Paul Taylor Contributions to Contemporary Dance

Paul Taylor

Since his first dance routine more than half a century ago, Paul Taylor has become one of the worlds most popular and respected choreographers. His works are performed by companies throughout the globe. Taylor has created more than 150 dance pieces. His style is unique and he is often seen as a distinctly American artist.

critics and audiences all over the world agree that Taylor is a giant among modern dance choreographers. He has developed what is very much his own style of dance — a style that celebrates vigor, athleticism and strength — making Taylor, in a very special sense, an American choreographer. (Biography of Paul Taylor)

Taylor has been responsible for the choreography of more than ninety performances with his own company, which has a distinguished history. The company has also performed in more than 300 cites in the United States, as well as performances in over 39 overseas tours. His work is known not only for their originality but also for their “musicality and excitement.” (ibid) These works also form part of the repertoires of the “Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Houston Ballet, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Ballet Rembert, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and many regional American dance companies.” (ibid)

Paul Taylor was born July 29, 1930, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and grew up in the depression era in the United States. Biographers refer to the fact that his childhood was difficult and he was often lonely and separated from his parents.

His introduction to the arts was through his study of painting at Syracuse University. He later switched his attention to dance. This change, it is said, was initiated by partnering a classmate in the schools modern dance club recital. (ibid) His dance training began with a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music Dance Department and Connecticut College School of Dance. He was later to study with Martha Graham and Antony Tutor at the Martha Graham School and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. (PAUL TAYLOR: ACTS OF ARDOUR.)

Powerfully built, he immediately captured the attention of dance giants Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and Doris Humphrey. This young dancer had a commanding presence, instinctive talent, and a unique way of moving. Taylor was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he began his professional career.

(Paul Taylor: PBS)

During his time with the Martha Graham Company he performed in a number of pieces, including “Clytemnestra” (1958), “Alcestis” (1960) and “Phaedra” (1962). (ibid)

In 1954 he established his own dance company. He gradually became recognized as an original creator and choreographer, particularly with regard to one of his earliest works, entitled Three Epitaphs. While he was still a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company he presented his own works in various concerts throughout the United States and Europe. (Biography of Paul Taylor) However, Taylor came into his own during the 1950s when New York became a major world cultural center. His work was also associated with exciting experimentation in other fields of art. He collaborated with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns; he “shared their desire to bring the vernacular into high art, using gestures and stances from the street … ” (Paul Taylor: PBS)

Taylor was concerned with expressing the experiences and feelings of ordinary life and “in a number of his early pieces, Taylor composed dances of everyday gestures, such as checking a watch or waiting for a bus. Once seen separated from their context, one can recognize the richness of these everyday movements.” (ibid)

In the late 60s and 70s Taylor was responsible for some of the most innovative and original works of the time. During this period he was also concerned with a more minimalist approach to his art. Later he was to combine the minimalist approach with ballet. The pieces that were produced during this period were “Three Epitaphs” (1956), “Orbs” (1966), “The Book of Beasts” (1971), and “Airs” (1978). (ibid) He received acclaim for many of his creations including his “Aureole” (1962) which is ” … one of the most highly respected dance works of the time for its grace and technical difficulty. It is Taylors combination of the subtlety of ballet with the spontaneity of everyday gesture that has made him such a powerful force in modern dance.” (ibid)

The originality and popularity of his works can be attributed to numerous factors.

As has been mentioned, central to works was the focus on the experiences of common human emotion. The works that he produces are essentially about the way that people feel and interact in relation to the social intuitions around them. The use of body language in his works includes a wide range of both physical motion and creative imagination. Most important in these works is the focus on the human condition. His style is based on the underlying basis of dance as the expression of human existence and experience. A description of Duet (1957) is as follows:

“Duet” … was an experimental piece in which Taylor stands next to a reclining woman in street clothes, and neither one moves. This four-minute piece was a distillation of many essential elements of dance, calling attention to posture and the interconnection of people within a space.

(Paul Taylor: PBS)

Some critics have taken this concern with the human condition to another level and assert that there is a focus on primal and essential humanity in Taylors work. As Taylor has stated, “I believe in Darwin … And the natural world.” (Jacobs 47) One critic expands on this statement in an attempt at understanding the style of Taylors choreography.

And so the tracks and grooves of Taylors technique grow out of the grounded muscularity, the insular physics, of the animal kingdom: the racehorses heavy tilt into the turn, the big cats jazzy, deep-shouldered directional shifts within the chase, the concentrated stillnesses of both prey and predator, the easy elegant grazing on grasses. Taylors dancers are always Homo sapiens — descended from the apes — human animals rather than human beings. (Jacobs 47)

The above aspect makes his works unique and is evidenced in many of his creative compositions. For example, in the Three Epitaphs where black masked dancers “droop and stoop like the primordial ooze they crawled out of … ” (ibid)

Another central characteristic of his work is its imaginative and creative spontaneity and the refusal to subscribe to any unnecessary conventions.

In this, his achievements must surely outstrip those of nearly any other choreographer. Even ballet master George Balanchine, for all his musical ingenuity and emotional depth, relied on certain conventions to solve musical equations. Yet Taylor, unfettered by any specific technique or school of dance, offers surprise after surprise.

Kaufman, S.

In this regard many critics and commentators have pointed out t that interaction between music and motion that forms such an important aspect of Tailors works. The following quotation provides some insight into the symbiosis within the words between sound and dance, and the way in which Taylor conceives of this process.

“Sometimes,” said Mr. Taylor, “I have sort of an idea for a dance, and Im looking for something that I think might go with it, or against it . . . something to complement or help it. Other times, Im just looking around to hear something I can stand, because you have to hear it over and over; it takes a lot of work. If the music is not going to hold up well on several hearings, I dont want to get stuck with it …. There are no rules; there are no laws. The individual choreographer makes his laws; hes selecting what he feels would be right.” (Teck 8)

An example of the way that Taylor allowed spontaneity and creatively to form an integral part of his creations is evidenced by the words of dancer Kate Johnson.

Paul creates an atmosphere where the individual is allowed to have some space to try things out. The more confident you are in taking that space the more generous he is with it. You also have to be willing to take the risk of being responsible for yourself. As soon as I started working with him, I felt I had found something that had a huge capacity for involvement. There is so much to delve into in his works. So many of the pieces have an emotional content that I feel has great depth. I connected with the work in such a core way and felt so personally fulfilled that to be objective about it now is almost impossible.” (Reiter)

It is also interesting and enlightening to note that Taylors choreography which once was critiqued as bring difficult and even “painful” to endure has become the standard of modern dance. One of the reasons why.