Thursday, June 20, 2019

Taylor + OSL + Bach

Michael Trusnovec in all at once. Photo: Paula Lobo

Most of us don’t want to think about mortality, but let’s face it—we’re all human. Paul Taylor Dance Company is no doubt keenly aware of this now. It is moving forward under the plan structured while Taylor (who died last year) was alive—to showcase older classics by his peers, and to cultivate younger modern choreographers while keeping his substantial repertory vibrant, creating a kind of continuing dialogue and context for the importance of Taylor’s work. This larger project is called Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.

There’s another twist this year—the rescheduling of the main PTAMD season to Oct/Nov at the Koch, and the addition of three, all-Bach spring programs with Orchestra of St. Luke’s in the 2019 OSL Bach Festival, performed at the uptown Manhattan School of Music. (OSL performs music concerts at other venues.) Add to the mix the long-dreaded retirement of the peerless Michael Trusnovec after the OSL season, plus the exit of Parisa Khobdeh, Michelle Fleet, Sean Mahoney, Laura Halzack, and Jamie Rae Walker after the fall PTAMD season, and it’s a tectonic shift in a company that reveres tradition and longevity. Until the PTAMD project began in 2015, the troupe relied on strict programming formulas for its long season—up to 20 dances by Taylor, with three to a program; the dancers listed by tenure.

The Neidorff-Karpati Hall at the MSM may compare in size to some of the regional theaters in which the company performs, but it’s a far cry from the Koch, or even its predecessor, City Center, where actually Taylor’s work seems to fit best, stage-wise. But kudos to new Artistic Director Michael Novak and his team for adapting even the most trafficky and jam-packed dance, Promethean Fire, onto the diminutive MSM stage. It’s a testament to the company’s professionalism to maintain the emotional profundity, if not all the mystery, of Promethean at such close proximity. This protean work closed the first of three slates, which opened with Junction (1961), an exercise in sculptural stasis, wit, and visual punch, with Lego color-blocked leotards by Alex Katz. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the accompanying solo cello (excerpts of Bach’s solo cello suite), played by Myron Lutzke, sounded out of tune and muffled. It didn’t feel representative of the quality one expects from a featured soloist in a professional orchestra in New York, and which was otherwise delivered.

Pam Tanowitz’s premiere commission, all at once, was sandwiched in between. If Taylor’s plotless, abstract works compare to Bach’s musical forms that accompany the dances in this festival—fugue, toccata, chorale, concerto—then Tanowitz’s feel more along the lines of experimental poetry, with fragments of phrases floating freely, bumping up against other fragments, and echoing later on. Tanowitz, who has received a proliferation of commissions by numerous companies of late, tuned into Taylor’s vocabulary, quoting it respectfully and sparingly. Oh, the palm-forward arms from Musical Offering, performed deftly by Trusnovec, who dances the original on another OSL program! And the thrusting straight arms from Esplanade! Plus other movement evocations that pop up on occasion. It brings to mind what many artists have done in Martha Graham Company commissions—acknowledge the debt, and carry it forward. Costumers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, frequent collaborators with Tanowitz, designed the unisex sheer jumpsuits over pastel hued leotards.

Rewilding. Photo: Whitney Browne
The other PTDC premiere in the OSL festival, Rewilding by Margie Gillis, ponders the valuable notion that we need to reconnect with nature. The 16 dancers stand still, spread across the stage, until one begins to move, with all joining in, building in dynamic and range, like statues come to life. Gillis, known for her solo performances, has a fluid movement style, which after being sustained for awhile feels slightly forced. Santo Loquasto’s costumes, different for each dancer, resembled togas and genie pants, with elastic bandeaux tops (even for men) in burnished warm tones. Walker is given a long solo which displays her lucid lines and grounded humanity. Trusnovec initiates the first movement, and dances a substantial solo section. He wears one of the more flattering costumes in a shade of butter (actually, his costume in all at once is also butter yellow!), and with his retirement foremost in mind, I could only think of him as the sun around which all other dancers revolved, fading into the mist. (I doubt the thrust of PTAMD was to point up the choreographic skill of Taylor himself, but the new commissions can function that way.)

The Tanowitz was preceded by Brandenburgs, a well-made, solid study in formalism notable for its cast of three women and five men, and the unique recombinants therein. Again, Trusnovec performed the central romantic male role, who moves alone and with the women, and less so with the other men, who move faster and more forcefully. Surely other men will step into these leads which will be vacated by Trusnovec, but it’s hard to imagine. This bill ended with Cascade, a less-seen Taylor dance from 1999, with highly embellished chestnut, maroon, and gold costumes by Loquasto. Its tempo varies, but there are indulgent, super slow sections that evoke a peaceful state of mind—in particular, a romantic duet for Trusnovec and Heather McGinley in which they seem to hover over the floor, basking in each other’s auras. They have been less frequent partners, so it was truly gratifying to see this heart-melting duet.

The third program featured Musical Offering (1986), a bounty of metronomic rocking and precise flat-facing poses and formations. The dance is even more musically illustrative than many of Taylor’s works, whose dynamics and pacing often mirror that of the music. Esplanade (1975) completed this rare program comprising just two dances. Eran Bugge performed the featured female role, running and skipping gleefully around the other dancers. The dance has attained such iconic status, at least for me, that when I hear the Bach concertos, I can readily picture the steps—they are inseparable. Other than the solo cello suites, OSL sounded crisp and lively, as they have for numerous seasons as the orchestra accompanying PTAMD's long runs.

Regarding the sea change of company members, there’s no ideal time to have a mass exodus, but now makes sense. Of course the dancers retiring are getting older, and no doubt are coping with a laundry list of ailments, but they no longer have the opportunity of working in the studio as Taylor choreographs on them—an irreplaceable and cherished experience. Certain dancers will take on more prominent roles; I can picture McGinley assuming many of Halzack's, and Bugge, Khobdeh's. We’re already seeing talented new and recently added faces, such as Madelyn Ho, Lee Duveneck, Devon Louis, and John Harnage. We will embrace their gifts and watch as they grow, along with the repertory—just without any new Taylor rep, nor six dancers as familiar as old, extremely talented friends.

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