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Paul Taylor: Acts of Ardour

THURSDAY 30th October 2003
In the half century since he designed his first routine, Paul Taylor has become one of the world's most popular choreographers. Companies from Montreal to Macau perform his work, and his artists are much-hallowed Ambassadors of American culture. After creating more than 150 pieces, Taylor still delights in "inhaling music, exhaling dances".

From painting to dancing

Raised in Washington, Taylor originally planned to apply his creativity with a paintbrush. Armed with an art scholarship but frustrated by the constraints of the canvas, the young student ploughed his energy instead into the swimming pool, where he became one of his university's star athletes.

By then inspired by "something stronger than an itch", Taylor took his grace and athleticism onto the stage, where he proved a sensation. He was soon spotted by such dance pioneers as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and, for several years, took lead roles in their companies.

Forming the Paul Taylor Dance Company

Taylor hungered for innovation over interpretation and, by 1955, had founded his own company. Although he performed through ulcers for many years, hepatitis and stress-splinters finally forced to hang up his shoes in 1975. Since then, he has been choreographing a prolific portfolio, famous for its breadth of expression.

Taking his inspiration from music, museums, even "watching people in the street", Taylor has always blended the abstract with the accessible, the sinister with the upbeat. While his most enduring work, Aureole, is based on traditional concepts, his Duet involves two dancers simply standing still throughout the piece. One critic famously reviewed this with only a blank page.

Behind the scenes

Onstage dramas have been matched behind the scenes, too. A documentary once caught Taylor, a notorious perfectionist, sacking his entire company, but everyone continued to work for him, and he calls his corps the "family I can choose". He also suffered the personal loss of his protégé and tipped successor, Chris Gillis, to Aids in 1993.

After so long in the studio, he keeps one eye on his legacy, continuing to "look around to see if there is someone who could take over" but, in the meantime, his show must go on. Paul Taylor's catalogue of creativity is enormous, but his energy shows no sign of abating. Asked to pick his favourite creation, he says simply, "the one I'm working on, the new avenue, the baby".