It’s been a tough week in Durham, depressing and humiliating, what with the sneaking Legislature, the obfuscating Governor, the precipitating weather and The New York Times editorial on the decline of North Carolina. But Friday night, July 12, the Paul Taylor Dance Company appeared in the Durham Performing Arts Center, leading off the American Dance Festival‘s fifth week, and for the space of three dances, the world was all beauty and love and grace and delight, elegance and prowess. At first intermission, a friend stopped by my seat, squeezed my hands and murmured, “I feel so much better now.” Yes. The program repeats tonight.
Paul Taylor Dance Company, at this mature stage of its life, presents a deluxe kind of modern dance, refined, polished and clarified in all its aspects. Taylor’s work always makes me think of artist Henri Matisse, and not just for the Calme, Luxe et Volupté feeling. In Taylor’s choreography there is a similar play by the artist between line and mass, between color and line, and always an exactitude about where precisely each body is in space. Taylor is aided in achieving his glowing visions by the very best set, costume and lighting designers, so that the entire visual experience activates a sensual response in the viewer. In the first two pieces in this program, the sets and costumes are by the great Santo Loquasto, and in the ineffably sweet Perpetual Dawn (2013) that opens the performance, I marveled at how his swirling liquid fabrics allowed Taylor’s larger shapes and furling motions to be seen more clearly. Under James F. Ingalls delicate lighting, Taylor’s choreography would beguile even a jaded crone, as the dancers freshly encounter love’s spring morning to the accompaniment of selections from the Dresden Concerti by Johann David Heinichen.
Taylor has a whole emotive language of beautiful hand and arm movements that are easily interpreted, and his use of them, along with lifts and carries, means that the dancers are often physically touching each other. The are not isolated. They are attentive. Together pairs and groups they engage in risky feats which require not just muscle and nerve, but trust and commitment. All these qualities make Taylor’s work a balm. Some of his most powerful work is tied to contemporary social conditions or occurrences (e.g., Promethean Fire, post 9-11) but some of it is timeless in the best sense–even when its sets its hour at dawn, or Eventide.
In Eventide (1997), we see lovers again, this time in the superb lighting by Jennifer Tipton. This dance is even more lovely and considerably more affecting than Perpetual Dawn. Experience has made its way through the intervening hours, and the lovers at evening have a different awareness–they voyaged away from innocence toward passion. Heather McGinley and Francisco Graciano were fabulous in the “Molto Perpetuo” section of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Suite for Viola and Orchestra (the dance also use his Hymn-Tune Prelude, No. 1), and in the “Musette” section, the noble-bodied Michael Trusnovec danced magnificently with the elegant Paris Khobdeh.
The evening ends with the full-blown rose of Arden Court (1981), a joyous frolic and tour-de-force of human geometry, danced to excerpts from five symphonies by William Boyce. Lighting is again by Tipton, so even though it’s not all that bright, everything rings with clarity. The highly decorated close-fitting costumes are by Gene Moore, who reveals glorious anatomy while preserving modesty. Here we see many of Taylor’s most enduring qualities: his humor, his reaching for the sky, his uncanny skill at drawing line and shape while maintaining motion’s flow. Watching it is like receiving a transfusion of happiness. Certainly this program gives a reprieve from desperate times requiring desperate measures, and maybe strength to rally another day. Praise Terpsichore.