Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
March 9, 2017
The Open Door, Continuum, Brandenburgs
It’s rare for a program of dance – any type of dance – to click on every cylinder. Thursday night’s program of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, the umbrella that presents The Paul Taylor Dance Company as well as other modern dance choreographers and companies under its ambit, was such a rare event. In every way, it was a memorable evening.
Thursday’s performance was the second regularly scheduled program of PTAMD’s annual Lincoln Center season. It was also the night of PTDC’s annual gala, and the theater was filled with donors, former company dancers, and members (and former members) of other dance companies dressed to the nines. They were treated to what appeared to be a sumptuous dinner on the David H. Koch Theater Promenade (my invitation must have been lost in the mail), preceded by a sumptuous performance of the New York premieres of Taylor’s The Open Door and Lila York’s Continuum, and of the revival of one of Taylor’s masterworks, Brandenburgs.
If there’s one thread that ties all these pieces together, it is ‘memories’. The kind of memories that make you smile. Performing excellence is another thread, but with this company, that’s a given.
Paul Taylor is an American modern dance icon. There’s no outward sign of his slowing down, but at 86 years of age, stock-taking and remembrance-celebrating would not be unexpected. To me, The Open Door is Taylor simply and straightforwardly reminiscing. It’s sweet and tersely to the point, and a little – ok, a lot – melancholy.
It’s also filled with characters who are stereotypes, and not necessarily politically correct ones. The stereotypes aren’t the point, although I suppose some will express outrage. They should get over it. The use of stereotypes and caricatures help make parts of the dance funny, but it’s Taylor celebrating composites of people, not mocking them. The point, to me, is that these are people, or representative categories of people, who Taylor remembers not with contempt, but with gentle affection. That’s all. But that’s enough. And in the process of remembering things and people past, he’s created some delightfully pithy portraits that reflect the spirit, if not the specific targets, of the accompanying score.
Taylor’s choice of music is Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and the background of that piece provides insight into what might be Taylor’s objective here.
Elgar completed Enigma Variations (Variations on an Original Theme) in 1899, dedicating it to “his friends pictured within.” Each of the fourteen variations was intended to be a musical sketch of one of Elgar’s close friends; in some cases the sketches described events peculiarly known both to the composer and his friend, and in others they were an elaboration on a friend’s particular character trait, many of which were seen as unpleasant caricatures. Sir Frederick Ashton brought Elgar’s sketches to life in his Enigma Variations ballet, choreographing the music’s variations to those friends Elgar specifies by their initials in his score, as well as one dedicated to Elgar himself.
Taylor takes the Elgar composition in a similar, but somewhat different direction. Some might see it as effort to contemporize and update the Ashton ballet, which I recall – although I haven’t seen it in many, many years – as being relatively stuffy. Taylor’s piece certainly isn’t. Instead of his own take on choreographing the composer and his friends, there is The Host and The Guests. The Host could be any host at any fin de siècle semi-formal gathering, or he could be a surrogate for Taylor himself. And the Guests, ten of them, could be an assortment of characters who fit Taylor’s visualization of Elgar’s score, or friends/acquaintances/representative figures in Taylor’s life, or stand-ins for a grouping of Taylor’s memories. Instead of the “enigma” being some secret melody hidden within Elgar’s score, as has been generally acknowledged, the enigma here is who these people are and why they’re at this gathering.
When the piece opens, a man in a black suit (The Host) is seen in a large ballroom-type room, empty except for chairs lined up in various positions near the room’s rear wall. As the music begins, The Host, played by Michael Novak, repositions the chairs so that they all face toward the theater audience in a soft arc shape.
With the chairs in place, the Guests begin to arrive. A woman in a party dress and (apparently) her young daughter; another woman in a more sophisticated costume, one in which to see and be seen; a man wearing an outrageously inappropriate loud plaid sports jacket; a very fat woman who collapses her chair when she sits on it; a young man, a “jock,” wearing shorts and a sweater; another young man in a military uniform; a dreamy “artiste,” complete with palette in her hand; an older man in a morning suit; and a youngish man in a flaming red suit complete with stereotypical gay mannerisms. All these characters, of course, are exaggerated stereotypes.
One by one, and at times in pairs or trios, The Guests dance. The young girl, niftily played by Madelyn Ho, bounces all over the room; the fat lady (a seriously padded and seriously-demeanored Laura Halzack) dances contrary to what one might expect from her appearance, moving her feet at warp speed, and then falling to the floor again when she tries to sit down. The artiste, Jamie Rae Walker, dances dreamily, ingesting the world around her, sits down, and is fought over by the jock and the military man. You get the idea.
Each of these dances is relatively brief. The Guests depart, and The Host is left wondering where the party went. He begins to rearrange the seats again, looks wistful, scratches his head (or his chin), acknowledging – and enjoying – the enigma.
I suspect that in addition to outrage over stereotypes, a lot of people may consider The Open Door to be Taylor-light. I’d disagree. There’s more going on here than just a strange non-dinner dinner party populated by strange guests, which would be consistent with the irreverent Taylor of dances past, but which otherwise would be superfluous in the Taylor oeuvre. These are memories, Taylor’s or those of some unknown narrator, of people who have entered his life and departed from it. It’s not a 15 minute gathering with no purpose; it’s a 15 minute whimsical assortment of lifetime of filtered, refined, and, yes, exaggerated memories; a brief reunion within the open door of The Host’s mind. Sure it’s a little curious; but it’s also a lot delightful.
I remember seeing Lila York dance with PTDC early in my dance-going days, at City Center. I have an image in my mind of a short young girl sprightly dancing through the stage, with her hair in a ponytail tied with a thin bow. Maybe it was from Diggity, which I haven’t seen in decades.
When Lila York’s new dance, Continuum, begins, the fourteen dancers are grouped in a tight circle, with one woman being held aloft in the center of the circle. They’re all wearing gently tinted costumes that are evocative of lyrical memories. The lighting is dim, as if the stage is a remembrance of things past (another one). And then, from behind the circle out pops…Lila York. Or the way I remember her. The audience immediately applauded – as if maybe they were thinking the same thing. She’s skipping across the stage, smiling and happy as a clam, in a reddish costume that is a more realistic version of the wistful memories evoked by the other dancers’ costumes. And I’m thinking to myself…I saw her 40 or so years ago. She can’t be dancing like that. She can’t be looking like that.
She wasn’t. It was Eran Bugge. But it’s clear to me that Bugge was a moving image of York. And equally clear that this dance is York’s trip down memory lane. But it’s more than that – it’s a wonderful, joyful dance on its own merits, memories or not: a blast – if not from the past, than from the continuum that is the present.
Like many of Taylor’s dances, Continuum is a collection of related episodes, most of which have their own character. If my memory were more comprehensively cemented, I might have determined that many of these episodes relate to Taylor dances that York appeared in: I can’t be certain. But it doesn’t matter – it’s undeniable, and not at all surprising, that Taylor’s influence is apparent. That being said, and although it’s no less vibrant (an understatement) than Taylor at his best, the piece has a gauzier, softer edge. And, as with The Open Door, the composition to which York has choreographed has been carefully selected to inherently absorb York’s apparent intent: Max Richter’s Recomposed: The Four Seasons. Aside from the ‘seasons of a year marking a continuum of time’ being analogous to ‘the seasons of one’s life and the continuum of memory’, the piece also implicitly references York’s take on Taylor, just as the composition is Richter’s take on Vivaldi.
If there is one criticism I have, it’s that Continuum continues too long. But each segment is beautifully choreographed and executed – even those that obviously regret, and battle, the passage of time. The segment involving Parisa Khobdeh (possibly representing York’s aging alter ego), is simply fabulous – and heart-wrenching. And each of the piece’s dancers execute the Tayloresque choreography as one would expect from this company – brilliantly.
The evening concluded with a living memory – an explosive performance of Taylor’s classic Brandenburgs. The piece, created in 1988, evokes its own memories – of Taylor’s landmark 1975 dance Esplanade, but reflecting the more formal nature of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (#6, movements 1 & 2, and #3), it’s considerably less playful. While, to my eye, nothing can match Esplanade, Brandenburgs is without doubt a constituent of the classic modern dance canon. And Michael Trusnovec once again establishes himself as one of the most compelling presences in modern dance today. Amid an extraordinary cast of nine dancers themselves giving extraordinary performances, Trusnovec takes his command of Taylor’s choreographic style, and his own dominance of the stage, to an even higher level.
Earlier I mentioned that there’s been no outward indication of Taylor’s slowing down. That observation must be slightly amended. On this evening of memories, and for the first time in my memory, Taylor himself was absent from the evening-ending curtain calls – to the displeasure, and concern, of many audience-members within my view. Whether this signals some increasing infirmity is not something I know, but, like the dances on this program, it’s a memory – albeit a missed one.
The Paul Taylor American Modern Dance season will continue to provide memories, old and new, through March 26.