Taylor Establishes His Own Dance Company

Paul Taylor founded his own dance company, which showcased his diversity as a choreographer and established him as one of the most acclaimed choreographers of his generation.

Summary of Event

Paul Taylor’s career as a dancer and choreographer cannot be easily summarized. From his early experiments in avant-garde choreography in the 1950’s to his attainment of critical acclaim in the 1990’s, Taylor has been one of the brightest lights in American modern dance. His company has been home to a panoply of celebrated dancers, many of whom went on to great acclaim as choreographers in their own right. Spanning decades, his choreographic longevity rivals that of his early mentors, Martha Graham Graham, Martha and Merce Cunningham Cunningham, Merce . Modern dance;companies
Choreography;modern dance
Paul Taylor Dance Company
[kw]Taylor Establishes His Own Dance Company (May 30, 1954)
[kw]Dance Company, Taylor Establishes His Own (May 30, 1954)
Modern dance;companies
Choreography;modern dance
Paul Taylor Dance Company
[g]North America;May 30, 1954: Taylor Establishes His Own Dance Company[04480]
[g]United States;May 30, 1954: Taylor Establishes His Own Dance Company[04480]
[c]Dance;May 30, 1954: Taylor Establishes His Own Dance Company[04480]
[c]Arts;May 30, 1954: Taylor Establishes His Own Dance Company[04480]
Taylor, Paul

His awards include a French knighthood, three Guggenheim Fellowships, a MacArthur Fellowship, Capezio Awards, several honorary degrees, and selection to honorary membership in the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His company has performed in hundreds of cities in the United States and has made dozens of overseas tours, and works by Taylor are in the repertoires of major dance companies, including the Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Born in Pennsylvania, Taylor grew up in and around Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. An art student at Syracuse University, where he was also a member of the swimming team, Taylor grew dissatisfied with painting and fell in love with dance. In his 1987 autobiography Private Domain, Private Domain (Taylor) Taylor described the “flash of recognition” in which he realized that he would become a dancer: “All at once and seemingly without warning, my future becomes clear. The flash, or whatever it is, is telling me that I’m to become a dancer—not any old dancer, but one of the best.” Taylor’s instincts were right—he was destined to be one of the world’s best dancers, and he would also be hailed as a choreographic genius.

Having started dance instruction in his twenties (already considered late for training a dancer’s body), Taylor nevertheless almost immediately began performing with various dance companies, including those of Pearl Lang, Cunningham, and Graham. From 1955 to 1961, he was a leading soloist in the Graham company. Graham created several important roles for him. He danced with Cunningham in 1953 and 1954 and was also selected by George Balanchine for a solo variation in 1959. While performing in the works of Cunningham and Graham might have been fulfillment enough for most young dancers, Taylor wanted to create his own dances, and in 1954, after performing on May 30 with five other dancers in Manhattan, he formed his own company.

Taylor referred to that original group, which was intended primarily as a vehicle for gaining performance experience, as a “loosely formed fly-by-night group” and stated that he was “not the least interested in leaving monuments to the future.” Many of the company’s works, such as Jack and the Beanstalk
Jack and the Beanstalk (Taylor) (choreographed in 1953 and performed in 1955), were never performed twice. Taylor worked with acquaintances and classmates in those early concerts. Artist friends Robert Rauschenberg Rauschenberg, Robert , Jasper Johns Johns, Jasper , and Alex Katz designed sets and costumes for Taylor; in return, he helped Rauschenberg and Johns with window displays.

Four pieces created between 1956 and 1962 attest to the scope and diversity of Taylor’s early choreography. Four Epitaphs
Three Epitaphs (Taylor) (created in 1956 but later renamed Three Epitaphs for a 1960 premiere), Epic
Epic (Taylor) (1957), Insects and Heroes
Insects and Heroes (Taylor) (1961), and Aureole
Aureole (Taylor) (1962) range from the sardonic to the sublime. All masterpieces in their own ways, each dance contributes to a deeper understanding of Taylor’s genius.

Three Epitaphs was first performed at the Festival of Two Worlds Festival of Two Worlds (1960) in Spoletto, Italy, by Taylor, Akiko Kanda, Mabel Robinson, and Kathleen Stanford. It featured costumes designed by Robert Rauschenberg that covered the dancers from head to foot in black, with tiny reflective bits attached to the all-black head coverings. The dancers looked, one critic noted, like “marionettes with the strings gone slack” and “slag in human form dotted with shiny bits of mica.” The total effect on the audience, according to Rauschenberg, was either “the saddest or the funniest thing you ever saw.” The dancers slouched, pivoted, shambled, lurched, waved their forearms like clocks gone awry, hesitated, gathered, and followed one another. Their odd gait and abrupt stops were alternately comic, pathetic, and deeply touching.

Epic was first performed by Taylor in New York City on October 20, 1957. Taylor, in a business suit, performed a series of complicated postures and gestures to the accompaniment of a telephone time recording. Epic and the six other pieces Taylor presented made him the darling of the avant-garde but incurred the wrath of dance critic Louis Horst, who responded to Taylor’s concert by printing a blank review: the name, date, and location of the concert followed by empty space, with Horst’s initials at the bottom. Taylor’s experiments with everyday gesture and action as the basis for dance predated much of the avant-garde choreography of the 1960’s; in the same concert, during Events 1, Events 1 (Taylor) two female dancers waited, sat down, stood up, and walked around, until one left. While bringing Taylor more notoriety than notice, the concert nevertheless was an invaluable lesson for the young choreographer, and he continued his exploration of movement with a vengeance, albeit from a more kinetic approach.

The year 1961 was a turning point for Taylor. He left the Graham company while still at the peak of his performing career, was invited with his company to be in residence at the American Dance Festival, and created Insects and Heroes and Junction. His company’s personnel began to stabilize, and his recognition as a highly original choreographer garnered him his first Guggenheim Fellowship. Insects and Heroes is considered a pivotal piece for Taylor; in it, the darkness of his vision of humanity is evident.

Heralded as one of the most beautiful dances ever created, Aureole was first performed at the American Dance Festival American Dance Festival (1962) in New London, Connecticut, in 1962. A lyric contrast to the starkness of Epic, the tragicomedy of Epitaphs, and the skewered ambiguity of Insects and Heroes, Aureole is the closest thing to a ballet blanc found in modern dance.


Paul Taylor has created more than one hundred dances for his company since its inception. Recognized throughout the world as a major choreographer, Taylor has created works that are considered among the finest in modern dance. Dancers who have been in his company include many celebrated performers who have gone on to critical acclaim as choreographers in their own right.

Taylor’s company was one of the first to feature an eclectic and appealing blend of dance that could be classically lyrical while simultaneously demonstrating the weighted vigor of modern dance. Each piece revealed a new vocabulary and a new aesthetic, and Taylor’s choreography was always unique: Uninterested in codifying a technique or recognizable dance language, Taylor was free to create works that confounded expectations. What emerged was a startling array of diverse dances and a singularly expressive style of dancing.

Taylor’s insistence on the individuality of his dancers has also been noteworthy. Dance writer Don McDonagh McDonagh, Don credits Taylor with having been “the first modern dancer to reflect on a sustained scale an approach to choreography that was attuned to the personalities of his dancers while maintaining many of the formal traditions of historic modern dance.” McDonagh suggests that this approach to a large extent accounts for the popularity of Taylor’s company both in the United States and abroad. Taylor has explained that in selecting his dancers, he looks for more than skill and attractiveness. “I want individuals that form a team,” he has remarked. “I like a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and types.”

Taylor can always be expected to surprise. His choice of musical accompaniment ranges from electronic to classical; it is impossible to fit his work into a single category, musically, stylistically, or artistically. His collaborations with artists have made for pieces that are visually unique. Modern dance;companies
Choreography;modern dance
Paul Taylor Dance Company

Further Reading

  • Aloff, Mindy. Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A historical study that uses anecdotes to tell stories of the world of dance, including modern dance and Paul Taylor, and his inspirations.
  • Eichenbaum, Rose. Masters of Movement: Portraits of America’s Great Choreographers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004. A visually rich collection of portraits of some of the greatest American choreographers, including Paul Taylor.
  • McDonagh, Don. “Advanced Ideas and Conventional Theatre.” In The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance. Pennington, N.J.: A Capella Books, 1990. McDonagh presents a thoughtful analysis of Taylor’s career and choreographic sympathies. Included is a brief history of modern dance, with special emphasis on modern dance in the 1960’s.
  • Mazo, Joseph H. “Nikolais, Ailey, Taylor: Three Specialists.” In Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. 2d ed. Hightstown, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 2000. Mazo gives a concise history of Taylor’s career and influences, including summaries of major pieces choreographed prior to 1976. Mazo’s writing is light and informative, and the text is well illustrated by photographs.
  • Rosen, Lillie F. “Talking with Paul Taylor.” Dance Scope 13 (Winter/Spring, 1979): 82-92. Rosen’s interview with Taylor focuses on the art of choreography and Taylor’s views on creativity. An interesting insight into how the choreographer’s mind works and what he thinks about his dances, dancers, and company.
  • Taylor, Paul. “Down with Choreography.” In The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966. An early collection of essays by choreographers on dance. Taylor’s contribution is an homage to the dancers in his company, followed by an essay on a hypothetical piece of choreography. Written in 1966; interesting to compare with later articles on Taylor’s choreographic ideas and his aesthetics.
  • _______. Private Domain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. A book full of anecdotes and behind-the-scenes glimpses into the world of the dancer/choreographer. An engaging and charming memoir, yet its lack of specific dates and details makes it frustrating to serious researchers. In spite of his apparent candor, Taylor actually says very little about his choreography.

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