Paul Taylor Dance Company’s annual New York seasons are feasts of choreography, and just as varied are the scores the shape-shifting choreographer has chosen to use over his 60-year career. The company’s 2013 run—its second at Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theater—featured dances to early New Orleans jazz (3 Epitaphs), wartime ditties by the Andrews Sisters (Company B), and even elevator music arranged for orchestra (Lost, Found and Lost).
Among the musical cornucopia, one composer figured prominently: Johann Sebastian Bach. Taylor, 82, has shown a career-long interest in baroque music, and since 1961 he has created six works to all-Bach scores; one was included on each program throughout Lincoln Center’s three-week engagement. (The season also coincided with a Bach festival across the plaza at the New York Philharmonic. On at least one evening, the same music could be heard in both theaters.) Although little binds all six Taylor-Bach dances with regard to steps or themes, they are among Taylor’s most richly textured works. Many of them look pure but have ambiguous, even puzzling hints of narrative.
Of the six dances, the earliest concerns itself least with following its score’s structure and rhythms. 1961’s Junction, set to selections from Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, is choreographed “mostly in contrast to the music,” as Taylor writes in his 1999 autobiography, Private Domain. The steps, “though sometimes matching its tempo,” as when a group of men somersaults to the beat, “more often than not are to be faster or slower”—for example, when Sean Mahoney dances quickly and brashly to a slow passage, or Aileen Roehl pliés and lifts her arm during a rare musical pause.
Junction’s costumes, by Alex Katz, have a similar topsy-turvy effect. The dancers wear leotards with bright color-blocking that separates front from back, and torso from abdomen from legs. A simple step or 180 degree turn radically alters what one sees.
Junction, however, is only the first in a line of Taylor works that toy with how audiences perceive dance. In 1976’s Polaris, the two halves of the choreography are identical, but Taylor offers separate scores, lighting designs, costumes, and dancers. His 1980 Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), shown three times during this season, assigns many of the same stiff, angular steps to dancers in neutral leotards and policemen’s uniforms. Taylor appears to believe that associations inevitably form from unusual visual and aural combinations but nonetheless maintains complete control. Still, Junction does follow an arc of sorts: it begins and ends with a woman standing on a kneeling man’s back.
Musical Offering (1986), set to Bach’s composition of the same name, is at the opposite extreme, showing Taylor at his most musically sympathetic. Taylor pairs Bach’s score, a collection of canons and fugues with choreography. The dancers, who accumulate in parallel with the instruments in the music, stand in lines, their stance wide and their arms locked in a “W” shape, rocking back and forth sometimes in unison and sometimes in contrast. Steps and poses are frieze-like, and a kind of priestess (Amy Young) summons the loincloth-clad masses to dance and presides over the finale, giving Musical Offering a sense of ritual.
But what does the ritual signify? Taylor evokes death in a passage where four men lift Michelle Fleet, her arms crossed on her chest like an Egyptian sarcophagus, and carry her about the stage in a solemn procession. Other moments are relatively tender. In an up-tempo passage, after Trusnovec juggles the demands of partnering three women, one offers her hand to cradle his head, recalling Balanchine’s Apollo. References to two popular dance crazes—“the worm” and “the robot”—recur without interrupting the flow of this primitive-looking dance.
The least transgressive of the Bach works are 1999’s Cascade and 1988’s Brandenbergs, yet even these hold a few satisfying surprises. In Cascade, set to Bach’s keyboard concertos, the dancing and costumes are courtly, but Taylor plays with gender roles. A passage for four adheres to symmetry, but in two-side-by-side duets, the men's and women's roles are reversed. In the kaleidoscopic scherzo movement, anchored by George Smallwood, there’s no woman in sight, so the five men lift each other.
Brandenburgs, to Bach’s popular concertos, is also courtly in character, andoften feels like a narrative dance—Balanchine’s Apollo again—wrapped in an abstract one. Trusnovec, a magnificent performer who stretches the value of every step, courts three women who each dance differently. Parisa Khobdeh is sassy, showing off with high kicks and quirky leg wiggles. Eran Bugge simmers, curling her arms into statuesque poses. Amy Young combines a bit of both, and Trusnovec shows his approval by joining her in her dance. Five men, meanwhile, spring across the stage in typical Taylor fashion—arms swaying dramatically with each step—and lie on the floor to form tunnels for the women’s entrances.
In 2002’s Promethean Fire, Taylor responds to the gravity of three Bach keyboard compositions (arranged by Leopold Stokowski) with a dance depicting tragedy and triumph. It’s widely assumed—rightly, I believe—that Promethean Fire is Taylor’s reaction to the September 11 attacks. In the opening movement, dancers fall over two stacks of bodies, women are held atop men’s shoulders in the shape of airplanes, and arms curl around torsos like ominous plumes of smoke; the scene culminates in a pile of human debris. The assumption certainly rings true, and the piece has retained its gripping emotional power.
The principal couple, Khobdeh and Michael Trusnovec, embody the tension at the dance’s core. They open by circling each other suspiciously, like animals. As they balance one another with hooked arms, their bodies repel. Conflict is resolved in the duet of the second movement, when Khobdeh launches herself—backward—into Trusnovec’s arms. It’s a pure expression of trust: fast and fearless.
The most beloved of the Bach works—and of all of Taylor’s works—is 1975's Esplanade (set to two Bach violin concertos), which famously replaces traditional dance steps with pedestrian movement such as walking, skipping, falling, and crawling. The steps themselves might be familiar, but Taylor transforms them. The opening movement—which consists of little more than brisk walking, little hops, and sudden changes in direction—evokes a playful urban playground. In the fourth movement, a man cradles women tenderly before passing her off to another man, a reminder that relationships, however intimate, are ultimately ephemeral.
Critics have claimed that Taylor’s work lacks mystery—that what you see is what you get—but few passages of choreography are more mysterious than Esplanade’s second movement. Dancers stand in statuesque poses, occasionally gesturing at one another but never touching; a woman ducks under a bridge formed by two pairs of arms, while another breaks through it. A man makes an abrupt entrance and walks in stomps, a stark contrast to the soft music. A woman slowly walks across the stage while another circles her and delivers a halting gesture while falling backward. Here and elsewhere in Esplanade, one wonders whether some dancers are spirits who exist on another plane.
The entire cast dances the finale—famous for its falls—daringly, but Young consistently stands out. No one, with the exception of Khobdeh, hits the floor so bravely, and during a brief, off-kilter solo, Young pushes her balances to extreme limits, making it appear as though the floor were moving beneath her feet.
An insert in playbill for the March 24 performance—the last of the season—revealed that Young’s appearance in Esplanade that day would be her last in New York with the company. In Esplanade, and in the rest of the Taylor repertory, this radiant dancer, a member of the company since 2000, will be missed.