Paul Taylor, giant of modern dance, dead at 88 in New York

NEW YORK (AP) — Paul Taylor, a towering figure in American modern dance who, in a career that spanned more than six decades, created a vast body of work that reflected the giddy highs and the depraved lows of the human condition, has died. He was 88.

Spokeswoman Lisa Labrado told The Associated Press that Taylor died Wednesday at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. Labrado said Taylor was in hospice care and died of renal failure.

Taylor kept working well into his 80s, venturing into his company’s Manhattan studios from his Long Island home to choreograph two new pieces a year, and 147 in all.

“The works that satisfy me the most? They’re the ones I’m working on,” he told The Associated Press in a 2011 interview, while rehearsing “To Make Crops Grow,” his 137th dance. “It’s the work process that I like. Once it’s done, I want to put everything out of my mind. I’d rather forget it.”

The Paul Taylor Dance Company is one of the world’s most successful contemporary troupes, touring the globe year-round and able to pull off an annual three-week season at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.

Audiences often appreciated Taylor’s newer pieces, but his signature work surely remained “Esplanade,” from 1975, an explosion of joy and athleticism, with Taylor’s limber dancers running, skipping, hurling themselves into each other’s arms like missiles and tumbling to the floor with abandon, all to two Bach concertos.

The pairing of classical music — especially 18th-century Baroque — with a very modern style of dance was one of Taylor’s hallmarks. But he also went far and wide with his musical choices, scoring his works not only with symphonies and concertos but ragtime, tango, barbershop quartet and even elevator music. In “Big Bertha” (1970), set in an amusement park, he used music from a band machine acquired from a St. Louis museum.

“That gave me the idea for the dance,” he said. “Often one starts with an idea and then looks for music, but it works both ways.”

“Big Bertha,” though, was most notable for its disturbing content, reflecting Taylor’s penchant for giving equal time to the darkest depths of human nature. “Bertha” is a robotic carnival creature. A wholesome 1950s family — a couple and their daughter — comes out to the fun fair to play, but after feeding coins into Bertha’s slot, slips into depravity; by the end, the father has raped and killed his pig-tailed young daughter.

Even a lighter work, “Company B,” a set of jaunty dances like the jitterbug to the music of the Andrews Sisters, has its dark elements: Look closely amid the joyful dances and you see young men as soldiers, shot and crumpling to the ground.

Paul Belleville Taylor Jr. was born July 29, 1930 and spent much of his youth in the Washington, D.C. area. In his whimsically written autobiography, “Private Domain,” he describes a childhood full of boundary-testing moments: A run-in with police after he and a friend steal a baby stroller from a variety store, or a prep-school stunt involving the actual excavation of a coffin.

He wound up at Syracuse University, where he studied painting and then joined the swim team, purely to gain scholarship money. At 6-foot and with a huge arm span, he was well suited to the sport.

Those arms, swinging through space, would become crucial to his dance work. In fact, Taylor’s signature move looks a bit like a swimmer in mid-butterfly stroke, albeit twisted up to the sky.

A year after graduating Juilliard in 1953, Taylor set up his own company, rehearsing in whatever space he could find. He was 24, and his first work was a collaboration with the artist Robert Rauschenberg, “Jack and the Beanstalk.” A year later he joined Martha Graham’s company as a soloist — he would dance there for seven seasons, while continuing to build his own company.

Taylor’s own dancing career ended abruptly in 1974, after he collapsed onstage from illness and exhaustion during a performance in Brooklyn. But as a choreographer, he was just getting going: A year later came “Esplanade,” later celebrated as one of the most wondrous works of dance anywhere.

Joy, passion, despair, death, depravity — there were few serious topics Taylor wouldn’t broach. But he was also known for his sense of humor. Sometimes it was merely weird, as in the curious “Phantasmagoria” (2011), which featured a Byzantine nun having a naughty interaction with a toy snake, not to mention an Irish step dancer, a group of Isadora Duncan disciples, a Depression-era Bowery bum and someone who infected everyone with a dancing virus — all to Renaissance music.