Paul Taylor Dance
Photo courtesy of Penn Live Arts

Bach, Sacre & Taylor made shade

The Paul Taylor Dance Company returned to the Penn Live Arts Zellerbach stage, playing to a packed house on opening night, April 21, for the first of three performances. Paul Taylor died in 2018. Taylor’s chosen successor, Michael Novak, had been a dancer with the company for a decade. Under his direction, the company is in top form and continues to expand its repertoire, bringing in new choreographers and programming revivals from Taylor’s canon of ballets.

The concert opened with “Brandenburgs,” created in 1988 and scored to J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 6 and 3. From the first moment, the nine dancers bounded onstage in exultant jetes, and ensemble esprit, had enchanting esprit de corps. Many of the choreographer’s signature moves laced throughout ensemble configurations and laced with neoclassical balletics ignited by Bach’s baroque rhythms and counterpoints. The dancers were razor-sharp and supple through the quicksilver skippy steps, the arms raised in arcs or curved around the torso. By now, all of Taylor’s vintage ideas were still witty, joyous, and, with this roster of dancers, sustained their immediacy.

A central quatrain captivated the audience as danced by John Harnage, Eran Bugge, Madelyn Ho, and Maria Ambrose. Taylor, perhaps casting shade at George Balanchine’s ballet Apollo, made this dance less studied and more playful and flirtier. The choreographic invention still thrills, and this audience’s lusty sustained applause bespoke its timeless inventiveness.

Next, Omar Román De Jesús’ “If You Could Swallow the Sun,” scored to original music and soundscape by Jesse Scheinen, with sculptural lighting design by James Ingalls. The ensemble weaves in and out of a shape-shifting paper structure. At first, it strikes as a clever architectural maze by which to frame the dancers in various situations of human interaction and relationships forming or unraveling. De Jesús notes in the program the set is also meant to represent walls of oppression. To illustrate this, the dancers reconfigure the set at various key points.

Two fertile movement concepts, but the fragmented through-line gets lost, which could be the choreographer’s point. “As a Puertorriqueno choreographer… this work pays homage to adaptability and a search for liberation. How many seemingly insurmountable barriers are actually movable?” Austin Kelly emerges as the mysterious protagonist playing the field and captivates in his movement precision and erotic allure in sensual duets with Harnage and Jessica Ferretti. But the couples’ stories are brief flash dances with hints of connection, or not. Many of the duets fizzle with one of the partners sinking to the ground. De Jesus seems to be communicating a lot while keeping us guessing. The dancers slap their bodies and vocalize in the full ensemble sections as they move in rhythmic unison. This and other parts of “If You Could Swallow the Sun” are intriguing, especially with these dancers. It makes you want to see more of the choreographer’s work. Still, “If You Could Swallow the Sun” has the feel of a work in progress. Maybe that’s the point?

Many choreographers have attempted to adapt Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score “Le Sacre du Printemps,” and Taylor’s version from 1980, subtitled “(The Rehearsal),” is no exception. It is an inspired mash-up of Vaslav Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography, not only from “Sacre” but also including quotes from “L’Après-midi d’un faune” and “Jeux.”

The dancers in fleshy tights rehearse “Nijinsky’s feral movement to ‘Le Sacre'” while a campy 1940s era noir plays out backstage, featuring a kidnapped baby, a jewel heist, and other skullduggery. Taylor plays with all the lore; he vamps up the comedic physicality of Igor’s infamous ballet score, but there is no tampering with the music being performed live on two grand pianos by Peggy Kampmeier and Blair McMillen. Chunks of the score sound more brutal than orchestrated transcription.

Jada Pearman plays “The Girl,” while Madelyn Ho plays “The Stooge” and Devon Louis plays the jewel thief. Christina Lynch Markham is the rehearsal mistress, and Eran Bugge, Lisa Borres, and Jessica Ferretti are the Bar(re) dancers. Lee Duveneck, Alex Clayton, and Kelly switch off as both hitmen and cops.

The dancers rehearse “Le Sacre” in nude unitards, while the kidnappers mull around in campy gangster drag. The brutal Russian folktale of “Le Sacre,” which involves a community sacrifice of “The Chosen One,” a virgin ritual to save the Russian land, serves as an echoing backdrop. The flattened physicality of “Faun” is also incorporated, with bodies forming triangles as they move in a two-dimensional perspective.

As the music intensifies, laced with brutalizing leaps and imagery of captured bodies, the dancers lead up to the dual denouement of “Le Sacre” and the backstage comedic knife fights. Ho’s Stooge character gets the biggest laughs with her lurching step to note comedic timing, reminiscent of a vaudeville house. However, Pearman steals the show as “The Girl” with the ensemble in a frenzied animation of “The Rehearsal,” weaving in and out of the mayhem in her riveting tornadic dance of death. Both Vaslav and Igor would definitely approve.

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