Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Competing with the Sun in Chatham

Mercuric Tidings. Photo: Steven Taylor

Being a choreographer is difficult. Carrying a choreographer's legacy is no easy task either, especially given that the company must remain relevant. 
In recent years, Paul Taylor Dance Company had been performing brief spring/summer runs in addition to its usual longer fall seasons at the Koch. The short series, at different outposts, had smartly focused on sub-genres—more experimental early Taylor work at the Joyce, or dances done to early or classical music at the Manhattan School of Music with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Last year, PTDC was one of several major New York companies comprising a mini-festival at New York City Center. This year, it seems that the company has foregone a short New York run, instead touring. It returned to Chatham’s elegant, plein air amphitheater, PS 21, in June with a lively, if not particularly challenging program that included Mercuric Tidings, A Field of Grass, and Piazzolla Caldera.

During Taylor’s lifetime, an evening’s dances often fell into a three course menu-style format of opener with some oomph, a more thoughtful or dark work, and then a closer meant to dazzle audiences. In its weeks-long New York season, 20 or so dances might be featured, with each program usually different. While that is some tough logistical feat to plan, it meant that repertory could be mixed and matched and repeat viewers could see the spectrum of Taylor’s amazing output.

In contrast, a three-performance run at smaller venue such as PS 21 features one bill. So it might be even tougher to select which three dances to feature in order to best represent the company. The dances Artistic Director Michael Novak chose for Chatham are easy to digest, albeit each representing a unique Taylor subgenre.

Mercuric Tidings (1982) ranks among one of Taylor’s most demanding abstract dances, with lots of rapid-fire stage crossings and patterns, and luminous performances by Madelyn Ho and John Harnage. At the moment, the current company impresses most on a technical level, with formidable athletic prowess. That said, the demands of this dance reveal that it could use more rehearsal, with a few ragged ensemble sections and rough lifts. It opened the program, which means that it coincided—and fought—with a dazzling solstice sunset visible to most of the audience. The cyc lighting begins in a bright pink hue, and the intensity was so high—we’re talking a Robert Wilson level event—that it hurt my eyes. Maybe it was to counter the sun’s effects? Or maybe new technology has vaulted past the comfort level of the human eye.

Eran Bugge and Alex Clayton in A Field of Grass. Photo: Steven Taylor

A Field of Grass (1993), to a suite of songs by Harry Nilsson, is a humorous romp in which the performers are, in theory, stoned or tripping. Alex Clayton, toking, leads off with a rubbery solo, rolling in a folded leg position, and bursting aloft, at which he is so skilled. Christina Lynch Markham, one of the company’s current standout character dancers, flings her hip-length hair madly as she leaps with abandon. Mirrored sunglasses hide presumably dilated pupils. The style—unfettered and propulsive—is among Taylor’s more pedestrian and casual.

Taylor pushed his range choreographically with Piazzolla Caldera (1997), plucking tango quotes and mixing them in with social dancing. While this dance has always benefited from a crisp approach, especially by the men in the first movement, the current cast seems extra martial, with Lee Duveneck snapping his legs like whips. Jessica Ferretti puts her long limbs to use in the lonely woman solo, less angry than sad about being shunned than past interpreters. An inventive and acrobatic duet exemplifies a subset by Taylor in which the men seem to alternately tussle and caress one another. The lighting in Piazzolla, no longer battling the now set sun, felt murky rather than chiaroscuro.

The current company, relatively young on the whole, comprises skilled technicians who can handle the trickiest steps and the breadth of styles by Taylor. But at moments, it feels as if the dancers are executing steps harshly, with the main goal of hitting marks and keeping on top of things. I imagine that in time, personalities will emerge through the many character roles Taylor crafted emphasizing humor and wit, transcending the not inconsiderable technical demands.

I miss the darker theatrical repertory that balances out the lively, more athletic work which seems to prevail these days—Big Bertha, Speaking in Tongues, and The Word come to mind. Perhaps these will be rotated in soon, giving audiences a fuller picture of the choreographer’s creative imagination. And will the American Modern Dance project (commissioning outside American choreographers) continue now that Lauren Lovette is resident choreographer, or has the company pivoted away from that? Of course the pandemic and its insidious effect on the economy, and particularly the cultural sector, are weighty factors. The coming years will test even the oldest establishments. 

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