by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal
After more than six decades as one of America’s most preeminent modern dance troupes, the Paul Taylor Dance Company finds itself in a moment of radical transition. Its masterful leader, Paul Taylor, died in August 2018 at the age of 88. Shortly before his death, Taylor named a veteran company dancer, Michael Novak, to be his successor as artistic director. In addition to this seismic shift at the top, six longtime dancers retired from the company in 2019 – and ten new dancers have been added to the troupe in just the last three years.
In its appearance at the Annenberg Center this past weekend (January 24-25, 2020), the Taylor group faced the question of how these profound changes would affect the company’s ongoing vitality as it begins this new leg in its journey. The well-balanced program featured two Taylor works from the 1980s as well one that premiered in the 90s. As they tore into the first of the evenings offerings, Syzygy (set to a score by Donald York and first performed in 1987), the company’s new generation emphatically announced that they are up to the task. Under Novak’s direction, the troupe delivered an eloquent and exuberant performance, signaling that the Taylor legacy will continue into the foreseeable future.
Against a backdrop suggesting a smear of cosmic dust, the Taylor dancers unleashed the kinetic energy of the universe in Syzygy (the scientific term describing the perfect alignment of the sun, moon and earth). The dancers were draped in shiny fabric – pants for the men and short rompers for the women – and bore a resemblance to high-energy space particles: shrugging their shoulders, gyrating their hips, and never fully stretching out their arms and legs. The movement was wondrously inventive; some of the men, for example, perambulated on all fours, tumbling from limb to limb. Small groups of dancers whirled across the stage, soloists leapt and twirled like streaking meteors, until, at last, an equilibrium was established – the final image was of a single figure, Madelyn Ho, rotating slowly on one foot.
The evenings second piece, Sunset (1983), showcased the company in one of Taylor’s most poetic works – at once understated and tragic. Six soldiers, dressed in khakis and red berets, encountered four young women in white dresses in a park-like setting. The interaction between the men and women was flirtatious at first, but before long the women departed and the men drew together, seemingly to steel themselves to fight in an upcoming war. The piece included a wistful section where the soldiers formed a line and one of the women, Eran Bugge, stepped up and down on their backs. Sunset was danced to two elegiac compositions by Edward Elgar, separated by an eerie recording of loon calls. The artist Alex Katz designed the costumes as well as the painted backdrop that suggested tree branches and leaves.
Piazzola Caldera (1997), a blend of modern dance and tango set to music by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburschky, closed out the program. In this seductive and kaleidoscopic piece, the curtain rose to reveal a cloud of smoke suspended over two separate groups: one composed of men in black trousers and the other of women in flowery dresses. The division between the sexes dissolved into a series of late-night encounters for a variety of duos, trios and quartets. Sometimes the dancers resembled matadors, torsos hunched over and arms scooped backwards. Piazzola Caldera wove together a tapestry of comings and goings, tight turns and cantilevered lifts, and, above all else, dizzying choreographic invention.
The lighting for all three pieces on the program was designed by the matchless Jennifer Tipton. Costumes and sets for Syzygy and Piazzola Caldera were created by Santo Loquasto. The Taylor company’s six seasoned dancers – Eran Bugge, Michael Apuzzo, Heather McGinley, George Smallwood, Christina Lynch Markham, and Madelyn Ho – were joined by more recent additions – Kristin Draucker, Lee Duveneck, Alex Clayton, Devon Louis, John Harnage, Maria Ambrose, Lisa Borres, Jada Pearman, Shawn Lesniak, and Adam Dickerson. The full ensemble displayed a cohesive maturity that rose above their recent personnel changes. Their mission, declared Novak in the program notes, is “to make sure modern dance remains a transformative force for good in our lives long into the future.”
***photo courtesy of Annenberg Center