Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cunningham Treasures Restaged at BAC

Silas Riener in Changeling. Photo: Stephanie Berger
One of the most fascinating and vexing recurring topics in dance is that of legacy. We have watched as various companies and choreographers have grappled with the same question: when the creator is gone, how, or even should, the work live on? And as many of our generation's finest continue to age (how dare they!), the issue will only grow in prominence.

The cruelest cut is to stop performing the work, with some exceptions. This is essentially the path that the Merce Cunningham Trust has followed with Cunningham's oeuvre, dissolving the company after a grand last hurrah tour whose rich repertory and celebratory mode made the works' sudden absence all the more acutely felt. The last denizens of that troupe of course pop up periodically in their own projects, or in other companies, wielding their Cunningham technique like a superpower (incredibly strong feet and balance, a rock solid core and control of the limbs that radiate from it, a lack of self-consciousness, etc.). Some dances are performed by other companies, who enlist an authorized re-stager's help, but it will never be the same as his native dancers doing it.

A recent event at Baryshnikov Arts Center focused on a film from 1958 of three short Cunningham dances. The film was made by a German TV company, which archived it in a canister marked simply, "BALLETT." (Hear Marina Harss talk about it on WNYC.) It apparently took some persuasion to make the staff keep searching for the film when at first it couldn't be found. The black and white footage shows a spritely, riveting Cunningham in the solo Changeling, plus the duets Suite for Two and Springweather and People. The latter had been performed in repertory, but the first two dances had not been seen in many years.

Benny Olk and Vanessa Knouse. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The Trust, led by Patricia Lent, reconstructed those two dances, which were performed after a screening of the film at BAC. To our great fortune, Cunningham dancer Silas Riener took on Changeling; he wore a red facsimile of the original tattered green costume designed by Robert Rauschenberg. Riener seemed to blossom extraordinarily in a solo as part of Split Sides, performed at BAM in 2011 in Cunningham's Legacy Tour, and has since remained a standard-bearer of the technique, finding the elusive balance of fire and technique.

We see both of those qualities in Changeling, as Riener strikes a pose, his gaze burning past the theater's walls, and explodes into another one, twisting his body at angles that defy human mechanics. In the film, Cunningham's elfin features evoke a supernatural being, with piercing eyes and a compact, sinewy body. The opportunity to compare these two renditions side-by-side is one to treasure.

Benny Olk and Vanessa Knouse perfomed the duet, full of Cunningham's experimentation and daring. The muscular Olk, with a raptor's focus, sported blue leotards, the top with Merce's signature pointed collar, and the lithe Knouse, a mustard unitard. And as gratifying as it is to see the final company members in performance, seeing these two talented dancers for the first time added a poignancy, knowing very few others will be performing in special events such as this. When they occur, pounce.

Monday, May 9, 2016

NYCB's Gala—More Dance Than Fashion

American Rhapsody. Photo: Paul Kolnik
In recent years, New York City Ballet's galas have often revolved around fashion, with big-name designers creating costumes that seemed to lead the ballet premieres by the nose. This week that changed a bit, reverting back to a focus on the choreography and dancers. The major premiere is Chris Wheeldon's American Rhapsody, a cousin of his huge Broadway success, An American in Paris. Both star Robbie Fairchild, whose return to the Koch stage is welcome news. The second premiere is Mothership, by Nicholas Blanc.

Preceding the curtain rising on American Rhapsody, the finale of the May 4th gala program, Wheeldon ascended on the massive orchestra elevator alongside guest conductor Rob Fisher, with whom he worked on Broadway, and the orchestra, of course. They proceeded to engage in a modified lecture-demo, akin to NYCB's "See the Music" series, discussing Gershwin's familiar musical lines and how Wheeldon thought about them in terms of movement. While informative, it perhaps tested the patience of the gown and tux clad audience. Finally, the orchestra descended and the haunting opening clarinet line rose, which Wheeldon described as a grin spreading across one's face, revealing Leslie Sardinias' sea urchinesque painted backdrop, and a group of dancers slouched over. 

That affect—a Bob Fosse loucheness—popped up now and again in Wheeldon's mostly balletic romance featuring Fairchild and wife Tiler Peck, with Amar Ramasar and Unity Phelan as the second primary pair. Limp paw hands and knocking and swiveling knees were jazzy notes among the classical phrases. NYCB ex-principal Janie Taylor designed the costumes in gemstone colors. The women wear fitted asymmetrical jackets over pleated pink skirts that were oddly unflattering, the men in similarly cut tunics. The lead couple wears bright green, which, while helpful in spotting them dashing through the corps in blue, is not the most flattering shade.

Comparing the dance to the Broadway show by the same team is perhaps unfair, but a short film spotlighting American in Paris which preceded the live segments pretty much forced the issue. The long dream ballet in the Broadway show succeeds in part because it's surrounded by song and dance razzmatazz. Essentially a pulled-out long ballet, American Rhapsody feels weaker as it isn't contrasted as such. 

Christopher Grant and Alston Macgill in Mothership. Photo: Paul Kolnik
And there's no doubt Fairchild is a leading man capable of charming the broader public;  he and American in Paris costar Leanne Cope had a smoldering chemistry that stemmed from her mystery and reluctance. But with Peck, there's little mystery, if a genuine affection and naturalism. There isn't really any doubt they'll wind up together (I mean, their costumes are the only green ones!) so there's little tension. In other pairings, Fairchild and Ramasar have wonderful stage chemistry; Ramasar would be a natural on Broadway as well, and he and Phelan dance with verve and swoop. Despite some of these minor quibbles, the dance is entertaining and rousing and far more rewarding gala fare than some of the costume-driven spectacles of recent years.

Nicolas Blanc's Mothership came about from his stint at the New York Choreographic Institute, which is affiliated with NYCB. The title is taken from the musical composition, by Mason Bates, in residence at the Kennedy Center. Its claim to fame seems to be that it was originally performed by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (did you know this exists?) and has gotten 2 million views. Its swelling lines recall what might accompany an Olympics highlight reel, and it propels the dancing by four pairs, all corps or apprentices. There are some unique moves that distinguish the classically-rooted vocabulary—a side step on point alternates with one on a flat foot, a man manipulates a woman's développé—but not much to distinguish it from numerous other dances. 

The program led off with Ratmansky's Concert DSCH, which remains packed with delightful flourishes and movement surprises. Anthony Huxley, sprightly and more expansive than ever, partners with Brittany Pollack and Gonzalo Garcia (at his best in this role) in the buoyant allegro trio. Sara Mearns assumes the role originated by Wendy Whelan, paired with the ever-smooth, strong, and debonair Tyler Angle. Ratmansky's flair for creating small dramas within the onstage communities he builds remains one of his strengths as his choreographic output increases and broadens over many major companies.

The opening section of the gala program was a video tribute to NYCB board chair Jay Fishman, whose company, Travelers, received a nod when a red umbrella opened at the end of an excerpt from Jerome Robbins' The Concert. It was no doubt appreciated by the ailing Fishman, even if it was the dubious intrusion of the corporate realm into the artistic. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Highlights from Disguise at the Brooklyn Museum

Gola Helmet Mask with Raffia Costume,
20th c. Gift of William C. Siegmann
Masks are associated with ancient rituals, frequently of passage or transformation. The images conjured by the word are often carved wooden pieces of African origination. Now at the Brooklyn Museum in Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, many fine examples of these old world artifacts (or at least traditional in style, as many are from the 20th century) are on view, alongside contemporary renditions of masks, whether literal or more figurative. It's a stirring juxtaposition and a showcase for some intriguing young artists, many based in Brooklyn.   

Pieces from Liberia, Nigeria, and Cameroon exemplify the traditional type using materials organic to the geography, such as wood, straw, and leather. They can evoke animals, and are often meant to be fierce, intended to veil or erase one's identity. 

The works by current artists play on the varied themes and functions presented by masks, adapting them with an eye to contemporary issues of identity and security. Many of the artists have moved to New York from African countries.    

Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008, printed 2015
Photograph sheet: 35 3/4 x 36 in. (90.8 x 91.4 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Among the most compelling is Nandipha Mntambo, who focuses on bullfighting. She transforms herself into not only a toreador, photographed in costume, waving a red cape in a bullring, but also an intimidating bull with horns. In another fascinating work, she takes a cowhide and shapes it into a relief of a woman's backside, bridging abstraction and representation.
Walter Oltmann, Razor Brush Disguise, 2014, aluminum wire
Walter Oltmann of South Africa creates bristling body suits of razor wire and metal spokes, like modern versions of suits of armor. While obviously threatening, they manage to be endearing, in the way of a hedgehog.

Brendan Fernandes, From Hiz Hands, 2010, neon, glass.
Brendan Fernandes makes masks out of modern materials such as neon tubing and plastic, and sets them upon underlying, shadowy text, or, engrossingly (and disorientingly), on decoys of deer. He raises questions about the human need for disguise, and how it often is enacted for psychological reasons, rather than simply for the basic need to survive. In As One, he filmed ballet dancers posing in relation to African masks, juxtaposing symbols of divergent traditions.

Brendan Fernandes, Neo-Primitivism II, 2007—14, plastic masks, deer decoys, vinyl. Photo: Susan Yung
Zina Saro-Wiwa's photographs are striking because they show a woman in contemporary fashionable dress grappling with a giant mask/headdress, paralleling how descendants deal with the acts and histories of their predecessors. She also elicits questions about feminism, as traditionally predominantly men participate in rituals with large and heavy masks. 

Zina Saro-Wiwa, The Invisible Man: The Weight of Absence, 2015
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art , which originated at the Seattle Art Museum, is on view through September 18. Also in the lobby is an installation by Tom Sachs of his Boomboxes over the years, constructed of found or repurposed objects.  

Photos courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum unless noted.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Dorrance Dance in ETM: Double Down

Demi Remick, Caleb Teicher and Warren Craft. Photo: Jamie Kraus
Forgive me, tap purists, but I often find tap dance performances like homework. Sure, I can appreciate the intricate rhythms made by the feet, but the shows can veer from outright show-biz to introverted, or to contained throw-downs between two dancers onstage. So along comes Michelle Dorrance and her skilled troupe of hoofers, with collaborator Nicholas Van Young, whose ETM—electronic tap music—helps craft a fully integrated, entertaining program of varied dynamics and segments, called ETM: Double Down, at the Joyce through this weekend.

Michelle Dorrance. Photo: Christopher Duggan
ETM refers to a set of primitive looking foot-square platforms connected by cables—like a giant octopus that morphs around the stage, its tentacles shifting so as to hang onto its prey. The dancers pick up the devices and move them, and then trigger their programmed sounds with their toes, as if hitting a piano key. (The motion reminds me of Tom Hanks in Big!, when he goes bonkers on the giant piano keyboard.) The emitted sounds evoke the xylophone, bells, chimes, piano, and are supplemented by an onstage band on drums, standing and electric bass, keyboard, and in the second half, soulful vocals by Aaron Marcellus.

Each segment varies in dynamics, so there are plenty of quiet moments mixed in with the more physical tap numbers. Dorrance's diverse and multi-skilled company includes Nicholas Van Young, Byron Tittle, Caleb Teicher, Leonardo Sandoval, Warren Craft, Elizabeth Burke, and Ephrat Asherlie (who performs b-moves in sneakers). They frequently work together incredibly intricately—at moments, each dancer plays one note in a musical phrase. A number featured larger platforms with metal grids on one side, against which the dancers scraped their shoe plates for a unique sound. Dropped link chains added a cascading thudding sound.

Dorrance's stage invention emerges in the way she situates or works a group of dancers around a soloist—in a traveling semicircle, with the chorus' backs to the featured dancer, or upstage on varied-level platforms, mingling with the band members. Her personal tap style is focused, her body somewhat contracted, with exaggerated knee lifts to precisely place each tap. Each of her company members has her/his own flair, but they work seamlessly as a team to realize some fascinating ideas that expand the art of tap.   

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Anything but Empty Moves

Photo: Jean-Claude Carbonne
If you stripped away the soundtrack for Angelin Preljocaj's Empty Moves Parts I, II & III—John Cage's Empty Words—it would still be constitute an immensely gratifying experience. The movement that the French choreographer created for this 1:45 work is jammed full of modern dance invention and exploration into the possibilities of the human body times four. It was performed at the Joyce by Nuriya Magimova, Baptiste Coissieu, Yurié Tsugawa, and Fabrizio Clemente (the latter two performed parts I & II at BAM in 2010), to a recording of Cage's 1977 Milan performance, at which the audience members at his 1977 reading essentially staged a revolt while Cage serenely reads his deconstruction of Thoreau's text. They shouted, clapped, stamped, and howled in protest.

Preljocaj's choreography is only nominally linked to the Cage score, most notably in part III when some of the dancers' rhythms mirror the riotous clapping. For most of the work, there's great tension between the movement onstage and the mental action summoned by the aural anarchy. The impact of the sound is so mentally powerful, however, that many Joyce viewers were compelled to walk out, despite the rewarding dance taking place. Or perhaps they were expecting to see ballet.
Photo: Jean-Claude Carbonne

That said, the choreographer often works in the classical ballet lexicon, and many of the works seen in New York, particularly at BAM, tend to have elaborate sets and are composed of many sections which vary in narrative and dynamic. Empty Moves departs from what I have seen of Preljocaj's work, to the extent that it seems that quite another person created it. It feels rooted in the structure and approach of Merce Cunningham, with whom Preljocaj studied, further underscored by the use of a score by Cage, Cunningham's life partner. 

The several measures of movement that form the opening section act as a kind of reset button between parts, augmented from the second repeat on with a bottle of much deserved water passed among the dancers. But for the most part, the movement does not repeat, nor is it of a common canon. It is made on specific bodies so closely interlinked and dependent that after a time they seem to move as one large organism. Experiments with cause and effect, gravity, and geometry are endlessly explored. An occasional emotional reaction or humorous gesture warms the proceedings, which can come across as nearly scientific in their procedural pace and exhaustive depth.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance — A Platform Tilts

Michael Trusnovec and Parisa Khobdeh in Polaris. Photo: Paul B. Goode
What Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance is attempting to do—recognize gems of modern dance and commissioning new work, while staging a regular season of Taylor's dances—is still in its infancy, but this season, some strong threads emerged, at times interweaving the performed works. A nod to Martha Graham came with the Taylor dancers performing her Diversion of Angels, and essential modern vocabulary evoking her style (for which Taylor was a paradigm) popped up in rep. And the new external commissions nodded at Taylor's influence, particularly by the classic Esplanade, which was performed as well. 

It bears repeating—PTAMD's annual three-week New York season remains one of the perennial protean feats of dance. The dancers are heroic—obviously in a physical sense, performing 20 dances—but mentally, keeping all that repertory fresh and at the ready. In the city, even the country or world, perhaps only New York City Ballet and ABT can compare, breadth-wise. But those are much larger troupes, dozens and dozens of dancers, rather than a spare 16. The Orchestra of St. Lukes provided vibrant live music for much of the repertory, under the direction of Donald York, a longtime company collaborator. 

PTAMD's 2016 three-week Koch Theater season added for the company the twists of two external choreographer premieres, plus two Taylor premieres and the performance of a Graham dance. (Dayton Contemporary Dance Company also performed Donald McKayle's Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder from 1959.) Because the Elkins used vocabulary new to the company, there was most likely not enough time for the dancers to become fluent in the quirky style, which derives directly from his body. Keigwin's Rush Hour was ultimately in a more polished state, simply because Larry's style is more forgiving. This also has been demonstrated, with great success, in his dances for crowds, including non-dancers. As for the Elkins, my hope is that if—when—The Weight of Smoke is performed again by PTAMD, then Doug will spend time with the dancers in workshops and rehearsals to immerse them in his brand of movement.

Spindrift, featuring Michael Trusnovec (with a cast from a previous season, including
Michelle Fleet, Annmaria Mazzini and Rob Kleinendorst). Photo: Paul B. Goode
Casts for Esplanade (1975) rotated within a season for the first time in memory, keeping it fresh and giving repeat viewers some added interest. George Smallwood hops with smart snap; Rob Kleinendorst takes over the spot that Michael Trusnovec has been dancing for several years, which includes a duet with the ever silky Eran Bugge in which she walks on his stomach and legs. In this season, as noted, it takes on great prominence as a source work for the external commissions, as both Keigwin and Elkins have acknowledged its influence, which can be traced through their respective premieres.

Original costumes for Mercuric Tidings (1982) have returned—hot pink and white ombre instead of royal blue, giving the devilishly difficult dance a warmer and lighter feel. They don't change the crisp pace or crystalline structure, punctuated by artful tableaux. Polaris (1976) remains one of Taylor's most conceptually intriguing dances, with its movement repeated with different music and lighting (music by York, reconceived this year; designs by Alex Katz). Is the movement in part two actually more aggressive, or is it the music and the moodier lighting making it feel so? Questions of memory and perception abound, and the way in which dancers replace one another one-by-one feels like a parable of the slowly-phasing makeup of the company.

Spindrift (1993) parallels Beloved Renegade (2008) in that Trusnovec stars as an outsider—in this case, a stranger who perhaps washed ashore, speaking a different movement language than the natives. He crawls like a footless tadpole, wending between all of the dancers' legs. For this piece, Taylor struck a particularly inventive, quirky vein; for Trusnovec, repeated crossing of limbs and pivots on the knee, for the chorus, funny frog-like jumps and leaps. The movement generally evokes the animal world, replete with its naivete and sweet curiosity. In another precursor to Renegade, Laura Halzack breezes on and off periodically, a kind of spirit keeping watch over the interloper, who is eventually welcomed into the fold.

Madelyn Ho and Michael Apuzzo in Sullivaniana. Photo: Paul B. Goode
In a solo, Trusnovec does a slow pirouette and unfolds a leg with his torso tipped back, arms in a vee. It is reminiscent of Aureole, and of Martha Graham, whose Diversion of Angels the Taylor company performed this season. The Graham is a natural fit, and these dancers feel more relaxed than the Graham company, which seems to value tension as a tool. It's also the first instance of the Taylor company dancing a classic work not by Taylor, alongside the season's two premieres by working external choreographers. But many of Taylor's dancers could step right into the Graham Company and be fine. Khobdeh, in particular, is radiant in a red gown and long hair, but it's her dynamism and gutsy tilts that are so affecting. 

Taylor's second season premiere is Sullivaniana, a nostalgic theatrical piece set inside a lit proscenium (designs by Loquasto), indicating a show-within-a-show. The women wear brightly colored flouncy dresses and character shoes, the men gaudy three-piece plaid suits and bowlers. The first part features missed meetings and lonely singles; new company member Madelyn Ho looks beyond the stage for company. (This polished, petite dancer adds another twist to potential lift choreography; she is light enough for the company's strongman, Kleinendorst, to do a one-handed press with her.) Eventually dancers pair off, which quickly leads to an impromptu (if still decorous) orgy mid-stage, before things wind down as they began, with Ho alone. It speaks to a recurring theme in Taylor's repertory, of the restless beast lurking beneath social niceties. The music, by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and), comprises largely bright orchestral arrangements including some familiar, and less so, sections.

Rush Hour. Photo: Paul B. Goode
The second external commission is by Larry Keigwin, who is adept at moving large groups of people in organized, intricate ways. Rush Hour is no exception, in which all 16 dancers cross the stage with urgency, intersecting paths, spinning, and interacting with others. Running is a staple, echoing Esplanade. But the overall feel is urban modern, with gray and black leotards by Fritz Masten, and chiaroscuro, misty lighting by Clifton Taylor, to a filmic score by Adam Crystal. Unlike Elkins' quirky melange of steps, Keigwin's vocabulary is more straight forward, and looks more at ease on the Taylor dancers, who are sleek and cool in a way we've not seen before. Both of these dances also evoke a look and feel that Taylor would most likely not create, and in that sense, they work to complement the repertory. 

Profiles (1979) returned. It is unique—a quartet (Trusnovec, Halzack, Michael Novak, Bugge) that is shorter in length than most of the rep, and is thus paired in an act with a polar opposite, the vaudevillean Snow White (1985). Profile's two pairs appear heroic in the choreographer's "flat" style that resembles figures on a Greek urn. The movement is slow, deliberate, and muscular, with inhuman assisted springs by the woman to the man's shoulder and chest. Hands form fists until the final moment, when Halzack uncurls her fist and places her flat hand on Trusnovec's proferred palm. It's a heart-stopping gesture to close a quiet, powerful dance.

Trusnovec, always magnificent and stronger than ever, returned as the lead in Promethean Fire (2002), with Parisa Khobdeh. While some of the elegiac depth with which it was imbued at its premiere, shortly after 9/11, has faded with distance (as has, it should be said, our raw sensitivity to the massacre), it remains a profoundly moving work that contains a few gestural passages that remind us of its timestamp. In one, Kleinendorst hoists Bugge overhead, paralleling ascension, and in another, salvation, when Trusnovec rescues Khobdeh from a heap of bodies. This gesture takes on the specifics of a relationship, besides making a general statement of survival and rebirth. Another factor of the dance's power is the music, by JS Bach. It's seriousness and pomposity have made it fodder for satire. But paired with the velvet-clad, interweaving bodies of the dancers, and magnificent crescendos and quiet moments, it finds its match in gravitas and elegy.

Orbs. Photo: Paul B. Goode
The repertory included Orbs (1966), an oddity in form (a two-act dance) to music by Beethoven, whose first-act costumes (Alex Katz) resemble Star Trek uniforms plus suave pleated, butter-hued gowns for the women, and in act two, prim wedding garb. The dance wends its way through planetary seasons and earthly rituals, including a marriage, overseen by Sean Mahoney representing a double-faced Sun and a priest. Katz's elegant gold arc shifts positions throughout. As with so many of Taylor's dances, this feels hermetic—delineating a world of its own, with a community coming together and breaking apart.

All the major and minor shifts mean dimensional growth for the repertory and for the dancers. They handled these challenges with aplomb; one wonders how much more they could manage. Perhaps future seasons will furnish even more tests as the platform of PTAMD continues to define, and redefine, modern dance.   

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance week one premieres—Surface, and what lies beneath

Eran Bugge, Rob Kleinendorst, and Michelle Fleet in Dilly Dilly. Photo: Paul B. Goode
On its surface, one of Paul Taylor's New York season premieres, Dilly Dilly, seems to be a charming, nostalgic view of Western rites and social pleasures. All of the participants—in Stetsons, colored tops, and black daisy dukes (the gals) or jeans (the guys)—flirt and eye one another while square dancing, or playing innocently, imitating horses. A chorus might stand in a line, framing a central pair or solo before exiting, such as Rob Kleinendorst as he's harangued by one or more "Blue Tail Fly," as the song depicts—women rubbing their palms together like insect antennae. 

For such an outwardly cheerful dance, set to folk songs sung by Burl Ives, a lot of people wind up blotto. They are victims of what might be termed "domestic violence," lovers facing the consequences of embroiled emotions. T
o "Frankie and Johnny," the song title's characters pair up with others, leaving Johnny (Michael Trusnovec) plum dead.The hats and cowpoke posturing give subterfuge to fatal actions, resulting from the presence of passion and guns. It has echoes of current events—the recent takeover of federal land in Oregon, with its protagonists brandishing the requisite equipment plus a lot of martyr-like bluster and swagger, or random shootings that wouldn't have happened without the presence of a gun.

The dance is set before a vast painted backdrop by Santo Loquasto (who also designed the costumes) of angular, abstract shapes on a yellow background. It seems to have little to do with the rest of the dance's pieces, but the objects appear to hang ominously over the dancers, threatening to ruin a typical night of fun and fatality. (The title derives from "delightful.") The finale is a perfect cheerleader style pyramid, an example of one of the tableaux at which Taylor excels, and the presumed subject of the accompanying song, "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." The movement in Dilly is as much storytelling as dance, and it's simple, clear, and fresh. There's a quiet and spaciousness, even anomie, to the tone and look of the dance that add to its distinctly American feel. 

In Dilly, as in many of Taylor's "social dance" works (among them, Marathon Cadenzas, Piazzolla Caldera, Cloven Kingdom, even Big Bertha, to an extent), the premise of social dancing serves not only as movement source material and cultural context, but also as a structure for the more bestial behavior that simmers, then boils over the confines of accepted rituals, or just plain consumes them. 

Heather McGinley and Parisa Khobdeh in The Weight of Smoke. Photo: Paul B. Goode
There is that premiere (one of two new works by Taylor for this company this season), and then there is another brand altogether: The Weight of Smoke, by Doug Elkins, to Handel/beat mix by Justin Levine/Matt Stine that at moments recalled the music for Cloven Kingdom. It's the first commission by an outside choreographer set on the Taylor company. It's kind of a revolutionary idea, as this troupe has been so keenly devoted to one man's vision for more than 60 years, even as members come and go with time. Their bodies are instruments finely tuned to one key, so to see them stretch their legs is a bit shocking. Touches of hip-hop—rippling torsos, turtle spins—are sprinkled throughout. In the partnering section, the couples lock lips and proceed through several phrases that way; Heather McGinley and Parisa Khobdeh outlast the three other pairs. 

It's no surprise that Elkins refrained from using the more extreme hip-hop moves that he employs on his own company; these can be the most memorable moments of his dances, and so what's left feels less distinctive. The Taylor dancers could also use a bit more time finding the rubbery looseness, sometimes even awkwardness, that grounds his uncodified style. He mentioned in a talk about the commission earlier this year that he aimed to nod at the physicality, flat style, and partnering in Taylor's choreography. In the absence of a clear narrative, it is helpful to know this to give some mental shape to the dance while watching.

The stage didn't truly become electric until the very end, when three men vogued, moving downstage and anchored by Michael Novak. The dancers seemed to suddenly wield the power of their physicality in a different way—no holds barred, aiming to dazzle as if dancing at a club. It contrasted with the dance's more introspective earlier sections. Appropriately, it also seemed to pick up the social dance thread left dangling by Dilly Dilly.

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance continues through April 3 at the Koch Theater.