by Susan Yung
Dance-Dramas and Icons
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
Koch Theater, Lincoln Center
March 7 – 26, 2017
The annual three-week Paul Taylor American Modern Dance season is always an impressive physical and mental tour de force for the company. Perennial questions anticipate the run: what premieres will Taylor present and how will they fit into his oeuvre? Which Taylor revivals are to be performed, and in turn, what context will they provide the premieres? And which “outsiders” will contribute dances, either commissions or remountings? This year’s slate comprised twenty-two dances—seventeen by Taylor including two premieres, and a new work by Lila York. The guest company this season, Lyon Opera Ballet, performed Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace, notably on a bill with Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels and Taylor’s Promethean Fire, which were both performed by the seventeen-member Paul Taylor Dance Company. York’s dance drew a mental line between the company’s heritage and the current moment, while the “Icons” program offered an impressive précis of canonical American modern dance.
Taylor’s repertory is nothing if not varied. Apart from the foundational, multi-layered bedrock of works concerned with musical patterning, lyrical romanticism, wartime, social topics, or humor, he has created a number of movement dramas that include short dance sections, mime, and emotional expressionism. The Open Door, one of his two season premieres, falls within this subgenre. It’s not always the case (see Ports of Call), but it seems that here, Taylor was inspired by a dancer—Michael Novak (who bears a resemblance in physique to Taylor at his dancing prime), and also by the piece’s musical score, Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar. Elgar’s music has previously been a catalyst for the choreographer.
The premise is simple: Novak (the host) entertains an array of diverse guests. Suave and immaculately dressed (William Ivey Long designed the costumes), he fusses over chair placement, ruminating on the impending gathering. The guests arrive: a hiker, a girl, a soldier, a fey dandy, a fat woman, and an artist. After the host does a bravura passage to welcome them, each one performs a short solo, revealing some tidbit of character. The fat woman may have been a dancer, despite breaking a chair and needing help just to stand up. A fight arises between the hiker and soldier; it’s heated enough that the host intervenes. A convivial atmosphere settles before the guests depart. The host, alone, performs a decorous waltz with an imaginary partner, then pushes that embodied thought away and breaks into, essentially, a rapid concatenation of Taylor’s signature poses from his greatest hits before wandering offstage.
The piece could be a sketch of the choreographer’s professional life—gathering a variety of characters, directing them, settling fights, adhering to societal standards before (or alongside) expressing his own voice. Or the various personalities might be facets of one complex individual: Taylor. In any case, Novak exudes the magnetism needed both to inspire the choreographer creatively, and to carry off this central role; expect to see much more of him in featured roles.
The other Taylor premiere, Ports of Call, is an odd, at times ugly, duckling. Four sections in various locales are set to Ibert’s musical pastiche. Over blue leotards, the women sport Santo Loquasto’s head/neckpieces vaguely evoking Africana, against painted foliage. The men dance-fight in slow motion. James Samson is slain, and Michelle Fleet circles him repeatedly, mourning. Hawaii is evoked by tourist clichés of grass skirts and aloha shirts. The women “hula” and the men strike macho poses. In Alaska (indicated by an igloo and sled tracks), it becomes obvious, a bit too late, that the dance is outright satire. The women, in dickey-like hoodies and mittens over tank leotards, shiver uncontrollably; the men wear earmuffs. Two dancers frolic in ratty polar bear costumes. The final section is set in a Midwestern church where two shotgun weddings take place; one woman is pregnant, the other dragged in by a rope around her neck.
It’s the cringe-worthiest moment in a piece intentionally full of them, a reminder that Taylor has never feared the politically incorrect (as with the Fat Woman in The Open Door, wavering between humiliated and empowered). It exposes ugly aspects of society that simmer below (and now above) the veneer of so-called institutions. Does it hold a mirror to the current political scenario, where crassness and bullying reign? The denial of global warming? The reduction of “others” to mawkish stereotypes? There will be as many opinions as viewers to this strange, discomfiting work.
In choreographing Continuum, Taylor alum Lila York employed a movement vocabulary unmistakably rooted in Taylor’s, but shades different. Loquasto designed the handsome, mostly ecru costumes with satin edging. Max Richter reinterpreted Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the soundtrack. Eran Bugge, clad in orange, moves effervescently, evoking the joys and memories of youth. George Smallwood partners her, pressing her overhead in one of many lift variations, or she hangs from his arm, legs pedaling softly. In a duet, Michael Trusnovec makes tortured shapes, faltering, spinning frenetically, while Laura Halzack appears to be a spirit dispensing alms or fates. Novak and Parisa Khobdeh have separate powerful solos, and Heather McGinley and Sean Mahoney dance a mesmerizing section in which they spin perpetually in one direction, rotating slowly upstage. Bugge walks toward us in the final moment, luminous before a yellow background, and reminiscent of the closing image of Esplanade.
Repertory, as always, ran the gamut. Favorites were Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), intriguing for its strange story involving a stolen (sacrificial) baby and a dance rehearsal that feels like Russian boot camp, plus astounding technical rigor—for example, the women leap shin first onto the mens’ shoulders. Brandenburgs, led by an ebullient Khobdeh and radiant Trusnovec, is another showcase of powerhouse physicality as velvety as the cast’s forest green costumes. Airs is a primer of Taylor’s classic primary movement motifs such as curved arms and stag leaps. The Word feels visually different than most of Taylor’s dances with its fluorescent fixtures, schoolboy costumes (more Loquasto designs), and punk makeup on the men.
Cascade reveals Taylor’s penchant for romanticism, notably in an ardent duet by Fleet and Trusnovec—the latter remains the paradigmatic Taylor dancer, effortlessly shifting between boneless, airy lushness and tensile, steely strength. After a break from the role in recent years, he resumed the lead in Promethean Fire, imbuing it with a focused, dark majesty. This dance was performed only on the Icons program, alongside Graham’s Diversion of Angels performed ably by PTDC (in fact, more confidently than the Graham company’s recent Joyce Theater rendition of it) and Cunningham’s Summerspace. Lyon Opera Ballet danced the latter crisply and dynamically. It felt momentous to see the work of three giants of modern choreography side-by-side, one of the notable gifts arising from the creation of PTAMD (a title referring to the season rather than the company, which is still referred to by its original moniker). Reprisals of Larry Keigwin’s Rush Hour and Doug Elkins’ The Weight of Smoke (among the first dances to illuminate Novak’s magnetism) were proof of these works’ durability for the company. Two of Taylor’s solid “juke box” standards, Black Tuesday and Company B, were joined by Lines of Loss, a rumination on loss of all kinds. The score originally was Kronos Quartet’s recording of Early Music; kudos to St. Luke’s Orchestra for playing live these varied selections (as well as playing nearly all the other music live).
While this season felt slightly diminished, in no small part due to Taylor’s absence from most curtain calls due to an injury, it proved the logic in welcoming in other choreographers, and expanding the repertory backward and forward in time.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.