In my paper I will be discussing the history and legacy of Paul Taylor, as well as the history and legacy of his company. In memorial of Taylor’s recent passing this paper will dive into the impact he left on the dance community. From dancer to choreographer, I will be expressing the greatest moments of Taylor’s career.
To begin, Taylor was born in Wilkinsburg, PA, in 1930 precisely nine months after the stock market crash that led into the Great Depression. His childhood has been described as lonely, as he was often away from his parents. Taylor attended Syracuse University on a swimming scholarship in the 1940s. While at school he stumbled upon dance books at the University library, he then transferred to Juilliard for a short year, it was obvious he had a creative mind.
In 1952, not long after college, Taylor began his dance journey. As a 22-year old athlete with very minimal dance training, he won a scholarship to attend the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College. Due to his athletic physique he could not help but catch the eyes of many greats in the dance industry such as; Martha Graham, José Limón, and Doris Humphrey. It was noted that Taylor had a “commanding presence, instinctive talent, and a unique way of moving” (PBS.org – American Masters). After working as a founding member of Merce Cunningham’s company, Martha Graham invited him to join her company as a soloist in 1955.
While performing as a soloist alongside Martha Graham’s company, Paul Taylor officially began creating “The Paul Taylor Dance Company”. However, his career as a dancer doesn’t end there. While still dancing for “Martha Graham Dance Company”, he was honorable recognized for dancing in pieces such as; “Clytemnestra” in 1958 , “Alcestis” in 1960 and “Phaedra” in 1962. Taylor also had the opportunity to perform with other contemporary masters like, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine which earned him worldwide respect in the dance community. (Alastair Macaulay, New York Times).
As Taylor’s success grew so did his imagination, he then started working as a choreographer with his new founded company. This company attracted the most highly recognized dancers, including Pina Bausch (company member – 1960 to 1962) and Twyla Tharp (1963-65). In the beginnings of his company he often experimented, using what he had learned from his predecessors and utilizing his wild imagination to create unique work.
These choreographic experiments developed Taylor’s interest in ordinary gesture, a type of dancing we still see to this day. An example of his fascination with gestures is shown through, what is known to be his most beloved piece “Esplanade” choreographed in 1975. This piece contains no traditional dance step, but rather includes dancers walking, stopping, running, skipping, sitting, jumping, falling, and embracing one another. “Esplanade”, left the audience pleased because they were able to relate to the movement and underlying meaning. This dance left an imprint on the audience, adding to his legacy. Everything Taylor choreographed was precisely put together yet, maintained a powerful and relatable meaning.
Taylor was able to combine moods such as; “joy and grief, heartbreak and exuberance, memory and impulsiveness; and its spontaneity was often astounding” (Macaulay, New York Times). Two more Paul Taylor pieces that not only influenced the dance community today but added to his legacy are “Aureole” and “Promethean Fire”. “Aureole” choreographed in 1962, was described to be “free from the cobwebs of time, Aureole was choreographed in 1962, when America was a happy place and it is no doubt that this happiness is reflected in the piece” according to original-cast member Elizabeth Walton. It should also be noted that his inspiration for this work came from a previous experience with Balanchine.
“Aureoles” success solidified Taylor”s career as a choreographer, and helped to define his simplistic yet dynamic movement vocabulary. This movement quality is still used today in many choreographic processes including one of his mentees Pina Bausch (PTAMD.com). Next, “Promethean fire” was choreographed on the day the twin towers in New York City were struck down. A former Taylor dancer recalls “Being up on the roof of paul’s studios with all the dancers watching the twin towers go down”. After witnessing such a horrible event the dancers asked paul taylor what they were to do.
He called them into the studio and begun choreographing Promethean Fire. Promethean Fire showcases images of despair, rage and physical collapse. “It has grandeur, majesty and a spiritual dimension. It is also quite simply one of the best dance works choreographed by Paul Taylor” (Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times- Dance Review). Taylor’s ability to bring immense beauty to such a tragedy is a testament to his choreographic abilities and is a trait many choreographers wish to obtain today.
Within the 147 pieces Paul Taylor created he is able to cover an astounding variety of subjects. Topics most prominently displayed are “the natural world and man’s place within it; love and sexuality in all gender combinations; and iconic moments in American history” (paultayloramericanmoderdance.com). While there is a variety of works within the 147 that have been themed “dark” or “light,” the vast majority of Taylor’s pieces combine the two, intertwining elements of these extremes. Although his work was considered Unorthodox, it has been stated that he “made some of the most purely romantic, most astonishingly athletic, and downright funniest dances ever put on stage”.
Taylor was often recognized for his unusual use of musicality while using very usual sounding music. Taylor would set work to musical pieces so popular that for many audience members it is now impossible to hear this music and not think of Taylor’s influential repertoire. Taylor has influenced a great number of choreographers and dancers who have then gone on to carry his legacy. They have done this by setting his work on their own companies. The list of those who still carry his legacy today is long but here a few worth noting; “Royal Danish Ballet, Rambert Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater”.
If all this was not enough Taylor’s legacy lives on through Paul Taylor 2, a dance company created by Taylor in 1993. He created this second company to guarantee that his repertoire could be viewed by audiences all over the world despite the “economic considerations and the logistical limitations of non-traditional venues” (Paul Taylor 2 – PTAMD.com). He worked tirelessly along side colleague and friend Linda Hodes to come up with a company that can accommodate performance desires made by individuals, instruct classes, and delevet community outreach. Taylor 2’s Performances are easily changed and are subject to change to meet the circumstances of every community. According to Taylor 2’s website these events usually consist of “master classes and lecture/demonstrations in addition to performances that often take place in non-traditional venues as well as in theaters” (Paul Taylor 2 – PTAMD.com).
Paul Taylor deservingly received many honors here in the United States which, furthers his legacy and emphasizes his clear importance to the dance community. Some awards he has received are as follows; “Kennedy Center Honors (1992), Emmy Award for Speaking in Tongues, National Medal of Arts by President Clinton (1993), 1995 Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts (1995), named one of 50 prominent Americans for excellence by the Library of Congress’s Office of Scholarly Programs, recipient of three Guggenheim Fellowships, honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from California Institute of the Arts, Connecticut College, Duke University, The Juilliard School, Skidmore College, the State University of New York at Purchase, Syracuse University and Adelphi University, MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, and elected one of ten honorary members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters” (PTAMD.com).
Paul Taylor passed away in Manhattan on August 29, 2018. His death has shaken the dance community as we truly understand all the gifts Taylor gave us. Without Taylor’s use of uncommon and experimental choreographic techniques dance making would not be the way it is today. Taylor left a legacy or creativity and vision behind that now resides in his company and will be preserved for many years to come.