Paul Taylor, one of the most accomplished artists this nation has ever produced, helped shape and define America’s homegrown art of modern dance from the earliest days of his career as a dancer and choreographer in 1954 until his death in 2018. As artistic director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company he created 147 dances, many of which rank among the greatest ever made. A trailblazer throughout his 64-year career, in 2015 he helped ensure the future of modern dance by establishing Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, which brings to Lincoln Center great modern works of the past, outstanding works by today’s leading choreographers, and commissioned works made on the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Mr. Taylor continued to win public and critical acclaim for the vibrancy, relevance and power of his dances into his eighties, offering cogent observations on life’s complexities while tackling some of society’s thorniest issues. While he often propelled his dancers through space for the sheer beauty of it, he more frequently used them to comment on such profound issues as war, piety, spirituality, sexuality, morality and mortality. His repertoire covers a breathtaking range of topics, but recurring themes include the natural world and man’s place within it; love and sexuality in all gender combinations; and iconic moments in American history. His poignant looks at soldiers, those who send them into battle and those they leave behind prompted the New York Times to hail him as “among the great war poets” – high praise indeed for an artist in a wordless medium. While some of his dances have been termed “dark” and others “light,” the majority of his works are dualistic, mixing elements of both extremes. And while his work was largely iconoclastic, he also made some of the most purely romantic, most astonishingly athletic, and downright funniest dances ever put on stage.
Paul Taylor was born on July 29, 1930 and grew up in and around Washington, DC. He attended Syracuse University on a swimming scholarship in the late 1940s until he discovered dance through books at the University library, and then transferred to The Juilliard School. In 1954 he assembled a small company of dancers and began to choreograph. A commanding performer despite his late start in dance, he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1955 for the first of seven seasons as soloist while continuing to choreograph on his own troupe. In 1959 he was a guest artist with New York City Ballet, where Balanchine created the Episodes solo for him.
Mr. Taylor first gained notoriety as a dance maker in 1957 with Seven New Dances; its study in non-movement famously earned it a blank newspaper review. In 1962, with his first major success – the sunny Aureole – he set his trailblazing modern movement not to contemporary music but to baroque works composed two centuries earlier. Darker, sometimes controversial works followed, including Scudorama, From Sea to Shining Sea and Big Bertha. After retiring as a performer in 1974, Mr. Taylor turned exclusively to choreography, resulting in a flood of creativity that included his signature work, Esplanade. In the ensuing decades he created such iconic dances as Cloven Kingdom, Airs, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), Arden Court, Sunset, Musical Offering, Last Look, Speaking In Tongues, Brandenburgs, Company B, Promethean Fire, and Beloved Renegade.
Mr. Taylor shed light on the mysteries of the creative process as few artists have. The documentary film about him, Dancemaker, received an Oscar nomination in 1999 and was hailed by Time as “perhaps the best dance documentary ever.” His autobiography, Private Domain, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle as the most distinguished biography of 1987.
Mr. Taylor received nearly every important honor given to artists in the United States. In 1992 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and received an Emmy Award for Speaking in Tongues, produced by WNET/New York the previous year. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1993. He was the recipient of three Guggenheim Fellowships and eight honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees. Awards for lifetime achievement include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship – often called the “genius award.” Mr. Taylor was awarded France’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur, in 2000 for exceptional contributions to French culture.
Mr. Taylor’s final work, Concertiana, made when he was 87, premiered at Lincoln Center in 2018. He died in Manhattan on August 29, 2018, leaving an extraordinary legacy of creativity and vision not only to American modern dance but to the performing arts the world over.