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

March 10, 2019, afternoon and evening
Arden Court, Gossamer Gallants, Esplanade
Roses, Half Life (Varone world premiere), Promethean Fire

— by Jerry Hochman

Paul Taylor American Modern Dance returned to Lincoln Center last week for its annual Spring Season. I had planned to attend the premiere of Taylor’s latest dance on March 8, but nearly two feet of snow kept me away (I’ll see it later). But I was able to see two programs that included as representative an assortment of Taylor dances as I can imagine (although pigeon-holing Taylor into a niche from which dances might be considered “representative” isn’t easy): Arden Court, Gossamer Gallants, Esplanade, Roses, and Promethean Fire.

The evening program also included the world premiere of Doug Varone’s Half Life, performed by the Taylor company dancers. I’ll devote most of this review to that piece.

Half Life is both obvious and inscrutable. Something significant is going on – or is intended to be shown – but it requires a leap of faith generated by its title to be decipherable. Essentially, dancers move across the stage in a fury of non-stop individualized motion from the piece’s beginning to its end. Sometimes they connect physically with another, but these contacts are fleeting, and more a consequence of the seemingly uncontrolled unintentionally violent movement than of anything specific, much less anything with an emotional component. The movement itself is primarily augmented street movement – lots of running seemingly to or from something into and out from the wings at varying paces and intensities, and considerable aggressive, frenzied jerking, pushing, pulling, twisting, lifting, falling, bumping, banging, sudden direction changes, occasional walking, and yet more running, bumping, banging….. And it all takes place beneath yellowish fluorescent-looking lights that change location and brightness around the stage “ceiling” at irregular intervals (like the way lightning manifests, except this light isn’t lightning), until the “fluorescents” brighten into an ominous ugly yellow glow that dominates the stage area like oppressive humidity … or like fallout from a nuclear explosion – which is when the frenetic movement suddenly stops.

So what’s the point?

Given the furious pace of the dance, the equally furious tempo of the music (Fuel, a staggeringly scary-sounding “battle of the stringed instrument gods” 2007 composition for string orchestra by MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Wolfe), and the dance’s title, only three related “points” make any sense (beyond just presenting a choreographed mess of activity – which I’ll grant does not seem to be Varone’s intention: there’s more intended meaningfulness to the frenzy than that).

The combined word “half-life” (Varone’s title omits the hyphen) has a specific meaning: the time it takes for a quantity of something to be reduced to half its value. Although the term can be applied, colloquially, in different ways (the half-life of a Broadway show, for example, or a piece of choreography, before it begins to lose its audience and/or whatever significance it may have had), a more common use of it is for something that can be quantified – albeit approximately (e.g., the effectiveness or potency of medication). But it’s usually used in connection with the amount of time it takes for radioactive elements of atomic particles, like those resulting from a nuclear explosion, to decay – or, said another way, how long it might theoretically take for an area subject to nuclear fallout to become livable.

Accordingly, Varone may be visualizing the aftermath of a nuclear explosion (the lowering of those “fluorescent lights”), and the resulting disintegration of society until humanity can recover from the ensuing nuclear winter. Here, however, the “explosion,” if that’s what the descent of the fluorescent lights means, occurs at the end of the dance. So all that frenzy isn’t post-explosion, with the dance being some investigation into what happens to humanity after the bomb. If anything, it’s before, and in anticipation, of the bomb: maybe a visualization of sudden panic (like the consequence of the recent false alarm in Hawaii, but in this case the “bomb” actually hits).

But to me, that’s not Varone’s motivation here. And, at best, it would only be a choreographing of get-me-to-the-bomb-shelter-in-time panic scenes already extant in certain episodes of The Twilight Zone and innumerable sci fi films.

A second possibility is that Half Life is an exploration of humanity’s break-down and disintegration after the bomb (the fluorescent bomb being, maybe, a flash back – literally), with maybe a choreographed Planet of the Apes to be a sequel.

No – that doesn’t work for me either. This isn’t On the (crowded) Beach.

Strange as it sounds, to me Varone is choreographing the movement of particles within an atom: electrons, neutrons, protons, subatomic particles (like quarks, leptons, bosons, fermions….), composite particles and hypothesized particles too numerous to list (my favorite is the “chameleon”). The dancers can be seen as particles as they exist in an atom, or as particles unleashed and smashed by a particle accelerator. Or it could be a visualization of the particle acceleration and interaction that leads up to, and causes, the release of energy from the process of nuclear fission – or fusion (a hydrogen bomb) – which would tie all this nuclear stuff together nicely. To me, this makes the most sense.

But to go through all this effort to visualize the physical process that leads to the destruction of humanity seems, at best, an unnecessary exercise. The dance doesn’t show us anything we didn’t already know (nuclear bombs can destroy humanity), or present it in a way that looks insightful (as opposed to being merely descriptive), or that makes a statement. It’s just, very seriously and very stoically, the way it is.

But I have nothing but glowing praise for the twelve Paul Taylor dancers who survived what might have been the equivalent of choreographic boot camp (as well as for the rendition of the difficult score by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the baton of David LaMarche). Each dancer displayed the energy of … an atomic particle in motion, smashed or not. It isn’t easy to make all that choreographed frenzy appear completely spontaneous or directed by forces beyond any of their control (nor, admittedly, is it easy to choreograph movement that intentionally looks unintentional). And with all that running and “street movement,” the piece fits neatly in a Paul Taylor program. But as far as its lingering value beyond providing the opportunity to see dancers pushed to the limit of endurance, Half Life doesn’t have a long half-life.

Varone’s premiere was bracketed on Saturday evening’s program by two Paul Taylor pieces that couldn’t possibly have been more distinct from it, or from each other.

Roses displays a side of Taylor’s choreographic skill not usually seen from him – or, these days, from anyone else: it’s an unapologetic bouquet to romantic love.

The piece opens to a six couple tableau. To Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Heinrich Baermann’s Adagio for Clarinet and Strings, six couples come together in a group or a line across the stage, but most often are shown in individual pas de deux of intricate texture and intimate emotional connections. While the music tends to be similar-sounding and the dance is limited to romantic visualizations, Taylor’s choreography for each male/female couple is so distinctive that the dance never appears monochromatic.

While the word “romantic” may conjur a standard set of choreographic images, Taylor’s choreography doesn’t rely exclusively on that. Roses isn’t a particularly sexual-infused dance – although mutual attraction is an essential component, nor does it ooze passion – although, in a somewhat muted way, that’s here too. Indeed, in one of the individual couples’ dances there’s a very clear allusion to the couples’ sexual connection that was so fleeting and understated that I suspect most in the audience missed it.

To me, what distinguishes Roses is its sense of mutuality and non-obsessive reliance. For example, a repeated motif throughout the dance, in group segments as well as duets, is one derived from gymnastics (as opposed to, say, acrobatics, a frequent ingredient in romantic partnering). One of the dancers, standing or kneeling, places his or her head down on the partner’s body, who is lying face-up on the stage floor his/her head next to the partner’s feet, and tumbles over it –lengthwise – to the other side. And then the partner may execute the same movement sequence on the first. Although this is obviously a display of physical intimacy, there’s nothing salacious about it. Its significance is that the two are equal; at no point here, or in any other part of the dance, does one person in the relationship dominate the other.

All six couples – Michael Trusnovec and Eran Bugge, Jamie Rae Walker and Alex Clayton, Heather McGinley and Sean Mahoney, Madelyn Ho and Michael Novak, Christine Lynch Markham and Lee Duveneck, and Kristin Draucker and Michael Apuzzo – danced impeccably, but to me McGinley and Mahoney and Ho and Novak were standouts.

Roses was choreographed in 1985. I don’t know if the same dance could be created in today’s world, which is the only unfortunate thing about it.

At the other end of the program, Promethean Fire showed Taylor display of frenzy with a purpose. I reviewed this piece during PTAMD’s 2017 season, and I won’t repeat my observations now. Suffice it to say that the piece, which premiered in 2002, can be seen as Taylor’s creative response to 9/11. The choreography is both cataclysmic and cathartic, horrifying and uplifting, and illustrates in one dance that choreography can relate something that the audience already knows in intimate detail, make it look different, fill it with emotion that isn’t maudlin, and comment on the triumph of the human spirit at the same time. It’s a masterwork. Company veterans Parisa Khobdeh, Trusnovec, and Robert Kleinendorst led the extraordinary 16 dancer cast.

Saturday afternoon’s program featured Taylor classics Arden Court and Esplanade, sandwiching one that is almost on the same level.

Gossamer Gallants premiered in 2011, but I think this was my first exposure to it. I’m sure I would have remembered if I’d seen it previously. It has a kinship with Jerome Robbins’s The Cage, but one that could only have been conceived by a somewhat deranged dance critic.

Instead of spider-like insects doing what they do naturally – murdering their mates, here we have male fireflies and some unknown species of lime-green female insects doing what they do naturally – murdering their mates. Ok, ok, so the spiders have sex first, and the green Amazons manage to avoid it, but murder is murder, right?

Also, of course, where The Cage is frightening, Gossamer Gallants is hilarious.

Here Taylor presents six fireflies (distant relatives of Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty bees) with blue/purple iridescent markings against a basic black insect body doing what I suppose male fireflies do best: flying on the corner watching all the girl insects go by. After some innocent horseplay, er, fireflyplay, five groovy green goddesses gradually saunter by, swinging their insect hips and shaking their curly antennae. The male fireflies light up, and begin their pursuit – until the lime-green females, looking like praying mantises (manti?) who pray to a very different deity, catch them. And step all over them. The only firefly who escapes with his life, if not his dignity, is the odd firefly out.

How Taylor conceived of choreographing this hilarious little romp to dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride is beyond understanding, but that’s what makes Taylor Taylor. If, like me, you missed Gossamer Gallants in previous appearances, don’t miss it now.

And if you haven’t already seen Taylor masterpieces Arden Court and Esplanade, shame on you. These two dances, which premiered in 1981 and 1975 respectively, are required viewing – at least several dozen times. Nothing more need be said – except that beginning in 2019, PTAMD’s annual Spring Season at Lincoln Center will become its annual Fall Season at Lincoln Center. So if you don’t see Esplanade now, you may have to wait until October, 2019.