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. 

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