Paul Taylor is among the last living members of the second generation of America’s modern dance artists. He has continued to win acclaim for his recent creations as well as stagings of his earlier works. As prolific as ever, he may propel his dancers through space for the sheer beauty of it, or use them to wordlessly illuminate war, spirituality, sexuality, morality and mortality. If, as Balanchine said, there are no mothers-in-law in ballet, there certainly are dysfunctional families, disillusioned idealists, imperfect religious leaders, angels and insects in Taylor's dances.
In the 1950s, when Taylor’s work was so cutting-edge that it often sent confused audience members flocking to the exits, Martha Graham dubbed him the "naughty boy" of dance. In the 1960s he shocked the cognoscenti by setting his trailblazing modern movement to music composed 200 years earlier, and he inflamed the establishment by lampooning America’s most treasured icons. In the 1970s he put incest center stage and revealed the primitive nature lurking just below men's and women’s sophisticated veneer. In the 1980s he looked unflinchingly at marital rape and intimacy among men at war. In the 1990s he warned against religious zealotry and blind conformity to authority. In the first decade of the new millennium he condemned American imperialism, poked fun at feminism and looked death square in the face. And yet, while his work has largely been iconoclastic, Taylor has also made some of the most purely romantic, most astonishingly athletic, and downright funniest dances ever put on stage.
Taylor was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he grew up in and around Washington, DC. He was a swimmer and student of painting at Syracuse University in the late 1940s. Upon discovering dance through books at the school library, he transferred to Juilliard, where he earned a B.S. degree in dance in 1953 under director Martha Hill.
In 1954 he assembled a small company of dancers and began making his own works. A commanding performer despite his late start, he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1955 for the first of seven seasons as soloist while continuing to choreograph on his own small troupe. In 1959 he was invited by Balanchine to be a guest artist with New York City Ballet.
Hailed for uncommon musicality and catholic taste, Taylor has set dances to an eclectic mix that includes Ragtime, Rock, Tango, Tin Pan Alley and Barbershop Quartets; Medieval masses, Renaissance dances, baroque concertos, classical symphonies, and scores by Debussy, Cage, Feldman, Ligeti and Pärt; telephone time announcements, loon calls, and laughter. While he has covered a breathtaking range of topics, recurring themes have included the natural world and man’s place within it; love and sexuality in all gender combinations; life, death, and what may follow; 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.”
Taylor’s first choreographic triumph was the slyly funny 3 Epitaphs in 1956. He captivated dancegoers in 1962 with his virile grace in the landmark Aureole, cheekily set not to contemporary music but to a baroque score as Junction had been the year before. He struck chords again with the apocalyptic Scudorama – intended to be as dark as Aureole was sunny – and the controversial From Sea to Shining Sea and Big Bertha. After retiring as a performer in 1974, Taylor devoted himself fully to choreography, setting movement exclusively on bodies other than his own. A string of masterpieces followed, beginning immediately with Esplanade and including Cloven Kingdom, Dust, Airs, Mercuric Tidings, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), Arden Court, Last Look, Musical Offering, Syzygy, Speaking in Tongues, Company B, Eventide, Piazzolla Caldera, Black Tuesday, Promethean Fire, VBanquet of Vultures and Beloved Renegade.
Taylor has influenced dozens of men and women who have gone on to choreograph, often on their own troupes. He has worked closely with such outstanding artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Alex Katz, Tharon Musser, Thomas Skelton, Gene Moore, John Rawlings, William Ivey Long, Jennifer Tipton, Santo Loquasto and Matthew Diamond. And as the subject of the documentary, Dancemaker, and author of the autobiography Private Domain and Wall Street Journal essay Why I Make Dances, he has shed light on the mysteries of the creative process as few artists ever have. He remains among the most sought-after choreographers working today, commissioned by ballet companies and presenting organizations the world over.
Taylor has received 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. In 1995 he received the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts and was named one of 50 prominent Americans honored in recognition of their outstanding achievement by the Library of Congress’s Office of Scholarly Programs. He is the recipient of three Guggenheim Fellowships and 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. Awards for lifetime achievement include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship – often called the “genius award” – and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award. Other awards include the New York State Governor's Arts Award and the New York City Mayor's Award of Honor for Art and Culture. In 1989 Taylor was elected one of ten honorary American members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Having been elected to knighthood by the French government as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1969 and elevated to Officier in 1984 and Commandeur in 1990, Taylor was awarded France’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur, for exceptional contributions to French culture, in 2000.
Private Domain, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf and re-released by North Point Press and later by the University of Pittsburgh Press, was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle as the most distinguished biography of 1987. Dancemaker, Matthew Diamond’s award-winning, Oscar-nominated feature-length film about Taylor, was hailed by Time as "perhaps the best dance documentary ever."
Many of his pieces and movements have a reason behind them. Some movements are related for his love of insects and the way they move. Other movements are influenced by his love of swimming.
The choreographer’s works, now totaling 136, are performed by the world-renowned, 16-member Paul Taylor Dance Company, the chamber-sized Taylor 2, and ballet companies throughout the world.
Private Domain: An Autobiography by Paul Taylor
Paperback: 406 pages
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press (April 29, 1999)
Amazon: Private Domain: An Autobiography
Taylor explores aspects of himself that have affected his work. He delves into the creation of Aureole and From Sea to Shining Sea, from their initial inception to the ways in which specific dancers influenced the choreography, including such notables as Pina Bausch, Laura Dean, David Parsons, Twyla Tharp, Dan Wagoner, Senta Driver—all of whom went on to form their own companies—and others—Bettie de Jong, Nicholas Gunn, and Carolyn Adams—who remained as much a part of the Taylor style as the choreography itself. Taylor writes with sincerity, wit, and charm of his associations with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, Anthony Tudor, George Balanchine, and many others.
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