Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
Program: A New Era
November 1, 2022: Diggity, Scudorama, Esplanade
November 2, 2022: Arden Court, Solitaire (Lovette world premiere)
November 10, 2022: Arden Court, “Suite from ‘The Hours’” (Philip Glass), The Green Table (company premiere)
November 11, 2022: Scudorama, Somewhere in the Middle (Garner world premiere), Esplanade
It’s difficult to conceive of a more masterful and successful season than Paul Taylor Dance Company’s two-week celebration of its post-pandemic return to the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Under the overall rubric “A New Era,” the company, led by its Artistic Director Michael Novak, shattered the notion that new dances can’t measure up to the Taylor legacy, that the Taylor legacy itself is outdated (though no one with any knowledge of Taylor’s pieces could possibly have thought that), and even that a dance program must consist only of dance.
Of the four programs I was able to see, from dancer with the greatest seniority in the company to the most recent hire, from old dances to new, from conception to execution, this was a marvelous time to be a member of the PTDC audience.
Since there’s so much to discuss, I’ll proceed first generally, and then address the newest dances (including one classic new to the company and a legacy piece I’d not previously seen), followed by brief comments on Esplanade and other familiar Taylor pieces, and concluding with that change in the composition of a dance program.
With the understanding that everything old is new again, I suppose at least on an elemental level that describing PTDC now as embarking on “a new era” is accurate. Taylor passed away in September, 2018, and before his death selected Novak, who danced with the company from 2010-2019, to assume the reigns thereafter. Under Novak’s leadership the company created a new position, Resident Choreographer, and gave it – in what seemed a shocking move at the time – to former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer and choreographer Lauren Lovette (who promptly created Pentimento, a hit for the company’s March 2022 appearance at the City Center Dance Festival), and continued Taylor’s decision to invite visiting choreographers to create pieces for the company.
All this, of course, is old news. The “new” news is that PTDC now is as fine a company as it was before, except with different dancers and an updated repertoire, and that is somewhat extraordinary. It really is a new era.
For decades, PTDC has been one of America’s premiere contemporary dance companies. [I use “contemporary” and “modern” interchangeably here, though I’m aware that the words have relatively distinct meanings. For PDTC it seems particularly appropriate.] Excellence is no stranger to either its choreography or its dancers: Taylor’s modern dance masterpieces like Esplanade, Aureole, Arden Court, Brandenburgs, Promethean Fire, and countless others have stood the test of time, and, like Balanchine’s and Robbins’s dances for New York City Ballet, form the backbone of PTDC’s repertory. Certainly there will be new dances – there must be for the company to survive, just as is the case with NYCB – but one would think the likelihood is that most will not, and could not, measure up to The Dancemaker’s creations. Moreover, the company has had a significant turnover of dancers since Taylor’s death (though not necessarily as a consequence of it), and one might think that the caliber of the dancers currently with the company couldn’t possibly match the levels of those who danced before, even if, eventually, some may.
One would be wrong. On both counts.
Dancers who are relatively new to the company (relatively new is relative) now lead it, with little if any diminution of overall impact. Singling out any particular dancers is unfair in this context – they all performed superbly, from the (currently) most experienced, the still sprightly Eran Bugge (who joined in 2005), to the newest, Kenny Corrigan (who joined this year). Yet more shocking is what’s in between. Madelyn Ho, who seemingly just joined the company a few years ago (actually it was in 2015) is now its third “eldest” in seniority. What?? Lisa Borres, whom I first noticed last spring in Lovette’s piece (she joined the company in 2019, around the same time that Covid joined the world and impacted the natural evolution of a dancer’s performance history) evokes memories of Lisa Viola, Lila York, and your favorite puppy (a cocker spaniel and terrier mix); Jessica Ferretti, who joined the company last year, is suddenly everywhere at once and a force (until, presumably due to injury, she was replaced in dances I saw in the second week most frequently by Kristin Draucker, class of 2017, who also had an exceptional season); Devon Louis, who joined in 2018, has become one of the company’s most outstanding dramatic dancers. Similar positive observations can be made about everyone else in the company, including John Harnage, who also joined the company in 2018. I’d previously seen Harnage, but he didn’t register with me in any particular way. Time passes, and he just anchored, highly successfully, one of the most extraordinary examples of “new” choreography that the company has yet presented.
Solitaire (Lovette world premiere)
It’s getting tiresome to keep referencing a Lovette-choreographed dance as her best work to date, but Solitaire is her best work to date. At the risk of trivializing it, Solitaire is a gem. She never ceases to amaze.
Solitaire is also an ambitious, “big” dance, involving thirteen of the company’s sixteen dancers. Sometimes it does get a little stage-busy. But all things considered, that’s a minor observation that’s far outweighed by everything else.
Solitaire is choreographed to unidentified music by Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born American composer whose work was relatively popular in the early/mid-20th century, but, to my knowledge, is rarely performed now. Judged by the Bloch composition(s) that Lovette used for this piece, that’s unfortunate – the score is vibrant, harmonic, colorful, and refreshingly accessible. And it fits Lovette’s choreography like a bejeweled glove.
As I see it, the dance’s “theme,” to the extent there is one, is not unusual – and has been particularly prevalent of late: a lone individual, perhaps one who is somewhat “different,” coming to terms with himself and with his place in a greater society. [See, for example, Kyle Abraham’s recent piece for NYCB: Love Letter (on shuffle).]
Although the word “solitaire” can have many meanings – from a solitary individual to a card game played by oneself to a precious cut gem, usually a diamond, presented by itself in an item of jewelry, at least on the surface Lovette opts for the latter, as captured in Santo Loquasto’s set that features an upstage backdrop with a central, huge gem-shaped solitaire (like a diamond solitaire) hanging over what appears to be a vaguely delineated landscape / cityscape and marked upstage on each side, as I recall, by widely-spaced vertical bars, all enhanced by Brandon Sterling Baker’s complementary lighting. But Lovette’s application of the word “solitaire” is not limited: she uses it in every sense of the word (with the possible exception of the card game): sole, solo, and solitary, as well as an isolated, single solitaire gem. And I think it’s no accident that the societal group within which the character lives is portrayed by eight women and four men (aside from Harnage), which might be roughly analogous to apparent gender balance in many dance / ballet companies.
Harnage is the loner in the societal group: he’s part of it, but also separate from it. And when the piece evolves to feature Harnage alone, to slower, more introspective music, it’s clear that he’s at least troubled by the thought of being solitary; of being alone. He’s not the agonized, twisted, tortured soul that may be evident in other such themed dances, but his loneliness is evident. This solo segment, which Harnage delivers with heartfelt brilliance, itself evolves to the point where Harnarge comes into contact with individual members of society with whom there’s a cordial mutual familiarity and casual relationship but nothing more. As to one of these members of society (Lee Duveneck), however, he clearly senses an emotional kinship. There’s obvious mutual interest here beyond that, but for Lovette’s purposes it’s sufficient that it’s expressed minimally rather than exploited. The two separate, there may be further individualized cast contact, and the dance ends with Harnage’s character again seen as part of a greater societal group, but his physical and emotional aspect is different. There’s a sense of understanding and acceptance, and that diamond solitaire on the backdrop is lifted up and out of view, leaving only the landscape.
As purposefully and as sensitively as its theme is developed here, Solitaire is more than its direct subject. Its quality of movement and of exposition distinguishes it from other such pieces. There’s little in Solitaire that’s maudlin or even painful – sad, maybe, and briefly, but it has an optimistic heart even as, except for Harnage’s solo, it explodes with varying pockets of energy that percolate throughout the piece. Lovette has done nothing less than to create something of a miracle: a dance that looks like a Taylor dance, a dance of joy, but with a 21st Century sensibility; a dance that, were he alive today, Taylor himself might have choreographed.
Everything in the piece works. Lovette’s mastery with moving blocks of dancers without making anything look repetitious is a quality her choreography showed from the beginning, as is her innate musicality and the balletic lyricism that she brings to her contemporary dances. But these qualities, as well as the sense of humanity that imbues her choreography, are ratcheted up here. And as I often described her performance demeanor as a ballerina, in Solitaire everything is choreographed and performed full to the fingertips.
One tends to ignore standing ovations from Gala audiences (Wednesday’s performance, the night of Solitaire’s premiere, was also PTDC’s annual Gala), or at most take them with several grains of salt. But the standing ovation that greeted the company and Lovette at the dance’s conclusion looked exceptionally genuine; as does Solitaire.
Somewhere in the Middle (Garner world premiere)
The second new piece, which I saw on Friday evening, was Amy Hall Garner’s Somewhere in the Middle. [Although its highly “elevated,” it bears no relationship whatsoever to William Forsythe’s similarly titled ballet.] Had I seen it on the night of its premiere, I suspect that on its conclusion it would have received a similar standing ovation.
Somewhere in the Middle doesn’t have the breadth of Solitaire or its finesse, but it’s a jubilant dance, one that tests its dancers’ capabilities, exhausts (apparently) their energy, and communicates that same energy force to its audience.
This is the first Garner piece that I can recall seeing, though she’s had extensive choreographic experience among a broad assortment of dance and ballet companies and on a variety of platforms, and she’s currently Resident Choreographer for the Carolina Ballet. Somewhere in the Middle was a worthy introduction to her work.
One might complain that the dance is too one-dimensional, too fly-away, and suffers from occasionally less than optimal partnering (a consequence of the piece’s blistering speed and somewhat loosey goosey and spontaneous-looking style), but that’s a perfectly appropriate choreographic application of the musical genre that here inspires Garner’s choreography: jazz. The score Garner curated (a variety of jazz music performed orchestrally and/or sung by Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Bill Evans Trio) has that same innate quality. The only exception is a slow duet (magnificently executed by Maria Ambrose and Louis), which, though well-choreographed, seems to have been inserted to vary the pace and consequently sticks out like a sore thumb.
But there’s far more that’s right about Somewhere in the Middle than what might be considered wrong about it. It’s an airborne dance; that is, the dancers as a group seem to spend their time soaring above the stage as much as they do on it. Most of all is its non-stop exuberance. There’s never a visual dull moment about it, and audiences have the opportunity to see its cast move in unexpected and impossibly complex ways that somehow also shows them to advantage. Most, if not each, of the eight-dancer cast, were featured alone or given extended solos. They included, in addition to Ambrose and Louis, Jada Pearman, Ho, Borres (who seemed never to stop moving), Duveneck (who extended his range here far more than I thought possible), Austin Kelly (a constant jumping jack), and Harnage.
Somewhere in the Middle may not be trying to communicate some idea, but, together with its set by Donald Martiny (strangely-shaped pseudo-cloud formations that float in, up, and away during the piece), Mark Eric’s vibrantly-colored costumes (except for that duet, where the costumes were gorgeous but appropriately dark), and the textured bright as sunshine or dim as impending rain lighting (by the incomparable Jennifer Tipton), instead communicates a particular feeling. I don’t think this is a dance that Taylor himself might have choreographed, but nonetheless it’s another PTDC dance of joy.
The Green Table (company premiere)
And then there was a dance that decidedly is not a dance of joy.
This past Thursday, PTDC presented the company premiere of Kurt Jooss’s anti-war masterpiece The Green Table, ostensibly in commemoration of its 90th Anniversary – though in truth no such justification is needed. Jooss’s simple, unadorned message, which, unfortunately, is just as timely today as it was when the dance was created, is that distant and effete diplomats are oblivious to the consequences of their actions (or inactions), and that in war innocent people suffer and die.
Derived from the medieval Germanic “Totentanz” (Dance of Death), The Green Table is very much a creature of its time (German expressionist; relatively stark, minimal movement with nothing extraneous added – what Jooss himself described as “Essentialism”) with musical accompaniment to match – a two-piano score by Frederick (Fritz) Cohen. But it’s also a dance for all time, and the finest and cruelest of anti-war dances.
I’ve seen The Green Table on several occasions previously (although rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, not at its premiere by Jooss’s own company in Paris in 1932): as revived by the Joffrey Ballet (New York) multiple times in the 1970s, and when American Ballet Theatre first presented it at the Koch Theater nearly seven years ago to the day.
The piece is divided into six individual scenes, each addressing particular examples of the horrors of war and the triumph of death: The Dance of Death and Farewells, The Battle, The Refugees, The Partisan, The Brothel, and The Aftermath. Bracketing them are scenes of the Gentlemen in Black negotiating around a green-topped table and using war as a bargaining chip and refuge when what passes for diplomacy fails. To them, war is part of the diplomatic game – a game of faceless combatants. The primary characters are archetypes: Death, The Young Soldier, The Young Girl he leaves behind, a Standard Bearer, an Old Mother, a Profiteer, and the grotesquely masked and physically (and emotionally) contorted Gentlemen in Black.
The Death character wears garish makeup and a skeletal costume, and his movement is stiff and one-dimensional – he doesn’t dance so much as move frighteningly; his emotion is minimal at most. The soldiers are cardboard. The Profiteer is a coiled snake who drains his victims of hope before Death takes them away, almost as a relief. Death is ‘just’ Death, but the Profiteer is the devil. The women have more movement variety and room for expression, but even with that, the range of expression is generally limited to flat, monochromatic portrayals in which the circumstances deliver the message.
It’s normal for one’s impressions of present performances to be shaped by dominant performances of the past. I never saw Jooss himself dance Death (he died in 1979), but I can’t envision anyone matching the towering portrayals of Death and the Profiteer by, respectively, Christian Holder and Gary Chryst with The Joffrey. Even Marcelo Gomes’s Death and Herman Cornejo’s Profiteer, as finely performed as they were in ABT’s 2015 presentation, suffered by comparison (although in my 2015 review I noted Gomes’s exceptional visual strength and memorable performance). I have no recollection of the women in major roles – except, in one of ABT’s performances, for Sarah Lane, whose Young Girl was by far the most magnificently conceived and rendered portrayal of that role that I’ve seen. Instead of things just “happening” to her that are out of her control and tragic, with Lane the expression emerged from deep within, and the audience is transported to her character’s world and grieves with her and for her while choking back tears.
It’s not a criticism to say that PTDC’s performances couldn’t equal my memories of those earlier portrayals. But the entire company excelled in its own right, and the performance as a whole was not only credible, it was moving. Shawn Lesniak’s Death appeared less powerful than others, but no less frightening, Harnage’s Profiteer, though more weasel than serpent, also delivered a frightening portrayal, and Pearman’s Young Girl was exceptionally vivid, heartfelt, and tragic. An unexpected surprise to me, however, was Corrigan’s attention-grabbing Standard Bearer. Of the balance of the large cast (too numerous to mention here), particularly Draucker’s Woman and Ambrose’s Old Mother, no one delivered a less than worthy portrayal.
PTDC deserves significant praise, and thanks, for bringing this indisputable work of dance art back before New York audiences – including, based on the shocked, hyper-ventilated response of the audience to the Gentlemen in Black firing guns at the end of the opening scene, many who’d never before seen it.
Scudorama, Diggity, Arden Court, Esplanade
The other dances that comprised the four programs I saw were all choreographed by Taylor, and most of them have been seen and reviewed before – many times. But one dance that I thought I’d seen either I completely forgot (not likely, even with my at times questionable memory) or was one I missed.
Prior to the pandemic, I saw another old Taylor dance that I’d somehow missed: Last Look. Choreographed 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. As much of a horror-dance as it is, I surmised that it fit with some other such Taylor dances, beginning with Big Bertha.
Had I seen Scudorama, I’d have gone back further. Choreographed in 1963 (perhaps as an antidote to Aureole), Scudorama shares an emotional and visual kinship to Last Look, but instead of being a vision of civilization’s disintegration, it’s a dance that emanates from the lower room. That is, instead of a venue in heaven’s anteroom (or heaven itself) as might be deduced from Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Scudorama is venued in hell’s ante-room, where wasted lives are evaluated for final placement by the devil’s evil minions. [Tharp, coincidentally (or not), is a Taylor company alumna, who reportedly danced in, among other pieces, Scudorama.]
Unlike Last Look, it takes awhile for the horror in Scudorama to become evident. It’s very confusing. But Scudorama‘s premise is fairly easy to discern, particularly if one reads the subheading: a quote from Dante’s Inferno: “’What souls are these who run through this black haze?’ And he to me: ‘These are the nearly soulless whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.’” What Dante meant by this, and what Taylor means by using it, is that this “black haze” is a waiting, transitory area occupied by dead people who lived life neither succeeding nor failing, neither accomplishing nor destroying, and who were neither benevolent nor tyrannical. Their fate is to roam neither in heaven nor hell, but in painful and perpetual limbo.
Taylor choreographs this waiting area, and visualizes the dead souls within it as well as, Satan’s minions, including perhaps Charon, the ferryman of Hades, but I saw no support in the piece for that. That being said, perhaps the reference to him may be found in the dance’s title. In my research I found no meaning for “scudorama” per se. But the word “scudo” is an Italian word for coins of gold or silver issued by various Italian states. Dante, of course, was Italian (Florentine), and a common medieval funeral practice was to include a coin or coins within the deceased’s body for presentation to Charon to pay for passage to the afterlife.
The piece’s eight dancers appear to play fluid roles here: at one point as deceased, and at others as minions (my word, not Taylor’s), or maybe they represent the deceased who, trapped, morph into persecutors. It’s somewhat confusing, but this doesn’t really matter.
Regardless, as the dance begins (to an apocalyptic composition by Clarence Jackson, about whom I’ve found no background information whatsoever), one sees bodies, some covered in what appear to be multi-colored shawls (it was common practice in human history for the dead to be covered in blankets or similar wrappings before burial) and some laid out simply in black, who are unceremoniously removed from the stage (or who remove themselves) after being “awakened” by a man wearing a sports jacket (another, perhaps more elite covering) who soon becomes the chief tormentor. There’s nothing at all lyrical about the movement: it’s generally staggered, hunched, and sheltered — except for the chief tormentors, who are vicious and sadistic. One of the deceased (Draucker) wanders in torment and suffering longer than others; another, Ambrose, portraying a woman in red, is an awesomely dramatic decedent cum mannequin, and Corrigan, as one of the lead soldiers of Satan’s army, is a particularly formidable presence. The most memorable character in the piece is danced by Louis, who, in a role that I understand Taylor himself originated, stomps and rages with overwhelming power at various points in the piece and provides Scudorama with the muscle necessary to vary its visual tone. It’s an interesting, and for its time a groundbreaking, piece.
The sets and costumes for Scudorama, including a backdrop studded with black clouds, were designed by Alex Katz, one of Taylor’s frequent collaborators. Indeed, much of this season was devoted to celebrating this collaboration. The opening night program included two pieces from this collaboration: Scudorama, and Diggity.
Choreographed in 1978, Diggity is not Scudorama. It’s one of Taylor’s dances of joy, and it features a stage filled with a slalom of cardboard or wooden images of dogs at rest, up to and around which prance the cast of eight (five women; three men). Whether the dancers are supposed to personify the dogs doesn’t matter in the least – what the dancers do is act happy as puppies in a dance the sole purpose of which is to make people smile. As I wrote when the company last revived Diggity, in 2019 (months before the pandemic), it was great fun when I first saw it during its premiere season, and remains great fun now. Bugge dances the primary role here (top dog, if you will), which she’s honed to perfection, but she’s just one in a family of dancing pooch-people, including Draucker, Duveneck, Harnage, Pearman, Ferretti, Kelly, and Borres.
The remaining two pieces on the programs I saw, each of which, to my distinct pleasure, I saw twice, were Arden Court and Esplanade. Each has been written and gushed about many times before, each is a masterpiece, and each should be seen at least ten or twenty or more times in a lifetime. It’s unnecessary to elaborate on either piece here since I’ve done so many times before. And Esplanade, to me, is to PTDC as Balanchine’s Serenade is to NYCB – dances that exemplify the personal relationship between the choreography and the dancers and between the respective companies and their audiences, and which, ideally, should be a component of every season for each company.
Arden Court was marked by sterling performances from its male contingent (Duveneck, Alex Clayton, Louis, Harnage, Kelly and Corrigan), as well as by the exceptional Ho. As for Esplanade, its first performance was as luminous as I remembered; the second was somehow, more so. Except for Ho replacing Ferretti in the second performance, the casts were the same: Bugge, Christina Lynch Markham (who particularly excelled here), Draucker, Duveneck, Clayton, Ambrose, Borres, and Jake Vincent, and each delivered exceptional performances.
But as engagingly effervescent as she was on opening night, Borres, to my eye, added additional character on Friday. I’ve seen all if not most of the performances by the girl in white who changes direction on multiple occasions during the course of the piece and who ends it, alone on stage, presumably not knowing which way to turn next and finally turns to the audience with a knowing smile, from the incomparable Carolyn Adams (who now is Director of Education for the Paul Taylor School) to Viola to Michelle Fleet, but I don’t recall any of them doing what Borres did on Friday night. She milked that ending. Just a little; barely enough to be noticeable, but it appeared seismic to me. She hesitated a bit before revealing that final smile, as if pondering and commenting on the ultimate direction of it, in doing so making it look more conclusory than part of a process, more revolutionary than evolutionary, more cerebral than instinctive. It took maybe a second, but some images, no matter how limited they may be in real time, last eternally in a viewer’s mind. This was a second I’ll not soon forget.
Suite from ‘The Hours’ by Philip Glass
Finally, something else I’ll not soon forget.
At the outset I mentioned that PTDC this season modified the concept of a dance performance. What the company did was add a concert to certain programs instead of another dance; an intermezzo of sorts between two dances (which in the old – really old – days, as I recall, was a function of ballet in an orchestral concert or opera).
With very rare exception, music is an essential component of a dance. And occasionally one can separately appreciate the contribution that a live orchestra makes to an individual dance or particular program. The exceptional New York City Ballet Orchestra leaps immediately to mind. But to my knowledge, and other than certain introductory “See the Music” openings presented by NYCB, I’m aware of nothing that highlights the orchestra and the musical composition itself, alone. In three programs this season, labelled “Moving Music,” PTDC did just that.
The first two such programs, which regrettably I was unable to see, included orchestral concerts by PTDC’s long associated Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the baton of the company’s Music Director David LaMarche, as the middle piece on the program: Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” narrated by Vanessa Williams (at a Family Matinee), and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (featuring pianist Conrad Tao). The one I did see, on Thursday night’s program, was Philip Glass’s “Suite from ‘The Hours’” (with pianist Margaret Kampmeier), a composition Glass created for the film “The Hours.” Glass needs no career summary from me.
In short, the composition is glorious, though no adjective is really sufficient, as well as unusually beautiful. The repetitive structures in the music linger and are noticeable, but like the sound of a recurring breeze on a summer night rather than sounding in any way repetitious. Hearing OSL play it with crystalline magnificence, and watching LaMarche conduct it with brilliance and sensitivity, was a highlight of this or any other dance performance. If you closed your eyes, you could see the music dance. On its conclusion it was greeted with a prolonged audience ovation, both sitting (characteristic of NYCB audiences) and standing. And the icing on the cake was that Glass himself was in the audience. Maybe this and the other two Moving Music programs will launch a new, expanded interaction between dance, dance programming, and music in the future. In any event, it proved a gamble worth taking.
Overall, my summary of PTDC’s 2022 Koch Theater Season includes only one negative comment: that there wasn’t enough of it.