Thursday, July 28, 2022

Great Dance, al Fresco

Paul Taylor Dance Company in Syzygy. Photo: Ron Thiele

Summers upstate offer many pleasures—ambient temps, foliage, farm markets, and culture. I took in two dance performances done in open-air, covered amphitheaters: Paul Taylor Dance Company at PS21 in Chatham, NY, and New York City Ballet at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY. As with any outdoor venues, weather can be a gamble, but for both events it cooperated.  

Madelyn Ho & Alex Clayton in Airs.
Photo: Ron Thiele
PTDC performed three classic Taylor dances: the uplifting, classical-feeling Airs, the brilliant feat of social commentary, Cloven Kingdom, and the kinetic lab of Syzygy. Often, a familiar slate like this is a chance to observe new dancers in old roles, and this held true in Chatham. Nearly the entire company has changed since pre-pandemic times, so seeing these works with new interpreters was like seeing them anew. This company, as established by Taylor, has always forefronted seniority—the dancers are still listed as such—and turnover was glacially slow for many years. Taylor's passing in 2018 combined with Covid seem to have conspired to catalyze many mid-career dancers' departures. It seemed a bit tragic while it was happening, but the company in its new guise looks strong and far more eclectic. PS21's stage is big enough to accommodate this repertory, and will host Vertigo (of Israel) in a fascinating work called One. One & One, as well as Mark Morris Dance Group in August, plus numerous performances of other genres.

Among the Taylor dancers, Madelyn Ho has emerged as a busy star, featuring prominently in all three dances. Also a doctor, Ho moves crisply and brightly, radiating far beyond her small frame. Devon Louis is also ubiquitous, with a strong bearing and lofty jump. Alex Clayton, also with impressive ballon, seems indispensable. And John Harnage has assumed a gravity to go along with his precision. Some newer faces include the lush Jada Pearman, energetic and ebullient Austin Kelly, and the newest dancer, Kenny Corrigan, a large, swift man, is a welcome bright presence.

Adrian Danchig
-Waring, Ashley Laracey, and Emilie Gerrity in Merce Cunningham’s 
Summerspace.Photo credit: Erin Baiano

SPAC sits a bit north and west. Its stage and vast house were built to Balanchine's specifications as a summer home for NYCB. The campus is vast, with several collonaded or wooden structures housing food vendors, exhibition spaces, etc. You can buy a less expensive lawn ticket and sit and try to watch from afar, although ballet is not exactly a symphony orchestra, requiring far more visual contact. The whole enterprise recalls a prosperous time when many resources were devoted to leisure and elite forms of culture. 

NYCB in Glass Pieces. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The company's run has shrunk to a short week, down from many weeks years ago. I saw a program with Balanchine's Chaconne, Summerspace by Merce Cunningham, and Glass Pieces by Jerome Robbins; another program featured A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not surprisingly, it's a completely different experience than watching in the climate-controlled Koch Theater. As the evening progresses, temperatures sink and breezes kick up. The open side walls permit views of the darkening sky, or impending rain, and you gain an awareness of the totality of the environment and the world beyond the theater. Still, the dance is the focus, and the company showed its stylistic flexibility in this mixed program, ranging from Chaconne's classical ballet with a jazzy flair, the austere modernism of Cunningham softened by Rauschenberg's stippled cyc and unitards, and the urban restlessness of Robbins' stage crossings inspired by Philip Glass' restlessly motivic composition.

Even though I've seen both companies in NYC many, many times over the years, seeing them in plein air settings, surrounded by different, appreciative audiences, energizes my perspective on them and makes me realize how lucky I've been to track their evolution. 

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