Monday, November 18, 2019

Paul Taylor American Modern Dance—Full Steam Ahead

Rob Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney in Only the Lonely. Nina Wurtzel.
Paul Taylor Dance Company has been evolving since its founding in the 1950s, but it has likely never undergone an overhaul of dancers like it has over the past year. Without question, I missed the departees during the 2019 fall Koch season of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance (more leave soon)—most of all, Michael Trusnovec, who graced the stage just once in a guest appearance of Episodes at the gala performance (which, hearteningly, he’ll repeat a handful of times with NYCB during its spring season). For the first several of the season’s performances I watched, I could not help but remember how Trusnovec danced a certain role, and tried to not find the current dancers wanting, through no fault of theirs. It took some time, and no one can ever replace him.

But Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera, and even Beloved Renegade went on without him. In fact, I was free to watch with care all the new dancers, and appreciate the senior ones even more. The great news is that the company is in fine form, and under Michael Novak’s direction, its artistic mission has become even more relevant and rewarding. (Novak’s retirement from the stage received moderate fanfare; it was the first and last time I saw him dance the lead in Beloved Renegade, which he did quite movingly).

Rewind back to June 2019, when PTDC collaborated with Orchestra of St. Luke’s on a mini-Bach season at the Manhattan School of Music. By concentrating the focus on Taylor’s Bach-set dances then, it presumably freed up repertory slots in the fall season to accommodate some of Taylor’s more challenging, rarely-seen early dances. Pieces such as Dust, Post Meridian, Scudorama, and Private Domain were done, some rekindling Taylor’s relationship and influence by Martha Graham. Taylor’s less lyrical style emerged, emphasizing grotesque shapes and mysterious psychological dramas, as well as his wry humor. Of course, staple Taylor moves dotted these dances, but sparsely, at least compared to works such as Brandenburgs or Arden Court. And fast forward to the coming year, when PTDC will do a short run at the Joyce—a first?—of earlier, more conceptual works, which will be a fine education for audiences who only associate Taylor with pop icons such as Esplanade.

Scudorama. Photo: Paul B. Goode
The PTAMD commissions in the season included Pam Tanowitz’s all at once, seen in June—a fascinating study of kinetic fragments and formal experimentation, both in terms of movement pattern and the human body. Kyle Abraham’s Only the Lonely premiered on Oct 30 at the gala show, set to pop standards sung by Shirley Horn. Abraham resisted what must be a strong urge by outside choreographers to deploy the fully weaponized Taylor dancers—big leaps, athleticism, fast steps, big drama—of which they’re clearly capable. Instead, he went quiet, working in sultry social dance moves, and memorable solos and duets.

One solo featured Michelle Fleet, who traversed upstage, bared back to us, writhing her shoulders and arms in a mesmerizing study of isolations. Another was for newcomer (and great leaper) Devon Louis, whose material evoked super slow-mo African arm and torso steps. To shatter any air of standard romantic predictability, Lee Duveneck—the tallest man—wore a dress, heels and a wig (costumes by Karen Young). He flirted with two men, but when he was dipped into a backbend, his wig fell off, and he exited, embarrassed. But a moment later, he re-entered with renewed confidence in his new look. Dan Scully lit the dance—often in a dusky, reddish light associated with nightclubs. Nearing the finale, the ensemble stood, and all opened their feet into first position, evoking Balanchine’s Serenade. Only the Lonely joins The Runaway, Abraham’s commission for NYCB, as another fine work by him to stretch a renowned company’s comfort zone.

The new company members’ individual styles emerged over the course of the three-week season. Maria Ambrose has already proven to be an essential addition, dancing a long solo in the fascinating Scudorama, and the “pants” solo in Esplanade. With Heather McGinley, she will take on many of the more balletic, taller woman’s roles that are vacated by Laura Halzack’s departure. I can see John Harnage slipping into many of Trusnovec’s old roles, with his precision and delicacy a textural counter to Taylor’s earth-bound tendencies.

Dust. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Of the senior dancers, McGinley seemed to—at last—be in everything, showing her eloquent line, but also her fearless attack in Esplanade, in the no-holds-barred, run, slide, and crash role. Eran Bugge was also indispensable, imbuing her dancing with warmth and a deep plasticity. Madelyn Ho, given prominent roles including in Dust and Esplanade, continues to gain radiance and eloquence. That she is now an MD only adds to the intrigue of her part in Dust, in which she leads a group of blind dancers, only to become blind herself. Parisa Khobdeh appeared sparingly; her versatility as a romantic and funny lead will be missed with her departure. Also leaving is Sean Mahoney, who continued as a reliable grounded presence and sensitive partner, with leading roles in Aureole and Scudorama, among others. Joining those leaving are Jamie Rae Walker and Michelle Fleet.

Other season highlights were Trusnovec in Episodes, which Balanchine choreographed for Taylor in 1959 as a NYCB collaboration with the Graham Company, of which Taylor was a member. With its insect-like ambulations and fractured arm positions, it aligns surprisingly well with a certain animalesque genre within Taylor’s work. It also evoked a repertory model not unlike that of PTAMD—recognition of other contemporary choreography. Misty Copeland guested in Black Tuesday at the gala, in the featured solo in "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." She fit right in—in fact, the cloche she wore rendered her somewhat unrecognizable at first glance. In Company B, rather than the somewhat tired-sounding recording of the Andrews Sisters, the tunes were sung live onstage by vocal trio Duchess—a real treat.

Programs were dedicated to works by Donald McKayle and dances designed by Alex Katz, as well as a slate to pay tribute to Taylor’s breadth. These special one-offs, illustrious guests, live music by Orchestra of St. Luke's directed by Donald York, discounted and free tickets, and a freshened repertory are bright signs that somewhat offset the exodus of dancers. And there is still no other modern company that comes close to undertaking the ambition and scope of the annual PTAMD season, now in dance’s prime fall season, and now enhanced by focused mini seasons. Kudos to Novak and the company for keeping strong, and revivifying, the work of Taylor. 

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Forsythe and Denes Enliven the Shed

Jill Johnson and Brit Rodemund. Photo: Mohamed Sadek.
Clearly, choreographer William Forsythe meant it when he titled his Shed bill A Quiet Evening of Dance. So much so that he appeared before the show, acting as a kind of flight attendant, showing us how to turn our phones to airplane setting, and running through the four steps to silence an Apple Watch. Nothing said about the dance, just ensuring his ideal setting in which to watch it. (It also feels a bit like managing expectations, for whatever reason.) Unfortunately, the Griffin Theater—the traditional proscenium theater in the Shed—seems to abut a hallway in which someone wearing hard-soled shoes walked repeatedly, and faint music could be heard playing, a la Trisha Brown’s Foray Forêt.

The first act comprised a series of duets, solos, and trios, with only some birdsong and Morton Feldman to accompany it. Forsythe is adept at many different styles—from conceptually crunchy installation/performance works, to straight up (often breakneck) ballet, to the genre he brought to the Shed, a contemporized ballet peppered with street dance and other influences. There is indeed something velvety and quiet about this style—epitomized by Jill Johnson—with its basic vocabulary moving bonelessly between rigid posés and attitudes, and held poses to meter the flow. His influence is profound in modern ballet, right down to his frequently-copied use of thick socks instead of ballet slippers. Here he took it one step further, slipping colored socks over sneakers, and pairing them with matching long-sleeved gloves to spiff up simple t-shirts and pants.

Riley Watts. Photo: Mohamed Sadek

The second part, Seventeen/Twenty One, was accompanied by excerpts from Rameau’s 
Hippolyte et Aricie, lightening the fairly serious atmosphere of the first half and adding some social dance and ritual aspects. The dynamics increased, and with it the amplitude of movement, shifting toward more presentational. The street dancer Rauf “Rubberlegz” Yasit curled into bug shapes and bounced off the floor. Riley Watts seemed to most boldly express Forsythe’s extremely lifted ribcage and forward-thrusting sternum, seen in his signature posé—a tendued pointed foot, arms thrust at diagonals. This piece celebrated the grander aspects of Forsythe’s balletic-modern, while the first act seemed to be more of an analysis. Together, they were an intense dose of the real thing from which so many contemporary choreographers have drawn inspiration.

Agnes Denes. Model for a Forest in New York, commissioned by the Shed. Photo: Susan Yung
Two other floors of the Shed featured an extensive survey of artwork by Agnes Denes, best known for Wheatfield (1982), an environmental installation planted over the construction debris from the World Trade Center in what is now Battery Park City. Documentary photos recording the work double as memorias to the WTC, a sight that will forever haunt. Denes’ body of work has been overlooked, so this survey is a welcome treatment. Many projects utilize scientific models and practices, with an ecological thrust. Much of the work resembles architectural or engineering drafting. Several recent projects are included, including a proposal for Model for a Forest in New York, commissioned by the Shed. The proposed site is Edgemere landfill in Queens, where 120 acres of hardy, carbon-scrubbing trees would be planted. Is it one more in a slew of unrealized projects by Denes, or is the moment right for a dream to come true? After all, the Shed now exists after a long period of development, and acknowledges the oeuvre of Denes. Why not?