The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paul Taylor, prolific modern dance choreographer, dies at 88

The acclaimed choreographer and dancer Paul Taylor died Aug. 29 at a hospital in New York City. He was 88. (Paul Taylor Foundation Archives)

Paul Taylor, the modern dance choreographer whose prolific, ­often witty works encapsulated the human experience in exquisite simplicity, and whose artistic range led his self-titled dance group to a level of international renown unmatched by any other single-choreographer company, died Aug. 29 at a hospital in New York City. He was 88.

The cause was renal failure, said Lisa Labrado, a spokes­person for the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

In more than a half-century of creating dances, Mr. Taylor became one of the most influential choreographers in the world, admired as much for his meticulous craftsmanship as for the comedy and social criticism embedded in his depictions of young lovers, poets, brutes, frolickers and day-to-day heroes.

Unusual in the field of modern dance, Mr. Taylor was a gifted storyteller. Within a framework of 30 minutes or so, he could portray distinct personalities, subtle emotional shifts and un­expected plot twists — all through concise, telling movement and an unerring sense of timing.

His works combined strong dramatic imagination with natural, everyday movement raised to a virtuosic level. The sailing propulsion of his dances, and his sly sense of humor, made his art more accessible and vastly more popular than the more emphatic blood-and-thunder works of Martha Graham and the plotless, ­cerebral objectivity of Merce Cunningham — both choreographers with whom Mr. Taylor worked early in his career.

Mr. Taylor was never one to follow custom, in his art or in the way he ran his company. His dance studios had no mirrors, for instance; Taylor believed they fostered bad habits. In 2014, Mr. Taylor acquired works by other choreographers for his company, a highly unusual move for a founding director. He established Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, an initiative to commission new works and to license dances by other artists, including Graham.

Pragmatism was Mr. Taylor’s reigning philosophy. Rather than developing his own technique, as Graham and Cunningham had done, he crafted his works from “found” movements he gleaned from people-watching. A homeless man with an unsightly tic was an inspiration for “Last Look” (1985), one of Mr. Taylor’s more disturbing works.

Notable deaths in 2018 and 2019: Nipsey Hussle, George H.W. Bush, Stan Lee, John McCain, Aretha Franklin and other famous faces we’ve lost

Nipsey Hussle, a Grammy nominated rapper who sought to revive South Los Angeles, died at age 33 on March 31. Read the obituary (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Warner Music)

He brushed aside questions about his creative inspirations, remarking that his only muse was “the clock. Ticking.” He disliked affectations, often skewering social mannerisms in his works, and he lived offstage the simplicity he espoused on it.

He made much of his own furniture or dragged in castoffs from the street, and he dressed like a man who would have preferred to be outdoors with a chain saw, rather than confined in a dance studio. His uniform was canvas trousers clipped to suspenders, well-worn boots and a work shirt with a pack of cigarettes in the pocket. For decades, Mr. Taylor smoked three packs a day.

One of his most famous and heartbreaking works, “Company B” (1991), with songs sung by the Andrews Sisters, celebrated the optimism and deal-with-it gumption of Americans during World War II. They were qualities Mr. Taylor relied on.

“People somehow overcame the tragedy of the war,” he said of “Company B” in a 1999 interview with The Washington Post. “You can keep going. It’s honorable. You can respect it. It’s a human trait.”

His works shared the tautness and wit of carefully observed short stories. Among his best-known were “Esplanade” (1975), with its extremes of behavior — cold indifference alongside communal high spirits — accompanied by the music of J.S. Bach, and “Aureole” (1962), a sunny update of 19th-century “white ballet” that seems to take place in a heavenly Woodstock, blending lyrical buoyancy and tranquil weight with music by George Frideric Handel.

“Aureole” is especially notable for the muscular, musical grace of its central male solo, which Mr. Taylor created for himself.

Mr. Taylor created 147 works for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, founded in New York in 1954, and for such companies as American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet.

He infused his dances with keen musicality, and in surprising ways. His idea to send barefoot dancers skipping and sliding to baroque music, as in “Esplanade,” was initially seen as both liberating and heretical. In his earlier years, when Mr. Taylor started stripping down dance to the basics of running, walking and even sitting still, his works provoked more dismay than praise.

A 1957 concert featured seven works built from “pedestrian” movement, a radical idea at the time. In a piece simply titled “Duet,” Mr. Taylor and a female dancer sat motionless, in silence, for four and a half minutes. The display prompted Louis Horst, a composer and the editor of Dance Observer, to publish a few inches of blank space as a review.

“My movements are scribbles of what people do,” Mr. Taylor said, “and people do sometimes stand or sit still, you know.”

He soon realized that, if he wanted to attract an audience, his work would have to involve movement and music. But he never relinquished his fondness for the behaviors of ordinary folks — an aspect of his work perhaps explained by the fact that he did not start dancing until relatively late in life.

Discovering dance

Paul Belville Taylor Jr. was born near Pittsburgh on July 29, 1930. His father was a physicist, and his mother was a businesswoman who had three older children from a previous marriage.

The onset of the Depression prompted the family to relocate to Washington, where Paul’s mother helped manage the Brighton Hotel and became the chief breadwinner. The marriage soon collapsed.

Essentially raised as an only child, Mr. Taylor said he was left to entertain himself much of the time, roaming the halls of the hotel, collecting bugs and just observing the odd parade of humanity that checked in and out of the Brighton.

Mr. Taylor attended Syracuse University on a partial scholarship with the intention of studying painting. Out of boredom, he joined the swim team but soon abandoned it in favor of his surreptitious discovery of dance, which he felt satiated “a strong physical urge to work off energy,” he wrote in his 1987 memoir, “Private Domain.”

In the summer of 1951, he worked as a chauffeur at a dance school in Bar Harbor, Maine, where he took a few classes and became fully hooked. The following summer he resumed dancing at Connecticut College, studying with such dance pioneers as Graham, José Limón and Doris Humphrey. Mr. Taylor transferred to the Juilliard School in New York, where he trained with ballet choreographer Antony Tudor.

He left Juilliard before graduating and understudied with Graham’s company. Mr. Taylor possessed a calm, fluid quality of moving, which, combined with his natural gifts — his 6-foot-1 height, jumping ability and swimmer’s powerful arms and sculpted torso — put him in high demand among choreographers. He also worked with Graham student Pearl Lang and Cunningham.

Mr. Taylor joined Graham’s troupe in 1955. In addition, he danced with the New York City Ballet, in a solo by George Balanchine for the unusual two-part collaboration with Graham titled “Episodes.”

Mr. Taylor began making works for a small group of dancers in 1954, and in 1962 he left Graham to devote himself to his company. The Paul Taylor Dance Company became one of the first American modern dance troupes to tour internationally, often sponsored by the State Department.

Crafted on a steady schedule of two or three a year, Mr. Taylor’s works fueled the troupe’s world travels. In 1993, he launched a second company, Taylor 2, which also travels nationally and internationally.

Mr. Taylor stopped dancing in 1974 at age 44, after contracting hepatitis, suffering from ulcers and battling an addiction to a now-banned amphetamine called Dexamyl, which he took to manage stage fright.

“I had a very physical life while I was dancing, and the minute I stopped I was so glad to just be still and not hurt,” he told The Post in 2004. Absent the anxieties of performing, he found he could channel his energies more deeply into choreography. The year after he retired from the stage, Mr. Taylor created “Esplanade.”

Crossing boundaries

Mr. Taylor’s mastery of different styles, tones and forms was key to the success of his company; its repertoire is so varied as to seem created by several voices.

In a single evening, audiences might see a sardonic comedy such as “Big Bertha” (1970); an exposé of the dark side of human nature such as “Banquet of Vultures” (2005), which skewered American imperialism; a robust, uplifting work, such as the tribute to everyday courage “Promethean Fire,” created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; or a piercing sketch such as “Sunset” (1983), with its tender, vanishing romantic stirrings between young soldiers and their sweethearts, its Edward Elgar score punctuated by loon calls, and its mysterious, transitory moods that settle lightly, like mist.

The longevity of the Paul Taylor Dance Company is nearly unheard of in the evanescence of modern dance. Mr. Taylor attributed its success to his frugality. But he also had a way of maintaining his dancers’ devotion while developing exemplary talents. Choreographers Twyla Tharp, David Parsons, Lila York and Laura Dean are among Taylor alumni.

In his later years, when not creating a new work, Mr. Taylor spent much of his time at the gray-shingled cottage in Mattituck, on Long Island, that he bought in the 1970s. If his company needed him, he stayed within walking distance of the troupe’s headquarters, for many years in Soho and since 2008 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Mr. Taylor’s works were popular among ballet audiences as well as modern dance fans. He was frequently commissioned by major ballet troupes, and works such as “Aureole” and “Company B” have been performed by companies that include American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet.

Among his awards, Mr. Taylor received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, widely known as a “genius grant”; the National Medal of Arts; the Kennedy Center Honors; and an Emmy Award in 1992 for his choreography in a public television broadcast of “Paul Taylor’s Speaking in Tongues.”

Mr. Taylor’s companion, George Wilson, with whom he lived for about 50 years, died in 2004. Wilson was deaf and mute, and Mr. Taylor learned sign language to communicate with him. They lived together first as lovers and in later years as friends. Mr. Taylor had no immediate survivors.

Asked what lay behind his success in art, Mr. Taylor said there was little difference between making dances and arranging collages of insects, which was one of his hobbies.

“There’s this matter of framing, and placement in space,” he told The Post in 2004. “You decide that looks good, and that doesn’t. It’s about making decisions.”

“I know I have talent, and I trust my talent,” he said. “I don’t know where it comes from. Certainly not my background. I wasn’t brought up to be an artist. But I love to make things, and I love the proscenium, and I love the idea of making something for people to get something out of and enjoy.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Barrie Dunsmore, globe-trotting ABC News correspondent, dies at 79

Hilary Lister, quadriplegic yachtswoman who sailed solo across English Channel, dies at 46

George Walker, first African American composer to win Pulitzer Prize, dies at 96