“…in the passionate strangeness of his work, in its range of mood, and its genius for cannibalizing everything from classical ballet to the most radical dance experimentation, Paul Taylor could be called the last artistically viable choreographer in the modern camp.” -Robert Coe
This is a somewhat provocative statement by Robert Coe, quoted in Nancy Reynolds’ No Fixed Points. As a jumping off point for a discussion of Taylor’s vast body of work and significant career, this statement offers us several areas to explore.
The Passionate strangeness of his work
Taylor was truly a prodigy of all of the best teachers of modern dance in the 1950’s, beginning his training at ADF with classes from Graham, Humphrey, Limon, and Horst, and then going on to win a scholarship to study at Juilliard in 1952. He left Juilliard to do some commercial and Broadway dance while continuing training with Graham, Tudor, and Margaret Craske, giving him an enviable firsthand, well-rounded dance education. He performed with Pearl Lang and Charles Weidman’s companies, and in 1953 danced at Black Mountain with Cunningham. Combined with his natural physicality, he had become a vessel of sorts containing some piece of all existing dance techniques and theories of the age. Although he went on to reject much of these ideologies and practices, what he continued was a passionate dedication to individual expression, combined with a newly developed appreciation for experimentation.
The result was “passionate strangeness.” The strangeness was not strange as in an avant-grade sense, but strange in that it was unlike work that had been seen before because it was a combination of so many influences while being something completely unique. I think, more than any other, this makes Taylor the best example of a new generation of choreographers because, like an actual child, he took what his “parents” taught him, combined it with what is “friends” (Cunningham, James Waring, Remy Charlip) were doing, and his own natural talents to make something entirely new and unpredictable.
Range of mood
Taylor created over a hundred works by the time he was seventy years old. While this is a remarkable statistic alone, it is made more impressive by the fact that each work is very unique and that Taylor had no go-to formula or patterns. While we can discern themes and commonalities of movement style within his works, each piece is unique and the range goes all the way from his dabbling in the avant-garde with Duet in 1957 (in which the curtain raised and lowered without the dancers making a move, eliciting Horst’s “blank review”) and his solo entitled Epic,in which he performed in a business suit to the taped voice of a telephone operator announcing the time every ten seconds. Then, compare this to his later work like Cloven Kingdom (1976), Aureole, Esplanade, Arden Court, which were in many ways balletic in their classical music, structures and presentation; but then, think to the dark, unglamorous imagery of Private Domain and Big Bertha (1971).
Genius for cannibalizing everything from classical ballet
These photographs of “Airs” and “Arden Court” (below) make a visual connection to many elements we associate with classical ballet; the open chests, uprightness, lightness, airiness, a seemingly fond relationship between a man and a woman dancing together, the ease with which the men are able to support and showcase the women, and of course the costuming choices (tights for men, dresses and head bands for the women):
And then, of course, his Company B, choreographed specifically for Houston Ballet and widely performed by ballet companies including American Ballet Theatre on a regular basis.
…to the most radical dance experimentation…
From top to bottom: Dust, 1978; Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) 1980; Three Epitaphs, 1960, depart greatly from the pieces pictured above and delve into dark themes, non-traditional costuming, and even choreographic radicalism of its time.
Paul Taylor could be called the last artistically viable choreographer in the modern camp.
It is true to say that there has been no one else like Paul Taylor. Does this make him the last artistically viable choreographer in the modern camp? If I am to give Robert Coe the benefit of letting this assertion remained unquestioned, I do so only in adding to it that the modern camp, as it were, ceased to exist after Taylor. So, yes, he is the last in a lineage of people that can be included in a “modern camp” because, as Taylor’s career progressed, the age of the Postmoderns dawned and all lines began to blur. Once the fad of the postmodern work seemed to mellow out (but never to disappear), the trend shifted to all dance being overlapping and intermixed and the idea of “camps” have become antiquated. So, yes, we can call Taylor the last artistically viable choreographer in the modern camp because in some sense, we was the last choreographer in the modern camp, period.