Eloquent and Exuberant: Paul Taylor Company Presses On

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

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you, Anonymous, for your comments. I agree that it’s crucial to look at historical works of art with a critical eye and to identify and discuss objectionable social issues. Unquestionably, our Western cultural as well as dance history has promoted a gender- and hetero-normative social construct. I believe that having a dialogue that promotes greater awareness is of paramount importance when examining our past and looking toward our future.

    It’s both heartening and fitting that many contemporary choreographers (even in the more tradition-bound genre of ballet) are both overtly and more subtly (or “holistically” as you say) addressing diversity and inclusivity in their work.

    In the spirit of dialogue, I’m curious to know what you mean by employing the term “predatory” to describe Taylor’s work? Also, I’m interested in better understanding in what sense you find his choreography to be “exploitative”?

    In my opinion, it’s important to avoid painting with too broad of a stroke when considering Taylor’s work. For example, I noticed that there were two same-sex couples featured in “Piazzola Caldera.” Also, “Sunset” included an intimate duet for two of the male soldiers. For mainstream work in the 1980s, this was fairly unusual.

    I can’t agree that Taylor’s choreography is “entirely without content.” On the program presented in Philadelphia, “Syzygy” and “Piazzola” were both abstract (i.e. non-narrative) works, but for me they spoke volumes in terms of movement invention and spatial design. I felt that “Sunset” was a moving and poetic (albeit somewhat old-fashioned) depiction of a sad parting between a group of women and men going off to war. I think there’s plenty of room for all of us to have differing aesthetic preferences as dance enthusiasts!

    • I greatly appreciate your thoughts and interest in dialogue! In response, I witnessed that the female presenting dancers were constantly in partnership and often manipulated by one or more of their male presenting counterparts. The dancers were beautiful movers, and in some ways it seemed that the beauty and technical excellence they each delivered was the emphasis of the work and the choreographic content did not quite measure up. Exploited may be a harsh word, but I was left feeling that the performers had more to offer than pretty lines and athleticism. (which are definite praiseworthy feats also!)

      Paul Taylor’s work is often described as innovative and for its time, I believe it was. However for work to continue to carry an “innovative” legacy, it must continue to evolve and ask new questions. In a historical display, there is without question room for older works (likely organized on the world views of their time), but I challenge presenters and curators to also emphasize art that is true and relevant to our current landscape. Perhaps it was not the choreography itself, but this combination of pieces that gave way to my unfulfilled desire to view something outside of the realm of tradition and moderate predictability.

      I agree and totally see that dance enthusiasts all have unique aesthetic preferences, and that diversity is so important to the bigger picture! In addition to how a dance looks, I hope to spend time processing how a dance feels or informs my imagination, and with this particular bill I did not find I had much to chew on.

      • Thanks for expanding on your comments. I think I understand your point of view better. You’ve given me plenty to think about!

  2. Are we not to address the outdated nature of this show’s bill? The predatory sexist binary that not only one but all three of these pieces overwhelming displayed? This choreography debuted in a time where it may have been more relevant to its audience, but as we progress into a more inclusive society, it seems a little unsettling to have such high praise for a show that was (yes incredibly performed and alive in its physicality but) entirely lacking in content. As a company that is so highly regarded and recognized for its excellence, one would hope they would utilize their resources to showcase dance in a more holistic and thoughtful way. As an audience member, I felt the dancers were severely type casted and limited by the roles they were given. Praise to the dancers themselves, and boo to the choreographic exploitation they were subject to.

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