“I can sometimes sense certain things…it’s hard to explain. It started very early, when I was a child—I moved schools a lot and lived in a lot of places and learned very quickly how to sense who was the class bully.” So says Paul Taylor in a soft, languorous voice, after a pause. Any conversation with the 82-year-old choreographer—who lives in splendid isolation in an old house on the North Fork of Long Island for all but a few months of the year, when he is making new dances at the studios of the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—is a bit like a game of hide-and-seek. He is gentlemanly and friendly, but not easy to draw out.

Taylor has been involved in modern dance for six decades; he is frequently referred to, in portentous tones, as the last of the great choreographers. Sadly, that characterization is probably true: Martha Graham died in 1991, and Merce Cunningham in 2009. Who else is there? The dance world has moved on. Rare is the choreographer who builds a unique, personal vocabulary of movement, a signature style brought into play in piece after piece, or who can sustain a regular stable of dancers—at least in the United States, where funding for such enterprises is nearly nonexistent. (Mark Morris is the exception, but he is eclectic by nature.) Building upon the innovations of Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch and others, contemporary dance is awash in collaborative creation, improvisational techniques, and the blending of dance and theater, all of which bear little resemblance to modern dance. Taylor continues to work in what is now a bygone mode. His company boasts sixteen dancers, a building of its own, and a large and growing collection of props and costumes; it also provides health insurance for its dancers and has bookings for most of the year. As for the dances, except for the odd passage here and there, Taylor alone conceives the ideas and the steps, and he is wont to describe the culture of the company as a “benevolent dictatorship.” In other words, Paul Taylor Dance Company is an institution, and a successful one: in 2012, its fifty-eighth year of existence, it had its first season at Lincoln Center in New York and sold more tickets than ever before. By the end of the year, it will have visited forty-two cities across the country. Its dances are also performed by companies like American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Miami City Ballet, and its own junior troupe, composed of six dancers, tours even more widely.

Taylor’s teachers included Graham, José Limón and Antony Tudor. In 1959, George Balanchine, arguably the greatest ballet choreographer of the last century, created a solo for him in Episodes, for which he famously asked Taylor to move “like fly in glass of milk.” He also offered Taylor a place in his company, New York City Ballet, an invitation the dancer never considered. (For all ballet’s late-twentieth-century rapprochement with modern dance, it is highly unlikely that such an offer would be made today.) To the headstrong Taylor, ballet had no appeal: it was a creaky pile of “froufrou” and “stiff-necked pretensions” that relied on a finicky technique and groomed a dancer to look “decorative, like a hollow person.” Modern dance, in contrast, held out the promise of momentum, weighted gesture and some deeper form of relevance.

Taylor joined Graham’s company in 1955 and stayed for seven years, usually dancing the parts of ominous, villainous characters in works like Clytemnestra, Phaedra and Night Journey. Graham had a profound influence on Taylor’s style as a choreographer; like him, she believed that dance should communicate ideas and feelings, and his dances, like hers, are frank about sexual desire. On a more physical level, he uses contractions—roundings of the back initiated by the intake of breath, a basic staple of the Graham technique. As he likes to point out, he even lifted a step, a kind of gliding run with arms swinging, from one of the first Graham pieces he saw. “I still think of her often,” he told me. But the grandiosity of her dances and her persona eventually drove him away: too much melodrama, too many psychological hang-ups. And she talked too much in rehearsal: “we would sit and listen and get cold. I try not to do that.”

By all accounts Taylor, who is tall (six feet), was an extraordinary dancer. The critic Clive Barnes once described how he loped “his way through the undergrowths of theatricality like an indolent antelope, with a jump and a twist, a muscular awareness of kinetic fact so that one was never sure which came first, the impulse or the move.” He came to dancing at 20, impossibly late, while studying painting at Syracuse on a swimming scholarship. He swam freestyle, which explains some of the extreme range of motion in his shoulders and back, as well as the almost aquatic texture of his movements. Each dance technique has a certain feel. Ballet seeks an aerial quality; Graham sought movement that felt grounded and monumental; Cunningham wanted clarity and speed; Taylor’s style is muscular and fluid. “I always loved the water,” he told me, “to be in it and the pressure you needed to use against it when you swam. When I danced, I imagined that pressure, as if the air were like water.” Watching a Taylor dance, one can almost feel the resistance in one’s own body. Given his late start, one can only assume that Taylor’s extraordinary coordination was innate, not learned. He tells a story in his strange, captivating memoir, Private Domain, about auditioning for a role on Broadway shortly after moving to New York in 1952; the role called for back flips, which he’d never done. He went into the hallway, asked someone to show him a back flip, and figured out how to do it. He got the gig.

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Close, even obsessive observation is central to Taylor’s working method—he watches people, animals and nature like an entomologist. He has even made a dance about the act of watching (or, rather, voyeurism), also called Private Domain. His penchant for close observation is perhaps the residue of a rather lonesome childhood. As he recently wrote, “I make dances because crowds are kept at a safe distance. That’s what proscenium stages are good for.” In his private world onstage, the dancers behave in ways that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying and often a mixture of the two. Even in many of his most accessible works, like Esplanade, Aureole and Company B, an underlying ambivalence seeps through the warm, overtly hearty, pleasurable surface. (In Company B, set to Andrews Sisters songs, the over-arching cheerfulness of the dances is undercut by the presence of shadowy figures at the rear of the stage representing soldiers in combat. Death is omnipresent.) In Taylor’s more dramatic dances, like Speaking in Tongues, Last Look and Scudorama, the conflict is out in the open, sometimes emphatically so, a quality for which he has been criticized. He also creates zany, humorous pieces for comic relief, like the recent Gossamer Gallants and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). In these, he gleefully pokes fun at his own heart of darkness. Sometimes he can protest too much.

More often, his dances are startlingly clear. One such case is Big Bertha, performed during Paul Taylor’s recent season. Seldom, if ever, has such brutal, debauched behavior been portrayed in a dance or even onstage, Medea excepted. An all-American family, circa 1950, goes to the fair and stops to admire a carousel band organ that plays popular tunes like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Atop the organ, a jerky automaton—played by one of Taylor’s tallest dancers—clutches a baton, jabbing it in time to the music. The first thing one notices is the skillfulness of the choreography, the uncanny precision with which Taylor represents mechanical movement: the automaton’s walk, stiff-legged and turned out at the hips, punctuated by her red boots, is a marvel of small detail—and creepy. As the dance begins, the parents of a pigtailed girl watch cheerfully as their daughter does cute renditions of the latest popular dances (we hardly register the automaton’s ominous gestures in her direction). But there is something disagreeable about the girl: a kind of ostentatious enthusiasm, as well as a predilection for revealing her panties. You don’t like her, but you’re not sure why.

Then it’s the father’s turn to do a dance, as the organ plays “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” He starts harmlessly enough, snapping his fingers and swiveling his hips as the automaton marks time with her baton. He goes over to his wife and caresses her cheek, and then—crack!—he slaps her across the face, hard. He grabs his daughter and drags her off behind the automaton’s platform. When he reappears, he’s zipping up his pants. Has he just raped his daughter in the middle of a dance? By the end, he’s carting around her limp, bloodied body. She’s dead. The mother drags herself away; the father, now completely unhinged, joins the automaton in a jerky dance, sealed with an open-mouthed kiss. Who would make such a piece, about incest and murder, and fill it with perky dance hall numbers, and set it to this strange mechanical music? Only Taylor. We’re all monsters inside, he’s telling us; the pleasantness is a mirage.

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In Big Bertha, the choreographer’s scratching at the scabby excrescences of the human soul may come across as extreme, but the mood of conflict has deep roots. Taylor, who was born in 1930, had a difficult, hardscrabble childhood, marked by troubled relationships, feelings of isolation and sexual ambiguity. In his memoir, he delicately suggests that his father, who was his mother’s second husband, was overly attracted to his stepson, Taylor’s half-brother. The brother was sent away to military school and his parents divorced; his mother worked hard to survive, so Taylor spent a lot of time alone. Packed off to live on a farm with family friends, he eventually discovered that the family was being paid to keep him, another emotional knock. He began to struggle with a sense of isolation and despair that persisted into adulthood—his autobiography even hints at a suicide attempt in the early 1970s—as well as a certain confusion and anxiety about his sexual desires. Did he like women? Did he like men? Was he capable of intimacy? The answers are in the work, where he deals with his demons face on, without poeticizing or mythologizing his fears the way Graham did.

The mystery is how such a mind could also conceive the luminous Airs, Aureole, Roses and Esplanade, works of lyricism and irresistible warmth. Esplanade is an explosion of joy, playfulness and love set to movements from two of Bach’s violin concertos. After seeing it, one cannot leave the theater without feeling reassured that life is worth living, though it too alludes, in a shadowy section, to humankind’s often thwarted desire to connect. Created in 1975 (Big Bertha is from 1970), following Taylor’s abrupt retirement from the stage after collapsing during a performance, Esplanade is probably his most beloved work, and the one the company seems to perform most often. Aureole, his first hit (from 1962), is another life-affirming dance set to Baroque music (as is Airs); in it, Taylor performed a slow, stretchy, fluid sequence that he has described as an “earth father who goes round blessing things.”

Esplanade is a masterpiece of construction and simplicity. The lapidary dance critic Arlene Croce called it “unfaked folk art.” The story goes that it was inspired by a girl running to catch a bus, its steps derived from the simplest everyday movements—walking, running, jumping, holding, falling—and interwoven into pleasing patterns. The entire final movement consists of dancers rushing across the stage, leaping into the air and careening into slides across the floor, their backs twisting in wild arcs as gravity pulls them downward. Annmaria Mazzini, a recently retired company member who now sets Taylor dances for other companies, taught Esplanade to a group of students at the Paris Conservatory last year: “I told them the first day, ‘Listen, you’re going to bleed—your feet are going to bleed, your knees are going to bleed, you’re going to bleed from your hips, you’re going to bleed from your elbows. It’s just…Esplanade.’” The extreme display of physical courage is one of the compelling features of Taylor’s work, both for audiences—what could be more exciting than bodies hurtling through space?—and for his dancers. There’s no faking this kind of risk.

It also draws young, aspiring dancers to classes at the company studios, where they learn the basic vocabulary of the Taylor style, the fluid phrasing in which the spine curves inward and then opens outward, arms swooping around the torso or pulling away from it, as if stretching toward the sky. As Taylor says, “It’s the big muscles, the back, the thighs, the chest. That’s where the strength is and where the eye should go.” It’s a dance that requires core strength and endurance. The feet are firmly planted on the ground, often with the body’s weight tilted toward one hip or the other, in an exaggerated form of classical contrapposto. The spine arches and twists with buoyant, yielding muscularity, while the arms reach and sway, energy radiating from the back and through the fingers. The head completes the movement; the eyes extend it even further. “We do a lot of things that require a lot of plain old effort,” Amy Young says. There is something heroic about these dancers, especially the men—in addition to everything else, Taylor often has them cradle and carry the women around. The guys in the company tend to be strapping, the women smaller and feminine but no less athletic. All of them exhibit the supple strength that permits a constant flow of movement from one shape into the next; they seem to be always in motion, running, jumping, hopping, squatting, lunging, turning and changing direction. Even the pauses pulsate with life.

Nowhere is this weighted, buoyant fluidity more evident than in the slow, legato solos featured in many of Taylor’s dances (often performed these days by one of his two most Apollonian dancers, Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack). Aureole, created in 1962 and set to assorted movements from Handel concerti grossi, is a perfect example. It contains a long solo Taylor created for himself, which was captured on film at the American Dance Festival in 1962; in it, a tall, powerfully built man in white tights moves with exquisite slowness. He lunges, sweeps one arm forward as if scooping the air, pulls himself up, deliberately unfurls a leg—leaning away from it and twisting his torso—then brushes into a series of swooping turns, leg floating behind him. Everything is connected, as if he were swimming through the air. He stretches his long arms away from his supple swimmer’s shoulders, reaching in all directions, like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, radiating into the space around him. The movements are repeated north, south, east and west. As Taylor has explained, “The main difficulty lies in keeping the flow going by passing through, rather than hesitating in, each position.” It’s athleticism on an epic scale.

Another feature of Aureole (and of many of Taylor’s best-known works) is its easygoing, quirky musicality. Taylor listens to music constantly—the radio is always on in his house, says his biographer, Suzanne Carbonneau—but he doesn’t read musical scores or treat them with particular reverence. It is a frequent practice of his to splice together movements from different pieces (as in Aureole and Esplanade) or even to layer sounds on top of one another (as in Cloven Kingdom). And he uses all kinds of music, from popular songs to Muzak to Beethoven quartets, barrel organs, Bach and noisy electronic compositions by Donald York (a onetime musical adviser to the company). The music and movement enter into a kind of dialogue, though Taylor isn’t interested either in fitting steps to music in the traditional sense, or in matching the internal structure of the music with his dance phrases—an approach he calls “Mickey Mousing” the music, with Balanchine having been a particular offender. As he writes of one of his early works, Junction, he wants the music and the dance to be “like chums whose compatibility is so strong that they even have the right to ignore each other.”

And yet Taylor is musical in his own way. His interest in music, especially classical music, drove a wedge between him and the avant-garde when he made Aureole. His earlier work had been much more radical. In one program, he performed a dance in which he did little more than shift positions periodically while the recorded voice of a telephone operator gave the time; in a second piece, he walked around while a dog sat onstage and David Tudor made noises with the piano (the score was by John Cage); and in a third, he and his partner did nothing at all, in silence. These maddening experiments were a passing phase. With Aureole, Taylor said goodbye to the modern dance notion that ideas and feelings were more important than music, and also to the postmodern idea—just beginning to emerge in the work of Cage and Cunningham—that music and dance really have very little at all to do with each other. (This was the beginning of the end for “modern” dance; most postmodernists took the separation of music from steps as a given and began to question other ideas like structure, technique, movement and the usefulness of the proscenium stage.) After Aureole, many in the avant-garde saw Taylor as rather old hat. His friendship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who had provided designs for most of his early works, ended. The rift was compounded by Taylor’s interest in classical structure—beginnings, middles and endings—and with communicating stories and emotions through dance. As Carbonneau says, “To appreciate Taylor, you have to accept his premise: dancing to music, classical structures, the proscenium as picture frame, heroic technique, theatrical clarity, sincerity.” There is nothing abstract, cerebral, ironic or dry about Taylor, and as in the case of Big Bertha, the gestures and behaviors depicted can be quite literal. Not much is left to the imagination.

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This notion that Taylor is a kind of retrograde artist has stuck with him over the years (as it has with like-minded choreographers such as Mark Morris). The New York Times recently published a discussion among its dance critics, and one of them complained that the manner in which Taylor “tethers choreography—structurally and emotionally—to music feels terribly reductive.” Another described feeling torn between admiration for his craft and the sense that the work is “wincingly corny and rather dull.” His creative wellspring and sources of inspiration are certainly located in an earlier time. And yet he is, and always has been, a nonconformist, and an earnest one at that. Communicating meaning is foremost in his mind. “I’m just trying to present human nature on the stage,” he says, “so that people can connect to it.” Perhaps for this reason, his dancers come across not only as virtuosos, but as living, breathing people, connecting with one another and with the audience. The choreography calls for a lot of touching—a hand placed on the knee or shoulder, a physical metaphor for warmth, friendship, even love. As Mazzini said, we empathize with the dancers, see our own troubles and emotions reflected through theirs. They gaze into each other’s eyes, and we never get the impression that they’re thinking about the laundry list or how they’ll be spending their day off. It feels true. If that’s corny, then, well, there it is.

What will happen to Taylor’s company when he’s no longer here to run it? It’s an inevitable question, considering the recent deaths of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. Bausch’s company has vowed to continue touring her work for as long as possible; they performed a marathon of her recent dances in London ahead of the Summer Olympics. Cunningham’s company, on the other hand, took the radical step of shutting its doors two years after his death, transferring the licensing rights for his dances to a trust. Modern dance companies are closely linked to the personas and creative powers of their founders, so it’s difficult for them to survive once that person is gone. There are exceptions: the Martha Graham Dance Company has turned itself into a kind of living museum for her works and those of her contemporaries.

Choreographers are notoriously diffident about the future. “I don’t care frankly,” Taylor told the Times in 2007. “I won’t be here to see the dances which I enjoy, so what does it matter to me?” He doesn’t seem to be grooming an heir within the company’s ranks, someone who would continue his legacy while also adding new dances to the repertory. (There once was someone, Christopher Gillis, but he died of AIDS in 1993, at 42.) In the absence of such a figure, John Tomlinson, the company’s executive director, told me that Taylor has determined “the board of directors will decide the future of the company” after his death. Should the board decide to keep the troupe going (its current intention), it will select Taylor’s successor with the help of an artistic committee (whose composition has not been revealed). It is also Taylor’s wish that the troupe should become a repertory company doing new works in addition to his own and, possibly, the works of other modern dance masters, such as José Limón and Doris Humphrey and even Martha Graham. However, this is just “one possibility” among many. Others may yet be entertained, but there is a basic structure in place for the company’s continuance and, it seems, the will for it to go on.

For now, Taylor is still making new dances at the rate of two per year. In 2008, he made a truly great work, Beloved Renegade, inspired by the life and relationships of Walt Whitman. When I spoke with him this summer, he was just beginning to think about a new dance, based on a short story set in the 1930s or early ’40s. He wouldn’t name the story (“I think it’s bad luck”), but he did say that it was one “a lot of us read in school.” He is methodical, gathering ideas, taking notes, and listening to the music over and over (“I kind of plot it out with the music I’ve selected”), then goes into the studio to work with his dancers. These days, it takes him about four weeks in the studio to finish a piece. Little by little, minute by minute, he builds the dance. Michael Novak, who joined the company in 2010, says that when Taylor “comes into rehearsal, he always has a goal in mind, and it’s usually about a minute of choreography. Some days it takes him thirty minutes, and then he’s done for the day.” After all these years, making dance is still a kind of mental and spiritual discipline for Taylor, a way to make sense of the world. As he says in his memoir, “Dance is a form of Order.” So it is. n