ADF: Paul Taylor Dance Company, testing survival strategies

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company, Heather McGinley, center, performing Taylor’s Cascade at ADF in the DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Paul Taylor has been one of the greatest dance makers of all time, and for decades his company has performed the works that have poured out of him, and only his works–but even Paul Taylor won’t live forever. What’s a troupe to do, when its leader glides off into the spirit world? What’s the best way to preserve the dances, while carrying on into the future? There’s the Merce Cunningham method, in which the company is closed down, but the dances are licensed and their production controlled by a trust. There’s the Martha Graham method, in which the company continues, keeping the Graham works in repertory, while adding suitable works by other choreographers. Both extremes have merit, and pitfalls.

But if the company remains dedicated solely to the works of its founder, after he or she has crossed the bar, sooner rather than later, it will become a mausoleum. Can the founder’s spirit and aesthetic be carried forward via new dances made by other artists?

That’s the question for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which has begun commissioning and performing dances by younger choreographers. This appearance of the company at the American Dance Festival offers the first opportunity in this area for viewers to see how that might work. The July 7 program in the DPAC sandwiched a 2016 dance by Larry Keigwin between two classic Taylor pieces. The July 8 program will feature a Doug Elkins work.

It doesn’t look to me like Keigwin is the man to take the mantle. His Rush Hour showed off the extraordinary physical abilities of the dancers, but it lacked the openness, vitality and variation that mark a Taylor work, no matter how minor. Paul Taylor dances make one actively glad to be alive; this particular Keigwin work focused on the struggle of staying alive. No playfulness here. The dancers’ bodies were rigid, their gestures constrained, and almost all the action took place at the same level, although during some of the more aggressive bits, bodies did hit the floor. Maybe the saddest thing was that the dancers were drained of specificity; they were moving ciphers, sexless zeroes–not the rounded human characters who inhabit a Paul Taylor dance.

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Larry Keigwin’s Rush Hour. Parisa Khobdeh and Michael Trusnovec, front. The American Dance Festival at DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Rush Hour begins at speed and maintains relentless velocity throughout, racing along to abrasive music by Adam Crystal. There’s not an instant to catch one’s breath, or consider. It’s a portrait, in black and gray, of ruthless competition for space and place. Although impressively energetic and precise, it is cold in affect. And although highly designed–the pattern-making is its greatest strength–it is mechanical, even arbitrary, and damn near humorless. Whereas Taylor makes sequences that seem natural and absolutely necessary, in Rush Hour, everything felt inconsequential, and as if something else could have been substituted with equal effect, as long as it was fast and slick. It was exciting, though, to see all those bodies slicing so close to each other, hurtling around, and the crowd roared as if at a circus. But Rush Hour is a junk food rush, with no real nutrition.

The paucity of its movement language, and its lack of musicality, were obvious enough in contrast to the evening’s first work, Taylor’s lovely Cascade (1999), set to portions of three Bach concerti, but were made even more evident by the program’s final dance, the celestial Syzygy from 1987. While you could hardly call Taylor’s style Baroque, he does have a genius for elaboration, for the movement or gesture that continues far beyond the limited pedestrian shorthand utilized by Keigwin. While Taylor has developed a stock of positions, phrases and sequences that he utilizes again and again in very different works, he also goes far and wide to bring back the unexpected, the off-kilter, the odd angle, the silly riff. He surprises you. People sometimes tell me they think Paul Taylor is boring; I think they haven’t been really looking at the work.

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Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Syzygy, Madelyn Ho leading, at ADF at DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

The company dancers were in rare form last night–the dancing was gorgeous beyond words in Cascade, with George Smallwood really standing out. Parisa Khobdeh’s solo was wondrous, and Michelle Fleet and Michael Trusnovec in the Andante of Concerto no. 7–well, it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s program position tonight will be taken by Book of the Beasts, with a diverse selection of classical music performed on pedal harpsichord. Doug Elkins’ The Weight of Smoke will follow (and will probably include all the humor missing from the Keigwin work), and the evening will close with a reprise of Syzygy, by the same cast the performed it so well last night, led by Madelyn Ho. It would be worth going for that last dance alone. Note that the Saturday night program will begin at 7 p.m.

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“…all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun…” The Paul Taylor Dance Company orbiting in Taylor’s Syzygy, at the American Dance Festival, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

 

 

 

Paul Taylor Dance Company Closes ADF 2016 (a love note to Micheal Trusnovec)

The 83rd season of the American Dance Festival closes tonight, with the last performance, by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, beginning at 7 p.m. in the DPAC, where there was a very good house last night for the first of the company’s two performances.

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Snow White includes some notable similarities to the great Promethean Fire. Paul Taylor Dance Company, ADF, 7/29/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

But it is a slightly odd program. It opens with a strange version of Snow White (1983), which seems to be a caricature of Disney’s cartoon version of the old fairy tale with its very definite morality. Despite Parisa Khobdeh’s delightful frolicking as Snow White, and Heather McGinley’s enticing playfulness as the Bad Apple, the apotheosis of the evil stepmother into Prince Boring, and the cavorting and tumbling of the “dwarves,”the piece was…blah. It wasn’t ferociously funny, or scary, or beautiful or wickedly sarcastic. (I can’t believe I’m about to say this:) It was a mediocre rehash made with a dull knife. The only really interesting thing to me was seeing how Taylor had built a key component of Promethean Fire–the table-like structure of bodies that supports the entire pyramid of bodies–as earlier as 1983–and how much of the movement in Snow White seemed a response to the early work of Pilobolus.

But onward to the past. Next come two rich, and related, works from 1979 and 1977, Profiles and Images. Profiles, set to a score composed for the work by Jan Radzynski, harks back to Nijinsky’s famous dance style, which emphasized his profile, as well as to the stylized depictions decorating ancient Greek pottery. Danced by a standout quartet, it is both elegant and really funny, especially when the dancers cross the stage while maintaining the bent knees, raised arms and flat level hands of their pottery positions, and keep their profiles to us all the while. Michael Trusnovec excelled at this funny scuttling, his upper body elegant and noble, his face in profile a carved mask, his feet shuffling and making tiny hops. There are also some surprising lifts and agglomeration of bodies–which really seem like bare bodies, in their thin, toned to skin, unitards–and some beautiful moments in all the sections.

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The gorgeous quartet in Profiles. Trusnovec, left, with Michael Novak, Eran Bugge and Laura Halzack. The Paul Taylor Dance Company, ADF, 7/129/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

 

Images, set to selections from the colorful Debussy works, Images–Book I; Children’s Corner Suite and Pour le Piano–uses some of the same stylized gestures, but for this piece, the visual inspiration came from ancient Minoan Crete. Laura Halzack was magnificent as the Oracle, in a costume lifted straight off the famous Minoan Snake Goddess statue. All the costumes, by Gene Moore, are delightful, bridging the millenia between the Bronze Age Cretan civilization and the early 20th century. I have very particular colors associated with the Debussy music, and the designer was on my synesthetic wavelength with the glowing patches that colored the women’s skirts. This dance has all the beautiful Paul Taylor tropes: the interest in ritual; the seamless flow between topical sections and between full cast and smaller groupings; the interjection of joyous frolic into the reverence; the balance between repetition and sudden change; the synchronous dancing by two or more; the complete integration of dance with music. It may have been performed here, sometime in all the years PTDC has been coming, but I’d never seen it, and was entranced. And–this performance included Michael Trusnovec dancing with the women in the “Totem Horses” section. I know, I know, I have a terrible crush on Trusnovec, but you gotta love a man who can pick up a woman on each arm and dance them around, while making it look like he’s riding a spirit horse.

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Michael Trusnovec in Images. Paul Taylor Dance Company on stage at the DPAC. ADF, 7/29/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

 

Profiles and Images would have made a fairly meaty program on their own, but the evening closes with another reprise of the Taylor masterwork, Promethean Fire. Commissioned by the ADF, it premiered here in 2002. Apparently I was struck dumb and did not review, but here is Anna Kisselgoff’s beautiful writing; and here is my review from 2004, and my review from 2008, all of which include much description. (You can also click Paul Taylor Dance Company in the Tags to see my reviews of other Taylor programs for the last 3 years.)

The dance has lost nothing over time; indeed, it has gained in power as the world has further darkened. It is such a memorable dance, as a whole, that I’m having a hard time believing that it had been five years since it was danced here, so clear were the images in my mind’s eye. Yet, like any great artwork, Promethean Fire gives itself to you anew and differently each time you approach it. (For instance, I’d never noticed before how much the men’s costumes resemble firefighters’ overalls, with their square-cut necklines.) This must have been the fifth time I’d seen it, and while I was not as emotionally flattened as the first time, still the tears came as the planes swooped in. Taylor is a master at flipping the emotional content of an image: at the work’s opening, the wide-armed figures held aloft indicate the terror planes of 9/11–but at the end, the same image becomes one of beacons of protection, welcome and hope. The great Trusnovec led the full cast, this time with Parisa Khobdeh. Just before the final scene, pictured below, the pair brilliantly executed a series of whirling turns with such precision and force that I could have died happy right then. But they whirl into stalwart stasis: we are commanded to stand strong under the open sky, to hold the fort and hold each other and let fire “thy light relume.”

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company at the end of Promethean Fire, with Parisa Khobdeh and Michael Trusnovec, center. ADF, 7/29/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

 

 

Buoyant Paul Taylor Program Will Repeat Tonight and Saturday at ADF

Manet's Woman with a Dish of Plums, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Manet’s Woman with a Dish of Plums.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I’ve heard people say, “oh, I’ve seen Paul Taylor,” as if once or twice or three times was really enough. Well, I’ve seen Manet’s Woman with a Dish of Plums about 500 times, and still I seek it out–for many of the same reasons one returns again and again to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company during its annual visit to the American Dance Festival.

Close observation: Big pattern, fine detail.

Perfectly arranged planes and angles.

Luscious colors in odd relationships.

Emotionality, wide-spectrum.

Darkness beneath the brightness, and vice versa.

Sheer beauty.

Of course, with PTDC, all those things are in spectacular motion, so the prowess of beautiful bodies, thoroughly trained, must be added to the list.

This year’s Paul Taylor program presented in the DPAC includes no new work–so many years, there’s a premiere–but the program is designed as it always is, like a sandwich of fine bread with a high-protein filling. This time the bread is a rich brioche, stuffed with a crisp salad–maybe tentacled calamari and slick cucumbers.

Paul Taylor Dance Company floating in Syzygy at ADF 7/2/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Paul Taylor Dance Company floating in Syzygy at ADF 7/2/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The evening opens with the 1987 Syzygy, which looks just like it sounds. When thread is spun, it is given either an S-twist or a Z-twist, and when combined in a ply, those opposing twists give the yarn an unusual energy. Syzygy contains that fruitful opposition. The dancers, led by the aptly named Michelle Fleet, are so buoyant that they seem likely to float into the lighting grid. Singly, in pairs, or in groups, the 13 dancers mirror and reverse, and reverse again, all the while traveling across and around, with Michelle Fleet arcing through now and then like a shooting star. Danced to music composed for the dance, by Donald York, in costumes by Santo Loquasto under lighting by the great Jennifer Tipton, Syzygy really does seem astronomical, with its orbits and transits, condensing clusters and expanding spaces. Or maybe celestial would be a better word for last night’s performance.

The middle piece is the fantastic Last Look from 1985, with costumes and set by artist Alex Katz. The men are dressed alike, in snug green pants and shirts, while the women wear satin robes in bright marzipan colors, each belted in red. The set is made of mirrors, tall large mirrors, placed at carefully calculated angles (as is Jennifer Tipton’s lighting). Obviously, what the audience sees varies by position in the hall, but the mirrors are arranged so that no matter where you sit, you will at times see dancers, their reflections and the reflections reflected. The bodies are seemingly multiplied, while the space is fractured and uncertain. The only thing I can compare it to is the incredible mirror scene at the end of Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. This set-up is not as complex, but confusing nonetheless, and carries much of the same sense of foreboding and menace, especially when the dancers start slapping each other around. Sean Mahoney and Parisa Khobdeh led the ensemble, her suppleness making a sublime contrast with his rigidity.

PTDC in Last Look, on the DPAC stage 7/2/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

PTDC in Last Look, on the DPAC stage 7/2/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The evening closes with Esplanade (1975). Set to parts of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, and the Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, there is nothing about this dance that is not blissful. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this, but for sure, last night’s dancing of it was the most splendid I’ve seen. The choreography uses all of Taylor’s most playful, and most elegantly natural, language–the running, jumping, sassing and frolicking that make both dancers and audiences smile smile smile. When pairs join hands, they stretch then shrink the space between them, like bubbles blown through a ring and drawn back in. The section in which each woman in turn runs, leaps and arcs through the air to be caught and cradled by a man was particularly sizzling last night, and elicited yelps of delight from the crowd. Michelle Fleet, again, was at her superlative best. She launched herself toward her partner from what seemed an impossible distance, but she flew right to her target, curling against his chest like a leaf, with no sign of impact. Fleet also has something extra special in her traveling jumps–they are just so pretty on top of powerful–somehow she prances in mid-air. It’s a happy dance.

The great Michael Trusnovec was not on stage last night, and is not scheduled in this program. Sigh. But I’m assured that he is still dancing with the company, so maybe we will get lucky another time. This program repeats tonight at 8 and Saturday at 2.

Happy happy happy, everybody happy. PTDC in the classic Esplanade, at ADF 7/2/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Happy happy happy, everybody happy. PTDC in the classic Esplanade, at the American Dance Festival,  7/2/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

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