Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
March 19, 2017 evening
Diversion of Angels, Summerspace, Promethean Fire
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance presented a special program on Sunday evening dedicated to three modern dance legends: Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and, of course, Taylor himself. It was an “important” program, significantly filling the David H. Koch Theater with dancers, former and current, devotees of one or another choreographer, and multi-generations of modern dance lovers.
It was also an important program because of the quality of the dancers’ execution of the iconic pieces presented. Each of them – Graham’s Diversion of Angels, Cunningham’s Summerspace, and Taylor’s Promethean Fire – was given a spectacular rendering. The opening and closing pieces were performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the Cunningham piece by Lyon Opera Ballet.
To me, aside from the thrilling performances, the program was notable for the huge difference among the pieces created by the Third Generation choreographers. Taylor and Cunningham both emerged from Graham’s company, but their choreography largely evolved in different directions, and their two pieces on this program couldn’t illustrate the different directions more clearly.
Diversion of Angels is one of Graham’s most well-known dances, and one of the few of those so well known that doesn’t relate a story. But just because it’s non-narrative doesn’t mean it lacks meaning or signature Graham movement – including swinging arms that gobble space, and, of course, characteristic contractions and release. Reportedly, Graham’s intention here was to describe three aspects of love: adolescent (via the couple in yellow), erotic (the couple in red), and mature (the couple in white). I don’t see the piece that literally (compare, for example, Diversion of Angels with Jerome Robbins’s In The Night); indeed, in the poem by Ben Belitt that Graham used in her original program note, the referenced diversion of angels is love in all its emotional and spiritual components. Graham has reduced these emotional qualities of love to their abstract essences (as the poem does somewhat more concretely) – like another then contemporary choreographer, George Balanchine. But that distillation is more than enough – the piece is extraordinary in its dynamism, dramatic power, and passion.
To my eye, the Taylor dancers (and particularly the leads: Eran Bugge and Michael Novak (yellow), Parisa Khobdeh and Sean Mahoney (red), and Laura Halzack and Michael Trusnovec (white) executed Graham’s choreography as if driven, and superbly. If any Graham purists feel differently, I’d defer to them, but the apparently knowledgeable audience’s enthusiastic response is consistent with my observation. Khobdeh was particularly compelling in the role originated by Pearl Lang, flying across the stage like a woman possessed (which of course her character was) while still being thoroughly grounded.
Cunningham joined the Graham company in 1939, and danced with them for six years, forming his own company several years thereafter. Not surprisingly, Summerscape shows some links to Graham’s use of arm movement, but that’s about it. Based on these pieces (and what I’ve seen of others), while Graham distilled emotion in the context of enhanced movement, Cunningham distilled movement in an emotional vacuum. There’s plenty of movement, but there’s also quite a bit of posing and bodies seemingly randomly, and purposelessly, moving in space: the movement by itself is the message.
As the curtain rose, the backdrop by Robert Rauschenberg drew immediate applause. It’s stunning: blended splashes of reds, yellows, oranges; a soft explosion of summery images. And the costumes, also by Rauschenberg, pick up on that theme – the same colors dappled over basic white unitards. It all looked blissful.
But Cunningham’s choreography doesn’t match that evocation, and obviously wasn’t intended to. The choreographic “pattern” – or the lack of one – might be said to mirror the apparent randomness of Rauschenberg’s artwork. But where Rauschenberg filled all available space, Cunningham leaves much of the stage bare while one or another dancer or discrete groupings of them traverse the stage, and there’s nothing expressed or implied beyond the movement itself – again, intentionally: movement for movement’s sake. The dancers rarely acknowledge each other’s existence. There was a point when one of the men and one of the women briefly touch, and another, later, when they hold hands as they skip somewhat exuberantly, but these physical connections are simply what happens to take place at a given moment: they’re not again repeated, expanded, or echoed.
Cunningham’s choreography isn’t uninteresting; just so ascetic-looking as to be totally devoid of any consideration beyond the movement. And while there doubtlessly is beauty in the random effect of, for example, wind buffeting individual blades of grass, or individual raindrops as they hit the ground, or individual dancers moving in space, to me there’s also something more beautiful missing (even divorced from any sense of inherent “meaning”). That’s not to say that the movement is insignificant; it undoubtedly has purely physical significance. It’s just that that’s what it is. No expression, no impression, created or suggested. That having been said, I must also acknowledge that my opinion appears to be a minority, at least based on the enthusiastic audience response at this performance.
But there’s no difference of opinion with respect to the execution by the six Lyon Opera Ballet dancers – Kristina Bentz, Marie-Laetitia Diederichs, Tyler Galster, Coralie Levieux, Elsa Monguillot de Mirman, and Raul Serrano Nunez – each of whom merits recognition for their extraordinary performance in every respect. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch, and their commitment to, and competence with, the Cunningham orthodoxy is both apparent and commendable. For me, watching them brilliantly execute Cunningham’s at times complex movement was one of the program’s particular joys.
Taylor danced with Graham’s company for seven years beginning in 1955 (he also danced with Cunningham’s company, and was invited by Balanchine to be a guest artist with the New York City Ballet), and he reportedly began his choreographic career creating pieces focusing on movement (or the absence of it) alone. But by the time I first saw his company, in the mid-late 1970s (on Broadway!), he had altered his focus to pieces that carried considerable visual and emotional impact, like Aureole (1962), Big Bertha (1970), and of course, Esplanade (1975). Though movement quality obviously was a critical component of these dances (and, to me, his characteristic arm positioning is somewhat derivative of Graham), it wasn’t movement for movement’s sake: the movement created and enhanced whatever message was being transmitted, even if the message was simply the kinetic and spiritual power of movement. Promethean Fire is a superb example.
Like Diversion of Angels, Taylor’s piece is abstract, but filled with inescapable emotional meaning. It’s as monumental a work as Summerspace is sparse and emotionally insignificant. From the outset, Promethean Fire, which I’d not previously seen, is a heart grabber. It’s darkly dangerous and portentous, and it screams “important.” And by the time it ends, it’s both destroyed you and uplifted you: its impact is triumphant and titanic.
The piece premiered in 2002 at the American Dance Festival. To my knowledge, Taylor has not stated that Promethean Fire is his response to 9/11, but such a conclusion is inescapable. Doom is all around, as is rebirth (consistent with the lone program note, a quotation from Shakespeare: “Fire ‘that can thy light relume’.”) It looks somewhat like a skyscraper comprised of bodies under attack (lighting by Jennifer Tipton), and the J.S. Bach music is itself fiery, like a message from the gods (Toccata & Fugue in D minor, Prelude in E-flat minor, and Chorale Prelude BWV 680).
But Promethean Fire is more than that. It also has the appearance of a cathedral under siege. Abetted by the superb musicianship of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (conducted by PTAMD Music Director Donald York), it celebrates a spiritual as well as corporeal rebirth; a dance not of doom, but, as one man (Trusnovec) emerges from a collapsed pile of bodies, ultimately of faith. And it’s one of Taylor’s finest accomplishments.
Sunday’s performance was the only one of Promethean Fire this season. When it returns in a subsequent season, and it must, it cannot be missed. As is the case with Diversion of Angels, it’s movement that stirs the soul. And it’s a dance that compels the standing ovation it received.