Paul Taylor.

Paul Taylor (1930–2018)

Paul Taylor—the modern American dancer and choreographer whose groundbreaking dances moved fluidly between quotidian gesture, traditional technique, and stillness—died yesterday at age eighty-eight after a career of six decades. A spokesperson for the Paul Taylor Dance Company said that the cause of death was renal failure. Regularly referred to in his later years as the last legendary living choreographer of his generation, Taylor cemented a matchless legacy through his self-named dance company, whose poetic (and alienating) experimentalism and emotional range catapulted the repertory to rare heights of international renown.

Born in 1930 in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, and raised near Washington, DC, Taylor attended Syracuse University on a swimming scholarship and in 1951 began dancing, soon transferring to the Juilliard School in New York to pursue the art. He became a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Black Mountain College in 1953 but soon defected to form his own troupe, launching the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1954. That same year, he met Robert Rauschenberg, who would go on to craft numerous sets and costumes for Taylor’s performances. After training with titans of modern dance like Martha Graham and José Limon, Taylor joined the Graham Dance Company as a soloist in 1955, soon working with choreographers such as George Balanchine, whose 1959 Episodes was made specifically for Taylor as a New York City Ballet guest artist.

In addition to Duet (1957), for which he remained motionless with his partner for four minutes, some of Taylor’s best-known and most influential works include Esplanade (1975) and his breakout piece Aureole (1962), which epitomizes the dancemaker’s use of pedestrian movements and other lyrical contrarianisms (the dance was set not to contemporary music but to a two-hundred-year-old adagio). His often-humorous dances comprised walks, runs, halts, skips, sits, leaps, and hugs, and derived inspiration from a wide range of literature and, famously, Baroque music. “Dance is a form of order,” he would write in his memoir. Taylor stopped performing in the mid-1970s to focus on choreographing for his company, which involved dancers such as Twyla Tharp and Pina Bausch. His many honors included being a 1992 honoree at the Kennedy Honors Center and receiving the National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton a year later. In May, Taylor had named Michael Novak artistic director designate for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Still, he worked until he was well into his eighties. “Working on dances has become a way of life, an addiction that at times resembles a fatal disease,” he once wrote. “Even so, I’ve no intention of kicking the habit.”