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.   

No comments: