Paul Taylor, who brought a lyrical musicality, capacity for joy and wide poetic imagination to modern dance over six decades as one of its greatest choreographers, died on Wednesday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88. The cause was renal failure, said Lisa Labrado, a spokeswoman for the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Taylor, whose highly diverse style was born in radical experimentalism in the 1950s, created poignant and exuberant works that entered the repertory of numerous dance companies. His own company, eloquent and athletic, has been one of the world’s superlative troupes.
As a strikingly gifted dancer in his 20s, Taylor created roles for the master choreographers Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and George Balanchine. He had piercing blue eyes, the power and musculature of a skilled athlete and an incisive, outgoing — but also elusive — personality.
Throughout the 1950s, he also made dances of his own — 18 of them with Robert Rauschenberg as his designer, two with music commissioned from John Cage. In 1960, he began to collaborate with the painter Alex Katz; though they worked together only from time to time, they continued to do so until 2014, and made two of Taylor’s most exceptional works, the highly dissimilar Sunset (1983) and Last Look (1985).
With the premieres of Aureole (1962, to music of Handel) and Orbs (1966, to Beethoven), Taylor broke through to new levels of national and international popularity as other companies started presenting many of his creations. At his own company, Rudolf Nureyev was often a guest star, as well as dancing Aureole around the world.
Taylor’s company included many illustrious performers, including Pina Bausch and Twyla Tharp, who themselves subsequently became world-class choreographers.
When he retired from dancing in 1974, both his dancers and his new creations became even more magnetic draws for audiences. New York’s annual Taylor season, usually occupying a large theatre (for decades City Center Theater, since 2012 the David H Koch Theater at Lincoln Center) became one of the glories of world dance. Lincoln Kirstein, the eminent patron of the arts (and writer about them) who loved to complain that modern dance was governed by the cult of idiosyncrasy, made an exception for Taylor.
Taylor’s Esplanade (1975) was recognised immediately as an irresistible and transporting masterpiece. Set to the music of Bach, it explored pedestrian movement (walking, running, standing, skidding, falling) and encompassed both dark and bright emotions in a miraculous flow.
A large number of the other dances he made between 1975 and 1985 also became classics. Several later works, too, up to at least 2008 (Beloved Renegade, for example), showed the Taylor imagination in full power.
In 2014, after 60 years of choreography, Taylor, who leaves no immediate survivors, prepared for his company’s next phase: He turned its three-week New York seasons into a new entity, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance (originally Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance). His dancers now performed works old and new by other dance makers, older and younger than him, from Martha Graham to Doug Elkins. Other troupes appeared as guests under the Taylor Modern Dance aegis, performing choreography by Merce Cunningham, Donald McKayle and Trisha Brown. (The Paul Taylor Dance Company continued to perform his work under its old name on United States and international tours.)
Paul Belville Taylor Jr was born on July 29, 1930, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, and grew up in the Washington area. His father, a physicist who worked for the federal government, was of French Huguenot descent; his mother, Elizabeth Rust Pendleton, came from a genteel Virginia family. She was a widow with three children when she met and married Paul Taylor Sr, who was rooming in her home.
Taylor’s parents separated before he turned 4. “It became clear that my father had become overly attracted to her elder son,” Taylor wrote in his autobiography, Private Domain, published in 1987. Taylor supported her children by managing a restaurant in a Washington hotel. Paul, whose half siblings remained part of his life, grew up with a love of literature and art and a hefty penchant for fantasy. Taylor scholars have encountered many tales in which his version of the facts diverges from the provable record. He liked nonetheless to insist that his account was the historic truth.
According to his memoir, it was in childhood that he invented an imaginary companion or alter ego named George Tacet. In later years, he named Tacet as the designer of several of his most celebrated dances — notably Aureole and Runes (1975).
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