the “token hunk in her Greek tragedies,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Taylor founded his own troupe in 1954, and the company would attract illustrious performers such as Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp, and Rudolf Nureyev.
Taylor’s dancing career ended abruptly in 1974, when undiagnosed hepatitis caused him to collapse onstage. “But as a choreographer, he was just getting going,” said the Associated Press. A year later came Esplanade—in which performers run, slide, jump, and fall to a Bach violin concerto—“later celebrated as one of the most wondrous works of dance anywhere.” Taylor continued to create new works at a furious pace, describing choreography as “an addiction that at times resembles a fatal disease.” Still, he added, “I’ve no intention of kicking the habit.”