Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 29, 2019: Aureole, Troilus and Cressida (reduced), Last Look, Beloved Renegade
October 30, 2019: Concertiana, Only the Lonely (new Abraham, world premiere), Variations solo from Esplanade, Black Tuesday
November 8, 2019: Diggity, Only the Lonely, Esplanade
November 14, 2019: Dust, Post Meridian, Esplanade
November 15, 2019: Airs, all at once (new Tanowitz), Company B
Following Paul Taylor’s death last year, one might have thought that the company which he founded and nurtured with his choreography might show signs of a loss of focus; a diminution of direction — a problem faced by many companies following the death of their founders. At least so far, one would be wrong.
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance returned to Lincoln Center for its first Fall season on October 29, under the season’s rubrick, Celebrate the Dancemaker. I saw five of the company’s programs during its three-week season, including the world premiere of Kyle Abraham’s commissioned dance, the Lincoln Center premiere of a new dance choreographed by Pam Tanowitz, the presentation of a solo from George Balanchine’s Episodes that was originally created for Taylor, several Taylor pieces I’d not previously seen, and Taylor dances I’ve seen before but relish revisiting at every opportunity. I’ll address them in that order.
On October 30, the evening of the company’s gala program, I didn’t remember what was on the schedule, and arrived at the theater with just enough time to get to my seat. It happens that way sometimes. So when the program’s third piece began and as it evolved, I thought it was a Taylor dance that I’d never before seen. Since Taylor’s style can’t be pigeonholed, it seemed to fit, in overall sensibility and humanity, other Taylor dances I’d seen, and I wondered how I’d missed this one.
It wasn’t until the curtain call, when the cast was joined by the dance’s creative team, including Abraham, that I realized that this was his new dance’s world premiere. Thinking throughout that it was some unknown Taylor piece is, to me, an extraordinary compliment.
Only the Lonely is choreographed to an assemblage of songs, each sung a little jazzy, a little bluesy, and at all times smooth as silk by Shirley Horn, a noteworthy jazz singer and pianist in the early-mid 1960s, which the choreography both reflects and enhances. And although they’re very different dances at least on the surface, it’s as well-crafted and poignant as Abraham’s initial (and to date only) dance created for New York City Ballet, The Runaway.
Like The Runaway, which visuallized one individual’s agony, Only the Lonely visualizes agony from multiple viewpoints. Essentially three characters divide the dance’s presentation , portrayed by Michelle Fleet (in what to me is her finest role), Lee Duveneck (a company member since 2017 who, until this dance, had not made a definitive impression), and Devon Louis (a revelation for this relatively new member of the company), though other characters are significant and vital to the dance as well. And like The Runaway, its focus is coping with the character’s individuality and differences from what passes for the norm, and his or her sense of isolation and loneliness. While other dances often mine the same field, Abraham’s approach, as it was with The Runaway, is quite different. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of The Runaway, but it’s almost as powerful.
The dance begins with what to me was a sort of throwaway, a baseline against which other segments might be compared (although I suppose it could also be seen as an example of an artificial manifestation of relationship). To Horn’s version of Wild As Love (originally recorded by Nat King Cole), Eran Bugge (who had a superb season) and Alex Clayton dance “wild as love.” That is, they’re obviously into each other, jitterbugging wildly – albeit with an unnecessary insertion of butt-emphasized pseudo-twerking. The next segment, to Loads of Love (also the title of the 1963 album from which many, if not all, of the songs in Abraham’s dance were drawn), deals with a large-bodied, somewhat strange-looking female character (sporting a killer blue dress, orange hair, and heels that made the already imposing-looking dancer even taller) attempting to attract the attention of two men (Robert Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney). The result is a funny, and touching, twist on “three’s a crowd.” To the audience, although apparently not the two men in the scene, this large-bodied woman (Duveneck) was a man in drag – or in this day and age, a man who identified as a woman, but that didn’t make the segment any less fun to watch evolve, with the punchline, more sardonic than comic, when the oversized dancer’s wig is separated from his head. The same character later appears in a far more poignant segment, attempting to connect with one of the same two men, and ultimately losing out to the other one. Duveneck’s ability to act both comically dominating and tragically sensitive simultaneously is uncanny.
The first two segments look at love from the outside in. The balance of the piece turns the focus inward. Following the first of the Duveneck scenes, Fleet appears upstage center, her sinewy back to the audience (her dress is bare-backed), alone, in the shadows (the pervasive dim, magnificently textured lighting designed by Dan Scully), seemingly struggling to find a partner, complementing Horn’s heart-rending rendition of Ten Cents a Dance. The way the segment is structured, the audience does not see Fleet’s face, and the agony chiseled on it, until the song and the segment nears its end, when Fleet turns to the audience in despair. But Fleet’s performance leaves no doubt that she’s been used and tossed aside in more ways than as a taxi dancer. My understanding is that Fleet is leaving the company this year, and this dance, and her performance in it, is a noteworthy valedictory.
With the next segment, to Horn’s version of Only the Lonely, Abraham’s focus turns to Louis. Louis’s agony is different – but agony is agony, and although the choreography and circumstances don’t match the prior segments, his performance is shattering and to me, the most similar to the lead character in The Runaway (although here there’s a sense of pride to it – Louis isn’t running away from anything). Louis’s character attempts to make connections, but is rejected at every turn, and doesn’t seem to know which way to turn. That sounds trite, but in Abraham’s hands, and with Louis’s magnificent execution, it’s poignant and powerful. Loneliness is often treated with disrespect; here Abraham displays it for the force it is.
The songs are different, the choreographic style for each segment is different, but Abraham pulls it all together as the piece ends, as the entire cast assembles, pairs off, changes partners, and eventually exits, leaving Clayton alone with no one to partner.
There are few dances that are both gloomy and exhilarating. Only the Lonely is one of them. Gloomy because of the subject matter, but exhilarating in its craftsmanship and performances. With Only the Lonely, not only do Abraham and the dancers enable us to see their suffering, we also feel attached to them, to know them, perhaps because most of us have been there.
None of us have been where Tanowitz’s dance takes place. I caught up with Tanowitz’s all at once, which premiered this past summer, toward the end of the company’s run.
At the outset, I must again acknowledge my prejudice against dances that are titled without using initial capitals. Unless it has a discernable purpose or is consistent with an overall oeuvre (a la e.e. cummings), it creates an aura of intended distinction and importance that seems contrary to the creator’s intent. I suppose here it can be explained as if it was a phrase that had been lifted from some greater sentence, but nothing I saw in all at once supports that.
Effectively, Tanowitz here presents an alternative universe in which all the inhabitants are dressed alike, with multicolor leotards encased and color-muted within an outer covering of billowy white material. [The costumes were by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme, although I suspect that Tanowitz directed the design.] To me the costumes made the dancers resemble high-class teletubbies. At the beginning, the dance looked like an outtake from an early Star Trek episode, with a few strange-looking inhabitants in an artificial-looking barren set, but gradually, as the stage was populated by the large seventeen-dancer cast, it became recognizable as a sort of tribal society within which there may be a certain hierarchy, and within which the inhabitants interact.
As with the Abraham piece, I marveled at how easily, at least on the surface, Tanowitz’s style here could have been mistaken for Taylor’s. But here, unlike the Abraham piece, the similarities appear artificially imposed. Also, unlike Only the Lonely, the accompanying score (J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor and Oboe Sonata in G Minor) provides a frame, but doesn’t appear to drive or reflect the action. It’s more like societal elevator music. And unlike the Abraham piece, there’s no there there. By that I mean that although there are interactions among the characters (one couple in particular), these interactions are also surface, with no intended or lingering significance beyond having no significance. So maybe, I thought to myself as I watched, this alternative reality was an intentionally alternative way of examining some of Taylor’s choreographic subjects, but without the emotional connections that make Taylor’s pieces so meaningful. To me, however, even this explanation lacks credibility.
In the end, and as with all pieces, notwithstanding superficial resemblances to something else, it is what it is. As a purposeless (though with those costumes purposeless makes no sense either), non-narrative dance, with lots of movement and visual interest, it’s not bad. all at once is quirky, but consistently so, and its vacuous quality is somewhat negated by the cast’s committed execution. I didn’t like all at once at first, but after awhile, all at once, I came to appreciate the attempt here to create something different.
Something different is indeed what Trusnovec created with his crystalline reincarnation of the Variations solo from Episodes. Balanchine joined with Martha Graham to construct Episodes in 1959 to music by Anton Webern, with Graham dancers executing the first part, and New York City Ballet dancers the second – with the exception of the one variation that was danced by Taylor, who then was a member of Graham’s company. The Graham portion was jettisoned a year later, and Taylor’s solo was deleted in 1961. The variation was restored to the piece for a brief period of time, danced by Peter Frame, who was taught the dance by Taylor.
I’ve seen NYCB’s Episodes in recent seasons, and it’s not one of my favorite Balanchine pieces. Indeed, I once described it as choreographic castor oil. The first three segments display typical Balanchine craftsmanship, but my recollection is that they’re somewhat tedious to watch. The final section, inspired by Bach, is easier to take. But had I seen the Variations solo as performed at the gala by Trusnovec, I might have thought differently.
Taylor’s solo was before my ballet-going time, but my understanding is that he executed it with uncharacteristic (for Balanchine, not Taylor) sheer power. Balanchine reportedly told Taylor to imagine himself as a fly caught in a glass of milk – and I can imagine Taylor carrying that out. Trusnovec replicates that force, but channels it differently than I think Taylor would have. It’s crystalline. There’s no diminution of power (on the contrary, I once described Trusnovec as the most powerful of male dancers today; and he still is), but Trusnovec looks slighter than Taylor, and the power, though it remains grounded to the stage floor (or the glass of milk), somehow also takes flight. As I watched this remarkable dancer, I thought at times not of some brooding presence executing complex physical combinations all while conceding the power of gravity, but of a dancer in white from another plateau of the universe trying to escape it. Although the character ultimately yields to the gravitational force, for a time, Trusnovec reminded me of Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture, Bird in Space.
NYCB will revive Episodes during its upcoming Winter, 2020 season. It has been announced that Trusnovec will dance Taylor’s Variation solo as a guest artist at two of these performances: Feb 6 and 9 (though, as usual, those dates are subject to change). If you have not yet seen Trusnovec’s performance, or even if you have, it’s not to be missed.
Of those Taylor dances I’d not previously seen, Last Look is by far the most challenging to review. Created in 1985, Last Look, is, perhaps, a last look at civilization as it devolves into incivility. It’s the grotesque visualization of some post-cataclysmic event (or, alternatively, the natural disintegration of civilization as we know it; or simply the dark side of human nature exposed) in which the inhabitants live a lawless, moral-less life of struggle and survival, where the most vicious dominate the weakest, and where optimism has no place. Taylor here has his dancers move as if infected or palsied, unable to control their muscular functioning (although, of course, the execution of this “style” requires utmost control), and they can be seen as both victims and monsters. At times they appeared to be “possessed.” The mirrored set (slabs of mirrored “pillars” that allow dancers to rest behind them, but which primarily serve to magnify and further fracture the stage area), adds to the sense of hysteria and “no way out.” And the specially created score by Donald York fits hand in glove with Taylor’s choreography, but it could have been the accompaniment for a classy melodramatic horror movie.
I saw Last Look at the run’s opening night, a free performance that, naturally, was sold out. The audience’s hush as Last Look evolved was palpable, as, following the initial separation of a pile of bodies as survivors of some cataclysm separate from the others, the visualization of the resulting populace was both aggressive and violent, and the sexual component was pictured as a driving factor for both sexes, compounded by the costumes (both the sets and the costumes were designed by Alex Katz) which had the effect of making the women appear clothed and exposed concurrently. At times, I felt I was viewing a piece that had been choreographed by Hieronymus Bosch. But Last Look is no Garden of Earthly Delights; on the contrary, it shares a kinship with The Last Judgment (the right panel in that tryptich). Most disturbing of all was a rape scene in which the victim is not just assaulted, but tossed back and forth high in the air from one group of assailants to the another as if she were as if she were a toy. The woman’s face mirrored despair, which was contagious. There was no visible assault beyond the painful-looking acrobatics, but none was needed to make the point about the descent of civilization and the human inhumanity that accompanies it.
I don’t know if Taylor could have created this same dance today, much less that same scene. But it’s a side of life that Taylor has explored before, perhaps beginning with Big Bertha, so as startling as it looks, its existence should not come as a surprise. Not everything he created was Airs, Espalande, or Roses (which was created the same year as Last Look). The brutality of the scene described above is also not isolated or unexpected; it was as predictable as it was despicable. And perhaps that was Taylor’s point: given societal disintegration (or free rein of the dark side of human nature), this is what the world might look like. So I can tolerate this encounter as a slice of the life Taylor was depicting, rather than gratuitous violence or sex, or to make a political point. In the end, despite it being painful to watch, it’s another in the pantheon of Taylor masterworks.
Every member of the nine-dancer cast executed brilliantly, but Kristen Draucker, who appeared to have been the abused victim (from my vantage point it wasn’t easy to tell), deserves combat pay.
Nothing could be further from the desperation of Last Look than the optimism of Dust, which I finally caught in the penultimate performance I saw this past season. On the surface, Dust, which Taylor created in 1977, is in the same vein as Last Look. And maybe that’s the best way to see it: these are souls from which escape from their underground isolation may be impossible (the set, designed by Gene Moore, features a thick rope hanging from the rafters as if indicative of the lower depths within which the characters reside, and from which they yearn to escape).
But to me, despite the misery depicted on stage, these characters are victims, and the action is mournful and filled with pain, not violent. To Francois Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre, a concerto for harpsichord and orchestra, Taylor here crafts a piece that is deeply depressing at first, with the cast of nine huddled close to each other. But this grouping is not an ant-hill heap of humanity: these dancers are gathered for shelter, mutual comfort, and because they share a common malady. This sense is amplified by the costumes (also created by Moore), which are essentially nondescript shades of grey, splattered with evidence of illness.
As the dance begins, physical afflictions are evident: one dancer would grab an ankle; another hold his or her head. There’s anger here, but it’s the anger that comes with the frustration of overwhelming illness. Eventually, the dancers (or most of them) apparently become blind. Taylor’s movement quality is composed (at least compared to Last Look), at times animal-like, but always consistent with suffering.
But although pain is all around, that’s not what Dust is about. To me, it’s about hope. Although there are exceptions, the dancers don’t fight each other; they help each other, led, appropriately, by Madelyn Ho (an M.D.), whose performance is a remarkable display of competence and compassion. At various times during the piece, Ho looks up toward the light emanating from wherever the rope originates (the lighting was designed by the estimable Jennifer Tipton, who also designed the lighting for Last Look), and as the dance concludes, she leads the suffering toward that light, creating in the process a compelling picture of a plane of humanity ascending from the dregs gradually up toward the light. Reportedly, Taylor choreographed Dust for a friend who was deaf and mute. Appropriately, I think, the message here is one of hope, not despair.
The last of the “new to me” Taylor dances this season succeeded Dust on the November 14 program: Post Meridian. The piece, created in 1965, has not been performed here in roughly thirty years. Although I enjoyed Bugge’s work here, I must confess it left no lasting impression. It’s colorful (with the Alex Katz costumes of pastel covered bodies and red and green arms), and a little circussy, but I tuned out when it became impossible to overcome the score (Music for magnetic tape by Evelyn Lohoefer de Boeck). The dance began with the sound of dull airplane noise, and what sounded like incomprehensible words. It didn’t get much better (at one point in my notes, I referenced the score for Balanchine’s Porte / Supir).
The dance is divided into seven Parts. The highlights to me were the solos by Heather McGinley, Bugge, and Louis. McGinley appears in white, moves musically even when the music doesn’t sound particularly musical, and at times, flies.
I’ve observed previously that classics are classics for a reason, and that dances long out of the repertory are out of the repertory for a reason also. I’ll reserve final judgment until, or if, I see Post Meridian again, but at this point it’s a curiosity that I neither liked nor disliked.
With one exception, I’ll discuss the balance of the Taylor pieces I saw seriatim, and briefly.
The exception, because I want to highlight it, is Diggity, which I saw on the November 8 program. The last time I saw it was during its premiere season in 1978, and I still vividly remember Lila York prancing around Alex Katz’s wooden or cardboard puppies to her then husband’s music. My recollection is that it was great fun – and it still is. Here, Bugge played the role that York originated (while the composer conducted the orchestra). It was like reuniting with an old friend who may be more pixilated than you remember, but is still a favorite.
The opening October 30 program began with Aureole, which is a fine way to open the season – somewhat akin to NYCB beginning a season with Serenade. This dance was on the first Taylor program I ever saw, and it cemented the relationship. I left the theater flying. Aureole is a precursor to subsequent Taylor lyrical ballets like Airs and Esplanade, and remains a favorite to this day. It was followed by Troilus and Cressida (reduced), one of Taylor’s comic ballets, and, though not a major work, is always a pleasure to see. Following Last Look, the evening concluded with Beloved Renegade, one of Taylor’s masterpieces. Particularly poignant was seeing Michael Novak, the company’s new Artistic Director, in his final dancing role.
At the Gala program on October 31, Concertiana opened the evening, and following Only the Lonely and the Variations solo from Episodes, Black Tuesday concluded it. I reviewed Concertiana, Taylor’s final piece, during its premiere season in 2018, observing that Taylor demonstrated, yet again, that he had not lost his creativity. Black Tuesday, another Taylor masterwork, was enlivened by the presence of Guest Artist Misty Copeland. Copeland may be in demand for all the wrong reasons, but here she fit in very nicely with the Taylor company in the Boulevard of Broken Dreams segment, looking far more comfortable than in many of her classical ballet roles.
The November 8 and 14th programs both concluded with Esplanade. Nothing more need be said about this beloved modern dance masterpiece, and it was given fine performances on both occasions (I’ve seen it many times, and it has never not been given a fine performance). But although I enjoyed seeing Bugge in what passes for the lead role (I’ve seen, to my knowledge, all the Taylor dancers who have assayed that role, from Carolyn Adams and Lisa Viola to Fleet), I look forward at some point to seeing Ho dance it.
Finally, bracketing all at once on the November 15th program were Airs and Company B. I’ve reviewed Airs recently, but it is always welcome. Company B, however, I’ve not seen in many years, and it’s another of Taylor’s bittersweet dances that can leave one teary-eyed and smiling. Parisa Khobdeh, in what I understand will also be her last season with the company, was superb in the I Can Dream, Can’t I? segment, as were Bugge and the male cast in Rum and Coca Cola, Kleinendorst in Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, McGinley and Mahoney in There Will Never Be Another You, and Draucker and Michael Apuzzo in the lively Pennsylvania Polka. George Smallwood, Christina Lynch Markham, Duveneck, Louis, and Ho completed the outstanding cast, and the performance was enhanced by the singing group Duchess, sounding every bit as good or better than the Andrews Sisters.
Finally, I must acknowledge the live music provided by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Whether the conductor was York or David Lamarche, they provided accompaniment that was as fresh as the company.
I began this review indicating how strong the company continues to look following its founder’s death, but there are threatening clouds on the horizon. As noted during the course of this review, many of its long time dancers have already, or soon will, leave the company. Aside from Trusnovec, Novak, Fleet, and Khobdeh, they include Laura Halszack, Jamie Rae Walker, Kleinendorst, and Mahoney. I have confidence that the company’s “new” seniors and more recent members will fill the void. But although it’s necessary that the company continue to acquire new work, it is essential that it maintain and emphasize its Taylor heritage; that it continue to celebrate the dancemaker. Balancing the two prongs is a challenge faced by all companies that survive their founder. To me, overloading the company’s programming with new dances that change the company’s focus would make it just another modern dance company. Regardless, I wish Novak, who is in the unenviable position of being the heir to a dance giant, much success.