Thursday, May 23, 2024

The DNA of Paul Taylor's Esplanade, and new Lovette excerpts

Alicia Graf Mack and Damian Woetzel in Duet at 92Y. Photo: Richard Termine

The passing of the iconic modern choreographer Paul Taylor in 2018, to state the obvious, marked the end of an era. But it also liberated those guiding the company to reconsider public performances in ways that didn’t happen during the choreographer’s life. The company had already shifted into transition mode during the last decade of Taylor’s life, creating the umbrella of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance under which to present new commissions by American choreographers as well as iconic works of modern dance. With Artistic Director Michael Novak firmly guiding the company with Taylor gone, the modern master’s earlier, more radical work has been redeployed to help audiences understand the roots of Taylor’s most celebrated dances from later in his career.

While Taylor is widely regarded as an icon of modern dance, I have heard grumblings about the populist, sometimes nostalgic bent of his most popular dances, even from supposedly informed critics. I always thought that they just hadn’t seen enough of Taylor’s output, which is varied enough to offer something for pretty much everyone. And his earliest work—more aptly called performances than dances, so conceptual were many—were rarely performed while Taylor, in his late decades, continued to create one or two new dances annually. It feels like a lot of energy went into forefronting these premieres—rightly—which were scheduled among mostly better-known Taylor rep in the annual big New York seasons, first at City Center, then the Koch.

Novak has notably revivified the broader context of Taylor’s rep, at least in New York performances in the last years. In the first part of this year alone, two runs focus on some early work that earned attention through notoriety, and not necessarily popular appeal. Seven New Dances (with designs by Robert Rauschenberg) premiered in 1957 at the 92nd Street Y, and was so ill-received that the Y's program director said after the flop that Paul Taylor would return "over his dead body," in so many words. Fortunately he was wrong.

Esplanade at 92Y. Photo: Richard Termine

In a May 13 program as part of 92NY’s 150th celebration, PTDC performed The Story of Seven New Dances. Actor Alan Cumming, embodying Taylor, charmingly narrated and read quotes of Taylor’s musings about creating this suite, in between excerpts from the work with illustrious guest artists including Alicia Graf Mack (Ailey), Damian Woetzel (NYCB), both now in leadership positions at Juilliard, and NYCB principal Adrian Danchig-Waring. It features streetwear-clad dancers posing, shifting weight, or in Duet, simply frozen in repose (the latter, to John Cage’s 4’33”—silence) which, at the time of its premiere, received a “review” by Louis Horst of blank column inches. (How I wish I’d "written" that!)

While little movement was involved, which was part of the point, stage presence was required, thus the apt recruitment of some of New York's finest post- and current stage stars (even if it would've been perfectly fine using current company members). Some of the threads woven into the ironically-titled Seven New Dances—pedestrian movements of walking, running, pivoting, shifting—worked their way into Taylor’s opus, Esplanade (1975), an adrenalized performance of which ended the program. Leading off the show were brief excerpts from three new dances by Resident Choreographer Lauren Lovette, a glimpse of her bold, ambitious near-future plans for the company. A fun group romp that seemed more playtime than performance led off, followed by two compelling duets in black and white.

The 92NY evening departs from the usual programs given by PTDC, which typically haven’t included archival or educational components. But Novak is illuminating Taylor’s rich, broad oeuvre in such evenings—for now, a one-off, but which perhaps will be revisited in the future. Novak notes, “
This program was created exclusively for 92NY in honor of their 150th Anniversary. I wanted to create a unique way to connect to Paul Taylor’s work through his own words and contextualize how his radical past gave a foundation for his more well-known repertory. I love exploring this lens in my programming." 

The company has also been adding shorter runs of select channels of the rep, such as Taylor's Bach dances at Manhattan School of Music a few years ago. The imminent Joyce Theater run from June 25-30 is called Extreme Taylor. It's an ambitious slate for a week; seven dances from 1964 to 1988 will be performed, including more pensive and provocative works such as Private Domain, Runes, and Post Meridian. Big Bertha will also be performed, one of the most nefariously shocking and riveting creations from Taylor’s psychodance-drama genre. PTDC will also be in Chatham, NY at PS21 on Aug 2 & 3 in a solid program of Brandenburgs, Runes, and Promethean Fire. The venue's elegant open-air amphitheater has become a welcome regular stop on the company's schedule.

Kenny Corrigan and Maria Ambrose in a new work by Lauren Lovette, at 92Y.
Photo: Richard Termine

About the current company... after considerable upheaval after Taylor's death and during the tumult of Covid, the roster seems to have settled in for now. Technically, the current company might be better than ever, if there are fewer personalities that might draw their own audience segments (that will evolve as tenures lengthen). In general, there seems to be less prevalence of the individual—be it Taylor and his imperatives, or the dancers—and more emphasis on the repertory, the community, and the company as a whole. The work has proved strong enough to bear temporal and personnel shifts, and Novak and company are illuminating the past while striding forward, making Taylor's work ever more relevant.