Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

March 17, 2018 afternoon: Aureole, Changes, Eventide, Piazzolla Caldera
March 17, 2018 evening: Musical Offering, The Beauty in Gray (new Arias), Arden Court
March 22, 2018: Dances of Isadora, Concertiana (new Taylor), Promethean Fire

— by Jerry Hochman

In recent years, I’ve approached Paul Taylor programs that included newly-choreographed Taylor dances with some level of trepidation. Whether one appreciates them or not, his recent choreographic efforts have been less than stellar, and, after being around for so long, one might expect the company to gradually lose its performing edge.

Not so.

On the contrary, based on the three performances that are the subject of this review as well as the two already reviewed, this Lincoln Center season of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance has been, to put it mildly, remarkable. Every program. Every time. It was not only a season filled with Paul Taylor’s Greatest Hits, but also one of a company facing the future with open arms.

There’s a lot to get to here. The highlights: clear evidence in Concertiana that Paul Taylor is alive and well and still choreographing brilliant dance, Sara Mearns’s star turn in Dances of Isadora, and a particularly meaningful way to say goodbye to a loved member of a dance company family.

The logical way to address it all is to do it in viewing order. But, after seeing a program as brilliant overall as the one on Thursday evening, that’s the one I’ll start with, and focus on. The other performances, unfortunately, will have to be covered afterward, and in summary fashion.

March 23

I wrote previously that I was forced to miss the premiere of Paul Taylor’s new creation because of one of the nor’easter de quatre that pummeled this area. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the program I selected to replace it was easily one of the finest modern dance – or any dance – programs that I’ve seen.

Of all the performing opportunities that Sara Mearns might have selected to expand her stage presence beyond being a Principal with New York City Ballet, dancing solo excerpts made famous by Isadora Duncan would not seem to be a particularly good fit. Duncan was known for dancing sensually, for imbuing emotion into every movement; Mearns is known for dancing ballet exquisitely, but, with rare exception, injecting an overabundance of pathos into roles that don’t call for it. But if you look beyond that, in the roles in which she broke free from perceived choreographic constraints, she flashed moments of seeming expressiveness that were startlingly unexpected, and startlingly good. Alexei Ratmansky’s Odessa and Justin Peck’s Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes (as it was originally titled) come immediately to mind, but there have been others. And physically she appears somewhat more fleshy than most other NYCB ballerinas (save your emails – it’s relative; she’s still ballerina-thin); she fits the Duncan image.

It became apparent early on not only that Mearns was adequate to recreate Duncan imagery, she’s perfect for it. [I discovered later that this was not her first attempt at Duncan – last year she got her bare feet wet in a program of Duncan dances at the Joyce Theater.] And Dances of Isadora, the title given to this suite of Duncan dances to familiar music by Chopin and Brahms, is a perfect vehicle for recreating Duncan’s impact as well. Curated and staged by Lori Belilove, described as a third generation Duncan dancer via “direct” lineage, the suite provides a trajectory of stereotypical Duncan images, from displaying nymph-like purity in one dance to capturing the freedom of a butterfly in another; from celebrating life in one dance to mourning its loss in another.

In every way, in each of the solo dances, Mearns was absolutely stunning (abetted by solo pianist Cameron Grant, who has treated NYCB audiences to his magnificent renditions for over 30 years). It wasn’t that she dominated the dance – Duncan’s image did – but her absorption of what those of us who weren’t there believe to be Duncan’s character as expressed in her dances was … perfect, with appropriate expressions of joy and sorrow coupled with movement that was both light and weighted, and that looked spontaneous. And her costume (by Belilove) made it appear as if she’d stepped out of a Maxfield Parrish poster (Duncan’s life overlapped the art nouveau movement). Except for the polish of her execution, Mearns’s stage persona here was light years distant from her usual doleful ballerina persona. In Dances of Isadora, she was a sensual earth goddess for the 21st century.

Concertiana is, perhaps, an Esplanade for the 21st century; without doubt it’s the finest dance that Taylor has created in years.

The dance is choreographed to unidentified music by contemporary composer Eric Ewazen. I’m not familiar with Ewazen’s work, but based on this piece, whatever it may have been, that’s my loss. [Ewazen was composer-in-residence for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, which provided the live orchestral accompaniment for the PTAMD performances at the DHK Theater. Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (1997) reportedly was the final piece he created during that residency, and the violin solo at the time was performed by Krista Feeney, who masterfully performed the violin solo during Thursday night’s performance.  I suspect that this was the Ewazen composition, and it would not at all surprise me if someone at the Orchestra of St. Luke’s brought the piece to Taylor’s attention.]

The music is generally fast-paced. But the dominating sound provided by the solo violin and accompanying strings has a dark contemporary edge to it in its opening and closing andante movements (as I listened, I thought of an orchestral version of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, but stronger, faster, richer, and deeper), and a soulful adagio midsection, all of which Taylor accesses and reflects expertly.

At first, the dance appears to be a series of images (dancers parading back and forth in front of the rear scrim – which is illuminated in different colors as segments of the dance progress – while featured dancers perform downstage) and odd-looking movement that make no sense (initially, strange, slinky side-to-side movement, accompanied at various points by the dancers assembling in moving lines or circles), and the unattractive-looking unitard costumes in striated blue (primarily) and white seemed a rare misfire from William Ivey Long, but I suppose they match the jaggedy “striations” of sort that permeate Taylor’s choreography.

But also early on, one sees one woman leaping into the arms of one of the men, which immediately conjures images of Esplanade – though the execution and temperament seem very different. And the parade of dancers back and forth and in circles, often accompanied by starchly flexed arms, is the same natural street movement that Taylor mined so brilliantly in Esplanade: walking, running, falling – but here he adds hopping, crawling, and other examples of “natural” movement, all culminating in an ending that’s as enchanting as that in Esplanade … but different.

Peppered throughout the piece are featured solos and duets by most members of the seven men and four women cast, the most noteworthy to me being a remarkably powerful solo by Alex Clayton, a delightful romantic (sort of) duet for Madelyn Ho and [to be provided], and the central solo, a marvel of variety and complexity and understated emotion, delivered magnificently by Heather McGinley. Eran Bugge, Christina Lynch Markham, James Samson, Sean Mahoney, Michael Apuzzo, Michael Novak, George Smallwood, and Lee Duveneck completed the superb cast.

When the piece concluded, the audience reception was rapturous – even more so than for Mearns, and I thought that was unusually vociferous. But nothing prepared me for the audience reception for Promethean Fire, which began with an ovation as the curtain rose (this audience was alive), and which concluded with a remarkable thunderous standing ovation.

I’ve reviewed Promethean Fire previously, so I’ll limit my comments. Choreographed in 2002, it’s Taylor’s unstated memorial to 9/11, and is perhaps even more of a masterpiece than other Taylor masterpieces. Between the relentless aggregated Bach music and the relentless power of Taylor’s choreography, it is the model of an abstract dance that hits every note, translates every image unambiguously if not obviously (the twin towers are there; the planes are there; the terror is there; the destruction is there; the chaos is there; the loss of life is there; the sense of helplessness is there – it’s all there), and ultimately that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.

I’ve not seen Promethean Fire performed less than magnificently, but Thursday night’s performance – maybe because of the quality of the pieces that preceded it – seemed particularly moving and meaningful. Led by Parisa Khobdeh (what an incredibly glorious season this fifteen year Paul Taylor Dance Company veteran has had) and Michael Trusnovec (now in his twentieth season with PTDC, and still one of the most powerful dance presences anywhere), the 8/8 cast danced brilliantly.

And the entire performance was immeasurably enhanced by the superb orchestral sound of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, led by David LaMarche (for Concertiana) and Donald York (for Promethean Fire). If I closed my eyes, I could hear the New York City Ballet Orchestra – they were that good.

It’s one thing for individual performances relating to love lost or found, to betrayal and redemption, or to tragic death, to be so emotionally compelling that they can move one to tears. It’s quite another for an evening of non-narrative dance executed by an entire company to culminate with the same result – the program, and the performances, were that good.

***

Audiences for both programs on March 17 were supplied with a supplement to the usual Playbill: a pamphlet lovingly celebrating the life of Elizabeth Ann Walton LeBlanc, a member of PTDC from 1959 to 1966, who originated roles in several Taylor dances during that period. She died this past November.

The insert included a lengthy description of her contribution to the company during her tenure with them and after, as well as photographs of her in performance and with a very young Paul Taylor. One of the roles she originated was in Taylor’s Aureole, which was performed that afternoon – its only performance this season. I suspect that Aureole was included in that program in her memory. And Musical Offering, which opened the evening’s program, may also been scheduled in her honor.

The affection that the entire company, and Taylor, had and continue to have for her is palpable, and the manner in which PTAMD honored her memory is a testament to her, and to the company’s character. It’s the way beloved dancers should be remembered.

I never saw Liz Walton dance, but I wish I had.

***

March 17, afternoon

Part of what makes a work of art memorable, that makes a classic a classic, is that whenever you’re ready and/or able to return to it, it’ll still be there.

The first time I saw PTDC, in the early 1970s, was on Broadway, during a week-long series of programs of then contemporary dance presented by a variety of different companies. The PTDC program was the first of the programs I saw; it was my introduction to “modern dance.” And the last piece on the program sent me home flying, reflecting the phenomenon of kinetic transference that came to mean so much to me as I continued to educate myself in dance. That dance was Aureole.

Aureole was revived several seasons ago, but I was unable to see it then. This time, I didn’t miss the opportunity.

Created in 1962, Aureole was Taylor’s first significant “hit” with both audiences and critics. Now, although it shows it’s age a bit, it’s still exhilarating. One wants to fly into the wings upon seeing Taylor’s dancers fly into the wings. And its balance of weighted into-the-floor movement with lyricism, of modern dance movement a la Taylor with “normal” movement, and its reliance on classical (Baroque) music, provides a roadmap of sorts for what followed: its antecedent connections to Esplanade, for example, are apparent. Revisiting it was akin to reconnecting with an old friend.

Changes is a different matter. There isn’t anything wrong with this 2008 piece, but as good as the dancers were, and as much as I love the songs of The Mamas and The Papas, music that kept me going in college, Changes doesn’t go beyond being a nostalgic, and somewhat unsympathetic, reflection of the period.

Unlike, say, Pascal Rioult’s Fire in the Sky, Changes looks and attempts to recreate the period epitomized by The Mamas and The Papas music and lifestyle and the multiple societal revolutions that occurred concurrently, but it does so from the outside looking in; you watch it happen, but it doesn’t take you there and make you a part of it. And it’s loaded with unfortunate caricatures that detract from any sense of meaning beyond the moment. These flower children may have had their hearts in the right place, but after dabbling in social change, the dance seems to say, they went back to doing their own strange, liberated, self-indulgent things, leaving the tougher work of societal change to others.

With that understanding, and limitation, in mind, the dances themselves are fun. Particularly impressive were the implicit characterizations of The Mamas and Papas themselves by Trusnovec, Novak, Kristin Draucker and Khobdeh – although that observation has limitations: Trusnovec and Novak were moving images of John Phillips and Denny Doherty (though, with the costumes and added hair, I couldn’t tell which was which), and Draucker was wonderful as what I saw as a stand-in for Michelle Phillips, but Khobdeh is not in any way Mama Cass (and fortunately didn’t try to be). Other highlights included Markham, mesmerizing as the lead in the California Earthquake dance, Laura Halzack as the irresistible siren in I Call Your Name, and Samson and Apuzzo in Dancing Bear – the only dance that was really imaginative and memorable. And California Dreamin’ provided the opportunity for a rousing conclusion – preceding an unfortunate denouement.

Eventide, however, is a different matter. To music by Ralph Vaughan William (Suite for Violin and Orchestra and Hymn-Tune Prelude, No. 1), evocative sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto, and lighting by Jennifer Tipton, the piece, which was created in 1997 but which I’d not previously seen, seems a direct descendant of his 1985 Roses coupled with a sense of Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading – except instead of memories at the end of summer/end of a life, Taylor is displaying relationships as they develop on summer evenings. It’s not sappy as that description sounds – it’s lovely and ceaselessly (and seamlessly) enveloping. And although there’s a sense of similarity arising from the setting and the music, each of the 5 couples’ dances is sufficiently distinctive that interest is maintained throughout.

The program concluded with a sizzling performance of Piazzolla Caldera, Taylor’s marvelous paean to the Argentine Tango presented from the point of view of “ordinary” people looking for a night’s adventure rather than from elite clientele in a highly-stylized ballroom environment. It deserves more space than I can now give it here. Suffice it to say that although it includes those aspects of tango that are immediately recognizable – the physicality, sensuality, and equal-opportunity aggressiveness – it also weaves modern dance sensibilities, passion, humor, and daring partnering into the mix. It left the audience in a justifiable frenzy.

March 17, evening

To say that Musical Offering is another Taylor masterpiece doesn’t say the half of it. Bach created A Musical Offering in 1747 at the behest of the Frederick the Great of Prussia to compose a fugue based on royal music themes. In Taylor’s creative mind, however, Bach’s music takes on a different character entirely. The subtitle of Musical Offering is “a requiem” – and that’s what it is. But it’s also a celebration of a life.

Supposedly, much of the movement quality is based on primitive movement and appearance that Taylor distilled from New Guinea sculptures, but to me, that aspect of it is far less important than its sense of loss, regardless of the geographic pigeon-hole in which stylistic sublevels may have originated.

The piece begins with Khobdeh angled facing the upstage left corner, an arm outraised, as if in searching for a life no longer there. Through the fifteen interconnected segments thereafter, Taylor takes the viewer on a reflection of the life of the fallen woman, and her ascent from life to an afterlife (a remarkable sequence in which Fleet is repeatedly maneuvered downward and upward) in the memory of those who remain.

What Taylor says in Musical Offering is as profound as what he later said in Promethean Fire, but far less strident and triumphant, and far more reverential and compassionate. Ultimately, and perhaps as a reflection of its musical origin, Musical Offering is a commentary on the humanity, and the nobility, of death, of a life well-lived, and of the persistence of memory. It’s a remarkably moving – in all senses of the word – work of art.

Compared to the Taylor pieces, Bryan Arias’s The Beauty in Gray, which had its world premiere earlier this season, is on a much less cosmic scale. While the musical accompaniment primarily by Nico Muhly (the final piece in the assembled mix is by Olafur Arnalds) is accessible and almost melodic (except for the occasional crashing sound that comes out of nowhere and seems to have no purpose beyond awakening those who may have dozed), the piece suffers from its limited scope and its presentation between Taylor masterpieces.

Essentially, The Beauty in Gray examines several relationships, and observes that things change and are not always what they appear to be. That is, that relationships, that human interactions, aren’t black or white, but should be seen as shades of gray. It’s not a bad piece, and Arias avoids the temptation to over-choreograph – even though there’s a large cast (9/9), the piece focuses on visualizations of individual relationships. Perhaps on a different program, The Beauty in Gray might be displayed to better advantage.

The evening concluded with another masterful performance of Arden Court.

As I mentioned previously, PTAMD will not be returning to Lincoln Center until Fall, 2019. That’s a long time to wait between masterpieces.