Paul Tay lor Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

June 25, 2024
“Extreme Taylor”– Program 1: Private Domain, Duet, Big Bertha, Airs

Jerry Hochman

All choreographers of significant repute create a body of work that includes differently inspired dances, differently choreographed dances, or just dances that are as different from each other as night and day, signifying a multi-faceted choreographic personality that can’t be easily, if at all, pigeon-holed. In the case of Paul Taylor, this diversity is extreme.

Paul Taylor Dance Company (“PTDC”) returned to the Joyce Theater this week with a two-program set of dances under the overall program title: “Extreme Taylor.” Each of the programs consisted of a couple of rarely-seen, mostly early Taylor pieces that, combined with a couple of more familiar representative dances, provide a sense of depth and novelty, and that are idiosyncratic in a way that is rarely matched in a regular season run.

(l-r) Alex Clayton, Jada Pearman, John Harnage,
Maria Ambrose, Jake Vincent, and Madelyn Ho
in Paul Taylor’s “Airs”
Photo by Jamie Halbritter

The second program, which I was unable to attend, included Runes (1975), Post Meridian (1965), and Brandenburgs (1988). Since I’d already seen those three dances, I decided to attend Program 1, which included two pieces that I’d not previously seen: Private Domain (1969) and Duet (1964), as well as two others that I had seen: Big Bertha (1970) and Airs (1978). As it turned out, I doubt that a program of four dances by one choreographer could include dances that are as idiosyncratic choreographically and in their intent, and different from each other, and diverse, as those in this program.

From 1954, when he founded his own company, until his death in 2018 Taylor created some 147 dances that, according to PTDC’s web site, “covers a breathtaking range of topics, but recurring themes include the natural world and man’s place within it; love and sexuality in all gender combinations; and iconic moments in American history.” That summary doesn’t tell the half of it. Although many attempts have been made to categorize Taylor’s body of work into 3 or 4 “types,” such divisions don’t always hold.  Nor is it clear that there’s any particular Taylor “style,” though similar types of movement (e.g., steps or body positioning) can be found from one dance to another, although often so underemphasized that even that is unclear. Perhaps all this is why I’ve always found Taylor so much more fascinating than other modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) choreographers. Except for those rare instances when for whatever reason the piece doesn’t work (or simply doesn’t work for me), his dances are enjoyable and/or interesting.

I first saw PTDC in or about 1974 or 75, when I was introduced to Aureole (1962), which I recall as being part of mixed company/mixed bill at a Broadway theater. Aureole was the final dance on the program, and I left the theater flying (not something that I usually feel comfortable doing), and I’ve never been far from PTDC since then. Next up, to the best of my recollection, was Big Bertha on a program with Esplanade (or in the same series). I didn’t like Big Bertha – I was young then, and stupid. Or stupider. But like most of the dancegoers on the planet, I loved Esplanade.

Madelyn Ho and Alex Clayton in Paul Taylor’s “Airs”
Photo by Danica Paulos

Program 1 here traces, sort of, an evolution in Taylor’s choreography. But looked at more closely, there is no one “evolution” – just continuing development and experimentation that demonstrate his ever-expanding range, with dances that explore or respond to Taylor’s various interests or motivations du jour… except, that is, in one broad sense of awakening or recognition.

Taylor’s early choreographic work was akin to that of the Judson Dance Theater in its conceptualism, minimalism, and limited tolerance for movement variety and entertainment value. According to a description in Wikipedia, a series of “white” paintings by Robert Rauschenberg resulted in John Cage’s composition, 4’33”, which which inspired, or led to (in an interview comment, Taylor didn’t think that the word “inspiration” was pertinent to his dances), a 1957 piece titled Duet. This Duet was part of Taylor’s “Seven New Dances” concert which became Taylor’s first claim to fame – but only in light of the controversy that surrounded it. During Duet (again, based on the Wikipedia description), Taylor and [woman] dancer Toby Glanternik remained completely motionless as the pianist played Cage’s “non score”. In response, The Dance Observer critic Louis Horst published a blank review that stated only the location and date of Taylor’s performance as a review. [I found another source that asserted that the non-review of the non-music/non-dance piece was by the then New York Times dance critic; maybe it so reviewed twice.]

Had I seen such early pieces, I might not have returned. But Taylor’s subsequent choreographic career followed a trajectory similar to that of several other minimalist choreographers who, for whatever reason, outgrew the orthodoxy.

Maria Ambrose and Devon Louis in Paul Taylor’s “Duet”
Photo by Steven Pisano

In 1964, Taylor created a “new” piece titled Duet that appears to be unrelated to the earlier piece except for the fact that it’s a duet – although I can’t be certain. To my eye, it was a relatively weak duet (performed here by Maria Ambrose and Devon Louis); perhaps, I thought, an early effort, that was relatively flat in visual expression but nevertheless far more than not moving at all. Choreographed to Hayden, the dance illustrates some elementary mutual dependency and interest, and a sense of moving together toward some unknown future – with a concluding image that echoes the dance’s opening image. Not terrible, but not much.

I might have thought differently had I recalled that Aureole had been created two years earlier. One could hardly assert that this Duet was an evolutionary progression from Aureole. The differences between them, at least on a visual level, couldn’t be more evident – and presaged the differences, rather than evolutionary tendencies, in Taylor’s later works.

Maria Ambrose and Devon Louis in Paul Taylor’s “Duet”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Taylor created Private Domain in 1969, one year after his creation of a piece titled Public Domain. I’ve found nothing (yet)  that describes any “compare and contrast” potential beyond the dances’ titles, which could simply have been Taylor’s poking fun at audiences or overthinking critics who make connections between dances when there aren’t any real connections to be make.

Even though I scratched my head through much of it, overall I found Private Domain to be another entertaining and very interesting Taylor concoction. Here the relationship between the dance’s title and the piece itself is evident – that is, what’s happening in private, private thoughts or acts (particularly as they may relate to sexual stimuli), are the ostensible subject – but, in typical Taylor fashion, choreographing a “private domain” converts “private” into something necessarily “public.”

(l-r) Kenny Corrigan, Madelyn Ho,
and Paul Taylor Dance Company in “Private Domain”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Be that as it may, Taylor sets up the “privacy” with staging that separates the stage into essentially three viewing components, divided by curtain separators (like wings, moved to the front of the stage) that based on my viewpoint looked like pillars. One result of this is that audiences see different views depending on their viewing positions, but I don’t think that this was the purpose for the divisions. Rather, I think they simply emphasize the semi-privacy of what happens beyond them – partial views depending on audience positioning is nothing unique to Private Domain. In any event, the “privacy” of the private domain is intentionally violated at the dance’s conclusion when all the dancers appear viewable between the “pillars,” and one dancer is shown to act out his “private thought” in full view.

From the outset, one knows the subject matter of the piece. While part of the reason for that is that dance’s title, there also are the costumes (by Alex Katz, who also designed the set). The cast of eight dancers (five women; three men) are, almost, as exposed as they can be. The women wear bikinis (itsy bitsy teeny weeny tops and very tight-fitting short shorts), and the men wear boxer-like shorts and are shirtless. While the outfits don’t quite reach the level of looking like paper-thin underwear, they still leave bodies exposed. And I may be completely wrong about this (once or twice a decade it happens), but the dancers looked somewhat embarrassed by having so much bare skin exposed. [In fact, during the curtain bows at the dance’s conclusion, most seemed almost giddy, as if they’d survived the silliness with costumes intact.]

Lisa Borres and Shawn Lesniak
in Paul Taylor’s “Private Domain”
Photo by Ron Thiele

The dance itself presents the dancers displaying various images, through movement or attitude (or, mostly, both) of sensuality – at least the expression of sensual thoughts. Bodies connect with other bodies, or exhibit sensual positions as if they were animals exhibiting themselves to entice a mate. But Taylor never goes beyond that – there’s nothing (at least nothing I saw) that would be described as salacious or unnecessarily sexual. These are thoughts, not (until the end) acts.

Lisa Borres and John Harnage
in Paul Taylor’s “Private Domain”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Private Domain proved to be an entertaining way to open the program. And the eight Taylor dancers (Eran Bugge, Madelyn Ho, John Harnage, Ambrose, Lisa Borres, Jada Pearman, Shawn Lesniak, and Kenny Corrigan) did their typical fine work with it, notwithstanding those costumes that revealed body issues that became part of a different “private domain” that, too, became public: thinner or thicker than expected legs, perfectly-articulated muscles or none at all, or surprising (albeit irrelevant) fat pads.

Following Duet, the program moved on to Big Bertha.

Although I didn’t understand the purpose or reason behind Big Bertha when I first saw it, by this second view – some fifty years apart – I’d long since recognized that a purpose or reason isn’t really necessary. Big Bertha tells a story; a horror story to be sure, but still a story. In a story ballet/dance, that story is either told well or not. Big Bertha is told all too well. To me, Big Bertha bears greatest resemblance to a 1963 ballet: Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson (1963), which in turn was based on a play be Ionesco. While Flindt’s creepy piece is about a homicidal teacher who murders his innocent dance student and there’s no such private teacher/student relationship in Big Bertha, the impact (except for the “state fair” set) is similar.

(l0r) Christina Lynch Markham, Lee Duveneck,
and Kristin Draucker in Paul Taylor’s “Big Bertha”
Photo by Ron Thiele

I don’t recall the “B-family” members in the production I previously saw, but I do remember Big Bertha. She was Bettie de Jong, Taylor’s right-hand woman even then (now she’s listed as a Company Rehearsal Director). de Jong was an overwhelmingly dominant evil force. Here, Christina Lynch Markham assumed the role. Hers was a superlative performance (though I don’t know with certainty, I assume she was coached by de Jong), stunningly evil though with (intentionally) limited physical motion; Beg Bertha is all “thud” and inescapable suggestion by arm/hand and head gestures (think “Death” in The Green Table combined with non-subtle Indian classical dance gestures). As much as she controlled the movement of the “B Family” in front of her, she was in control of this production.

The story tells of a carnival or “state fair” type of venue in which Big Bertha is one of the attractions. As the curtain opens, if one happens to look quickly enough, one can see a group of three “bodies” sprawled on the stage floor. This vision quickly disappears, and the dance proceeds with Big Bertha stomping a bit and attracting the attention of a family of three.

(l-r) Lee Duveneck, Christina Lynch Markham, Eran Bugge,
and Kristin Draucker in Paul Taylor’s “Big Bertha”
Photo by Ron Thiele

Exacerbated by the score (music from the St. Louis Melody Museum collection of band machines – essentially, familiar state fair familiar music), the family has a Midwest, turn-of-the-century (the 20th Century) innocence; they’re all pleased as punch to have found this exhibit. To Big Bertha’s beat, the family daughter (“Miss B”), Eran Bugge, dances like a giddy young barely teen sweetly innocent young girl, happily losing herself to Big Bertha and the band music. She never stops moving (nor does the yellow prairie-skirt with black doggie embroidered on it), until she eventually tires. [Just when you start to think that maybe Bugge is too mature to be assigned this kind of role, she pulls this brilliant performance from some storehouse of juvenile energy.]

Next up is her father: Mr. B (Lee Duveneck). A “typical” naif/ country bumpkin out for a fun time with family with similar people from the heartland, he too, is overwhelmed by Big Bertha’s aura, eventually becoming controlled by her…and displaying considerable prurient interest in his daughter. Eventually, he picks Miss B up and carriers her away with her behind Big Bertha’s tent, with Miss B, seemingly equally excited, enticingly lifting and lowering her skirt as her father pulls her away to the nearby private domain. Duveneck is a convincing monster; his finest performance (that I’ve seen) to date.

(l-r_ Kristin Draucker and Christina Lynch Markham
in Paul Taylor’s “Big Bertha”
Photo by Ron Thiele

Then its Mrs B’s (Kristin Draucker) turn. Now alone with Big Bertha, she too dances to Big Bertha’s direction, and suddenly rips of her prim dress to reveal a flaming red “stripper”-like costume, and to dance with appropriate new-found abandon, until she too runs out of gas. Meanwhile, Mr. B runs out from behind Big Bertha’s tent as if he’d struck gold, carrying his daughter, who has lost the skirt and now is clad only in her undergarment, bloody and dead. Mr and Mrs. B. dance to their deaths, and are sprawled in front of Big Bertha’s tent much the way the three people on the dance’s opening view were sprawled.

Taylor’s choreography here, vile though the dance is, is crystalline. The dance is rich in its depravity the way, say, Aureole is rich in its exhilaration. But as fine as Taylor’s choreography (and, perversely, his vision) is here, it’s the performances that make this piece as indelible as it is. All four dancers delivered spectacular, memorable performances.

(l-r) John Harnage, Jada Pearman, and Jessica Ferretti
in Paul Taylor’s “Airs”
Photo by Danica Paulos

The evening concluded with the far more familiar Airs. Choreographed in 1978, Airs is one of Taylor’s most lyrical, balletic dances (it’s in the repertory of many ballet companies, including ABT, whose production was my initial exposure to it), and one of his best. Because it’s far more familiar, I won’t elaborate on it, other than to note the formidable performances by its seven dancers: Ho, Alex Clayton, Ambrose, Pearman, Jake Vincent, Jessica Ferretti, and Austin Kelly. Each was flat out outstanding, with the featured dancers (Ho and Clayton, Pearman and Kelly, and Ferretti), particularly outstanding.

I was prepared to recognize Airs as a natural inspiration for Esplanade – until I realized that Esplanade was choreographed before Airs. So much for evolution.

Judged by this program and with knowledge of the other one, this brief run of “Extreme” Taylor has been an invaluable showcase. I hope, in one form or another, that it gets repeated. For this MacArthur Genius, there were no limits.