September 3 – 4, 2021
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Modernizing classics in dance is a tricky business. It’s done all the time with dance based on literature. Countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s texts exist—Romeo and Juliet set in an asylum, a police state, a convenience store, and so on, with variations told in classical or contemporary ballet, or West Side Story on stage and film. But it’s different with modern dances, which, forged by acclaim, become classics. Esplanade, Promethean Fire, and Aureole lead a list of such dances by Paul Taylor. With the basic structure—choreography, music, and usually costuming—sacred, the important variants are the dancers, who each imbue the roles with their own takes, and on the recombinants of repertory, now selected by Artistic Director Michael Novak.
The current iteration of Paul Taylor Dance Company prominently displayed the change in personnel, seen recently in the bijoux box of the Mahaiwe Theater. Flash back to the company’s last big season in fall 2019 at the Koch Theater, when the wholesale company turnover was already underway in the wake of Michael Trusnovec’s summer farewell during the Bach Festival at Manhattan School of Music. The remaining dancers are shockingly few, at least compared to previous decades, when the departure of one dancer a season (and arrival of a new one) was met with fanfare. The pandemic naturally accelerated the life cycle of this modern dance institution.
At the Mahaiwe, the company performed older works by Taylor, and eschewed the recently accumulated repertory from the American Modern Dance silo of the Paul Taylor Foundation since the maestro’s death—commissions by contemporary choreographers set on the Taylor company, and featured in recent Koch Theater seasons. In Aureole (1962), A Field of Grass (1993), and Brandenburgs (1988), there were new faces in nearly every role. Taylor’s signature solo in Aureole remains a rite of passage for the men; here Devon Louis performed it with ease in a plush, continuous flow of movement and solid balances. He has a refined sense of épaulement, angling his head in relation to his upper body with great skill. Madelyn Ho, by now one of the company’s veterans, has become a highlight, dancing with great vivacity and snap. Heather McGinley is always a joy to watch, elegant and fluid.
Alex Clayton performed the second male role, a bit faster paced and springier, requiring jumps from a grand plié. His energy had to be toned down for the featured role in A Field of Grass, the second dance. To songs by Harry Nilsson, this suite features a groovy, pot-smoking vibe, with ubiquitous denim (costumes by Santo Loquasto). Christina Lynch Markham, another tenured company member at this point, swung her hip-length hair to and fro, giving it its own featured solo. She has matured into letting the wild side of her personality loose, to great effect.
With its 1970s period and music-specific cues, Taylor adapted his standard vocabulary slightly (including some of his “Greek” angled poses) as when Clayton leaps not directly forward, but slightly open to the side of the leading leg, implying generosity. Each song’s lyrics led to vaguely referential movement motifs—cowering from the rain, floating like a spacewalker, or being friendly like a dog. The most memorable section came in “Here Comes the Daylight,” in which the cast, tap-stepping in a frenzied chorus line, sported mirrored shades while resisting the sun’s blazing rays after a night of indulgence.
Brandenburgs is one of the choreographer’s iconic abstract works to Bach, in which form and pattern rule. The Mahaiwe stage’s relatively smaller dimensions to the Koch’s, or even City Center’s stage, curtailed the velocity of some cross-stage passages, to the work’s detriment. (Louis, with his high, sailing jumps, had to put it in reverse gear at the end of his jetés.) Five men in dark green, who occupy the stage for spans with bold, up-tempo athletic steps, supply the bassline throughout Brandenburgs. Three women (Ho, Maria Ambrose, and Jada Pearman) and one featured man (John Harnage) wend and mix in more serene and poetic moments. Harnage brought crispness, elegance, and refinement, adding an electric ripple up the spine or a flair of the hand. At times, he stood to the side to watch the activity (a recurring element in Taylor’s oeuvre), or danced with the women, taking turns partnering each, until joining the group in the finale to create a picture-perfect tableau.
While it was heartening to see Paul Taylor Dance Company in a standard-length show and indoor venue (with vax checks, distanced seating, masks), this two-performance engagement of one slate is a far cry from the troupe’s usual big New York season, often comprising 20 dances over three weeks, with live music in recent years. (Here, it was recorded.) The performance program also stood in contrast to recent shorter runs of thematic repertory (Bach Festival at Manhattan School of Music, more experimental dances at the Joyce), which served as forays into honed artistic goals.
As with every arts organization the world over, COVID blindsided this stalwart troupe. But what shape will the Taylor company’s performance future take? It has always been without peer for its ambitions and achievements compared to similarly sized companies. Its commissioning program in recent years, supporting younger modern dancemakers, has added a dimension to its mission as a showcase of American modern dance. The company is significantly more diverse now. But in a changed landscape, is a return to the former model viable, or even possible? Is this the time to reframe the programming in favor of a more streamlined version? Perhaps it is opportunity knocking in a dark time, or if not, a chance to reassert the logic of its traditional structure.