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Dance: The Paul Taylor Dance Company At 60.  Wow!

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES Summer 2014

Paul Taylor ensemble
Paul Taylor Dance Company: Sean Mahoney, Orion Duckstein, James Samson in Sunset
(Photo Paul B. Goode)

Paul Taylor, regarded by many as the greatest living American choreographer, is 83 years old. His company of 16 outstanding dancers is 60 years old and during a three-week diamond jubilee season at Lincoln Center (March 12-30) it danced 23 of the 140 dances he has created in his lifetime. But the numbers have no relationship to the sheer physical joy emanating from the stage night after night.

Why the particular works presented, many never seen by today’s audiences, were chosen, is unknown. But what a variety! Taylor’s movement creations, perhaps more than any other choreographer’s, are filled with passion. They also reveal the power that lies within the body and the rapture that can explode from that body in performance.

His works appeal to and are in the repertory of both ballet and modern dance companies worldwide because he uses the body in such a variety of ways – but always with strength. The Taylor dancer possesses an open instrument, capable of tremendous bursts of speed, and a momentum that creates the most amazing interactions in space. Often, even his happiest dances have a darker side. There is a reflection of humanity in his work, as well as an exploration of the potent force humans are capable of exhibiting.

Sunset (1983, Edward Elgar), about youth and war, leaves me in tears each time I see it. Fibers (1961, Arnold Schoenberg) was new to many. No one really knows what it is about, but the set of a tall tree designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian looks like it is made of different colored electronic wires. The masked men in decorated skivvies and bands around their limbs and chest and the women in white (including their faces) could be aliens. But somehow the piece seems to be about the things that connect us. The four dancers move very quickly, exploring the entire stage and each other.

Dante Variations (2004), to what can only be described as “eerie” music by Gyorgy Ligeti, features writhing creatures in a purgatory occupied by individuals who nevertheless seem to comprise a group. This is quiet suffering. The way Taylor uses the torso and the flexibility of the back is amazing.

In honor of the anniversary it was decided to present a one-time only performance of From Sea to Shining Sea (1965, John Herbert McDowell) featuring former Taylor dancers. It is interesting to note that, just as many of his dances either create a community or look at one through his unique lens, so dancers who perform with Taylor remain with the company for many years and are a community of only 136.

There was an open invitation to alumni, the only requirement being that they were able to attend a five -hour rehearsal on the Friday prior to the Sunday performance, and 47 participated. Some admitted afterward that they were a bit skeptical about being able to create a polished piece, but, aided by the 8 current company members who danced with them, they did.

From Sea to Shining Sea is more a moving pageant of living pictures than a full out dance piece. But in its knowledgeable satire of what the program note calls “a collage of images from the American heritage” it reveals the humor (with its often underlying sense of pathos and social criticism) and characterizations that are part of Taylor’s oeuvre. There is Super Mouse, a flapper, Iwo Jima, Uncle Sam, the Pilgrims arriving in a ship with a human prow, a tap dancer and Betsy Ross, among images that are not necessarily in chronological order.

Paul Taylor ensemble
Paul Taylor Dance Company: Aileen Roehl, Eran Bugge, Jeffrey Smith. Michelle Fleet, Robert Kleinendorst, Jamie Rae Walker in Esplanade
Photo by Paul B. Goode

By following this work with Esplanade (1975) these alumni, who still have a presence and were able to make moving on stage look like the dance Taylor intended it to be, seemed to be saying, “Look at those to whom we’ve passed the torch.”

This work of near genius construction, based as it is on pedestrian movements (walks, runs, skips, jumps), is able to convey joy and sadness, solitary loneliness and group strength, and was danced magnificently. In form it is almost a conversation with the music. In this instance it was also one between the audience, who seemed to send back the vibrations that came from the stage, and the performers. The first notes of J.S. Bach’s music were greeted with audible sighs of familiarity; it was as though the theater was filled with bodies that were dancing as well.

This work, plus Arden Court (1981) and Mercuric Tidings (1982) may be among the greatest modern dance works of the 20th century. Arden Court, with its 6 men and 3 women, was originally created for an all male cast, and its lush Baroque score by William Boyce, supports the male virtuosity. This is especially evident when the bare chested men enter on a long diagonal and when they execute their soaring open body jumps. There is a riveting adagio section for them and the many male/female duets are stunning. In one, his movements are quick and hers sustained, but they still communicate. It is sheer pleasure to watch this radiant dance.

In many ways Mercuric Tidings, to excerpts from Franz Schubert’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, is Taylor’s most beautiful work. Its 13 performers seem like never ending waves of dancers sweeping the stage as individuals and groups, creating patterns of lines and circles that expand in all directions. Sometimes there is a single figure against a backdrop of moving figures; a duet versus a sextet; two different duets simultaneously – and lots of trios. The typical breathtaking Taylor speed that is so often light and feathery also contributes to a dance that expresses the ecstasy of moving.

This is the Taylor company’s last season in its present state. It will be transformed into Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance Company and will become a repertory company, adding works of American modern dance pioneers. They will also choose works by contemporary choreographers. One can only suspect that Mr. Taylor has made this momentous decision because he wants this group to continue and he is weary of creating.

Certainly the two works receiving their New York premieres, To Make Crops Grow and American Dreamer, and the world premiere, Marathon Cadenza, are not among the best or even near the top of his works. To Make Crops Grow (Ferde Grofe), a modern version of an ancient several ritual, has various stock characters (newlyweds, children, an old husband with a young wife) pulling chances from a box to determine who is to be the sacrificial victim. There is little dancing and reminders of his own and other’s works.

Marathon Caadenza ( Raymond Scott), about the different dances performed at the near inhuman dance marathons of the 30’s, includes Taylor’s wonderful use of social dance as embodied by various types. But it seemed to end mid-way and one bit recalled Fancy Free.

American Dreamer uses the songs of Stephan Foster, as sung by Thomas Hampson, music that is more or less imbedded in the American consciousness. And, in true Taylor fashion, it makes some sardonic observations on many things, among them conformity. The audience liked this often playful work, but it is a small piece.

What old dances and which new choreographers will be chosen for the expanded repertory is an unknown, viewed with trepidation by some. But there will still be the small Taylor 2 company, which feeds into the larger one, the school and the superlative body of work with which this amazing choreographer has gifted us. Taylor recognizes the inevitability of change and he has earned the right to step back a bit.

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