At its essence, dance is movement. Choreographers have stripped away or minimized sets and costumes, eliminated music and sound. But without a human body in motion, dance ceases to exist. As he recounted in his autobiography “Private Domain,” when asked why he wanted to become a dancer at his audition for the then-nascent Juilliard dance department, the young Paul Taylor said that it was “just because I like to move.” Despite the disarmingly simple response, or perhaps in part because of it, he was admitted.
On a larger scale, dance companies also depend on forward motion to thrive, as they naturally evolve over time. A dance company that stands stock still, repeating the same dances in precisely the same styles, is in danger of becoming a moribund institution. Although it is an oversimplification to suggest that modern dance itself was born as a reaction against the rigid, entrenched formulas of classical ballet, it is in a broad sense true. Modern dance in America sought to move the art forward by striking out for new aesthetic territory, to continually change and challenge the terms of what dance could achieve.
Taylor, one of the great dancemakers of the 20th century, embodied the idea of change as progress, of forward movement for his company as an ideal and an end in itself. He spent several years dancing for the nigh-legendary Martha Graham before the itch to formulate his own style led to the founding of his own company in 1954, and the subsequent creation of almost 150 works. Once established on his own, Taylor was endlessly pursuing innovation, tirelessly creating new works season after season, virtually up until his death in 2018.
Taylor’s breathtaking eclecticism itself illustrates the varied impulses of modern dance. One dance may have embraced a particular style; a later one contradicted it. Change was not just desirable but essential: between modes of movement, dramatic narrative versus pure-dance pieces, genres of music ranging from thorny contemporary to classical, themes from the joyous to the macabre.
And before his death, Taylor laid the foundation for his company’s future with perhaps his most radical gesture in a career marked by many of them: In 2015 Paul Taylor American Modern Dance was created as a new entity to present both Taylor’s works, performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and a variety of other modern dances, including enduring works from the past as well as new choreography, performed by other companies, in annual seasons at Lincoln Center.
Taylor believed that the future of his company would rest not just on its ability to preserve his own works, but on the creation of a new institution embracing a more inclusive vision. He recognized that it would be in linking his work to both the unknown future and the storied past of modern dance that his legacy would be ensured, and the art he was a central figure in shaping would continue to thrive.
Modern dance companies have always been associated with the work of their founding choreographers, and those dance makers have chosen different paths when confronting the question of how to ensure that their work lives on. The companies of Martha Graham and José Limón, for instance, continue to operate. But Merce Cunningham decided to disband his company upon his death. Taylor chose the untried path: the invention of a modern dance company that would embrace the work of many artists.
Since 2015, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance has presented works considered central to the canon: Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels, José Limon’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace, Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset, among them, in most cases performed by outside companies. And the company commissioned new works from contemporary dance makers including Larry Keigwin, Lila York, Doug Varone and, this year, Pam Tanowitz, Kyle Abraham, and Margie Gillis. This fall, for the first time, the company will be presenting a program consisting entirely of dances by another choreographer: the pioneering African-American Donald McKayle (who also died in 2018), performed by Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Juilliard Dance, and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. (The Nov. 12 performance is free.)
Taylor’s works, of course, remain dominant in the repertoire of the annual Lincoln Center seasons. But some longtime admirers of the company might naturally have been wary of such a radical change; change can bring rewards, but also risks. Still, the truth is that evolution is integral to the development of all art forms, and dance perhaps more than any, because its only truly essential instrument, the human body, is susceptible to the depredations of time.
A dancer’s career is thus often a short one. But while we naturally lament the perilously short span of an artist in peak career, it is by making way for new dancers, and by passing on the knowledge they have accrued, that dancers help the art form renew itself. In fact this is among the most exciting aspects of watching dance: New dancers springing into the spotlight, bringing their own individual styles to the dances they perform, inspiring us to see new aspects of familiar works.
As Taylor wrote of his company, “Faces change, people depart, most of them beloved but one or two just looked at, all passing through, leaving indelible footprints on each other’s parts, and followed by others who are followed in turn—cellular generations of dancers.” The endless renewal onstage is invigorating both for companies and audiences.
It is this continual process of regeneration that Paul Taylor American Dance aims to encourage and embody: A continual reanimation in which the past informs the present, and the present paves the way for the future. This continuum is the vital process that has defined the history of modern dance, and by which the future of the form is secured.
As Twyla Tharp, a onetime Taylor dancer who later became one of the most eminent choreographers of her era, once said, speaking of an early work and its relationship to previous “dance icons:” “It has always seemed to me that there’s a better chance for a future where there has been a past.”
Charles Isherwood is the theater critic for Broadway.news. He has written about theater and other arts for publications including Variety, Financial Times, Town & Country, The Times (U.K.), and The New York Times.