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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 5, 2016
Category: review

Paul Taylor Dancers Successfully Complete Extended Marathon

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK–In its fourth season at the former New York State Theater and its second under a new name, Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance completed its marathon three-week run April 3. One of the last full-time troupes presenting a mid-20th century modern dance ethos, PTAMD dancers deserve medals for stamina. They achieved with only 16 members what much larger large ballet companies do with many more, continuously performing four world premieres (two by Taylor and one each by invited artists Doug Elkins and Larry Keigwin), 14 Taylor works, and one modern dance masterwork—Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels (1948).

Elkins’ The Weight of Smoke. L to R: H. McGinley, M. Trusnovec, M. Apuzzo, M. Novak, and J. Samson. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

After complaints in previous years that canned music marred the aesthetic experience, Taylor, age 85, and his advisors, hired the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, which performed at least one work on every program in full ensemble, under the baton of Donald York. The playing was mixed, but the instrumentalists nonetheless buoyed the dancers, giving them the opportunity to expand and play with their phrasing, especially in Taylor’s most popular dance, Esplanade (1975). But more on that later.

When Taylor announced two years ago that he was going to change the structure of his company by inviting choreographers to make work on his dancers, many in the dance world were pessimistic. No contemporary choreographer creates in Taylor’s style, which draws from Martha Graham’s heroic sensibility yet puts more emphasis on ensemble than hero, or soloist. Taylor’s choreography is also gymnastic, for both men and women. Instead of a female dancer being supported by a male partner in, let’s say, her multiple pirouette turns, Parisa Khobdeh, in Equinox (1983), vaults her weight on to her hands, arches the front of her body (while inverted) and then flips backward and over Michael Apuzzo, who is standing. All of this is done with lyric grace.

This year’s outside work, The Weight of Smoke (seen March 29) by former hip-hop dancer Doug Elkins, proved the naysayers wrong; while staying true to his own street style, Elkins also managed to pay homage to Taylor’s more formal one. Named after Paul Auster’s 1995 film Smoke, the new work riffs on the notion, articulated in the movie and described in the press release, of smoke as a metaphor for the weight of accumulated experience.

Elkins’ The Weight of Smoke. L to R: M. Trusnovec, J. Samson, M. Novak, and E. Bugge. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Elkins’ The Weight of Smoke. L to R: M. Trusnovec, J. Samson, M. Novak, and E. Bugge. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Created in collaboration with the full company, Weight of Smoke begins with dancer Michael Novak entering the stage in street wear (by Karen Young) as the recorded sound of an elevator opening, with its electronic ping, alerts the passenger to step in. What follows is an aperture into a new world that romps and combines Taylor’s half-century-old dance vocabulary—the signature arrow-straight arms and off-center turns that spiral into the floor—with Elkins’s post-modern meets b-boy moves style. The dancers spin on their backs, undulate, and use their upper torsos to pull themselves across the stage. Their performance is so gleeful as to suggest that the title might allude to something stronger than mere tobacco.

Weight of Smoke focused at its core on three couples (female-female, a male-male, and male-female), each of them acrobatic and playful in different ways, all vying for one’s attention. The couples kiss, and it becomes a competition to see which lasts the longest. The audience clapped and hooted, perhaps because of the outright display of same-sex passion. Gay love is something Taylor has only hinted at in his dances, but never put front and center. At the end of Elkins’ work, Novak, who looks like a young Taylor, walks into a square of light. With the the sound of the elevator door opening, he comes out.

The score for Smoke, by Justin Levine and Matt Stone, mixes ambient urban sounds and kitschy club music with Handel-ian excerpts. This type of musical collage often offends, but here it proved ingenius—an aural reflection of Elkins’s contemporary sensibilities with Taylor’s long-running interest in and success with baroque music. That dates back to his seminal 1964 work, Aureole, and was further developed in his most beloved and oft-performed piece, Esplanade (1975).

M. Fleet in Taylor's Esplanade

M. Fleet in Taylor’s Esplanade

Viewed March 30, Esplanade is set to Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major and his Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. Taylor has said that the piece was inspired by watching a woman run to catch a bus. Her determined physicality shows up in Esplanade’s final section in which the female dancers, one by one, run and jump from an enormous distance into their partners’ arms. When Michelle Fleet executed the final jump like an Olympian pole vaulter, it caused at least one seasoned viewer to involuntarily gasp with delight.

Copyright © 2016, Musical America

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