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Taylor Made

It’s a treat to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform within the close range of the Joyce Theater. (The company typically holds court at the much larger Lincoln Center.) Also rare is the chance to see seven vintage Taylor works over two nights, the earliest from 1964, and most recent, 1988. Curated by artistic director Michael Novak, “Extreme Taylor” is a mini dance history lesson on Paul Taylor’s wide tonal range—and a unique look at how his classic style is carried by the generation of dancers who succeed him.

Performance

Paul Taylor Dance Company: works choreographed by Paul Taylor, works selected by Michael Novak

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, June 25–29, 2024

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Lisa Borres, Alex Clayton, Eran Bugge, and Lee Duveneck in “Runes.“ Photograph by Ron Thiele

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I saw the program out of order, beginning with Program B. I was fascinated at the way the evening began darkly with “Runes” (1975), then moved to the discordant “Post Meridian” (1965), and at last broke through to pure exuberance with “Brandenburgs” (1988). Per Novak’s program note, his goal was to “give you a window into Taylor’s exploration of romance, evil, sublimity, sensuality, and beauty, danced to the edge as only the Taylor Company can.”

The ritualistic “Runes” reminds us of Taylor’s early ties to Martha Graham, whom he danced with for seven years. Even the moon was Graham-esque (a Jennifer Tipton lighting effect), rising from lower stage left to upper stage right as the piece advances through three sections. A group of creatures gathered around a prone body seem more animal than human. Square packs strapped to the dancers’ shoulders suggest the posture of apes. When they cross the stage toting women like inanimate store mannequins, legs and arms stiffly akimbo, the shapes evoke antlers. The subject of ritual sacrifice at the center of this piece allows for a fascinating choreographic sleight of hand as the group hides one of its members from view, replaces them with another, and absorbs them deftly into the anonymity of the group. It’s like watching a game of three-card monte. “Runes” accomplishes this repeatedly in varying ways, once with a male dancer in seated second position, legs and arms folded to resemble a spider. When the replacing female dancer settles into place a fraction of a second late, I see it only because of a brief twitch. Noteworthy performances include Christine Lynch Markham’s solo, and Madelyn Ho and Alex Clayton in duet.

Maria Ambrose and John Harnage in “Brandenburgs” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Ron Thiele

Devon Louis in “Post Meridian” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Ron Thiele

The discordant and abstract “Post Meridian” follows. It lifts the mood a bit but doesn’t lower the challenge for a viewer. Dancers hop side to side to the sound of metal dinging and popping, as if they themselves are notes of dissonant music. There’s a section that sounds like a record playing backward. A dancer rapidly spins his arm in a circle like a clockface gone haywire. Costumes by artist Alex Katz, a frequent Taylor collaborator, are scene stealers: Four women in color blocked unitards with gloved fingers each sport one scarlet clad arm; two men well-matched both in size and deep bronze unitards. They seem to float in a series of lateral jumps. When Kristen Draucker shows up, her arms are neon yellow; Devon Louis arrives in purple.

And then, after a second intermission, Novak gives us the emotional release of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos.” Has he purposely invoked a slow build in order to heighten the pure joy that is “Brandenburgs?” The curtain opens on five robust men in velvety green unitards adorned with a sparkle of sequins at the neck. They perform unison phrases that accumulate, often completed one by one in canon. They strike me as a sort of chorus line behind three muses, who resemble delicate spirals of calligraphy as they dash across the stage. Soloist John Harnage, devotes a good part of his time observing the flirtatious women.

Rehearsal director Cathy McCann tells an anecdote in the post-performance talk-back about her experience (“like pulling teeth”) as one of the three women who originated the female roles. It seems the five original men were brand new to the company. “Brandenburgs” she says, turns out to be a good way to become a Taylor dancer, because it contains so many moves that Taylor used throughout his repertory. Also joining the discussion were Sharon McGuire and Carolyn Adams—both have performed the “Runes” solo in the past. Their comments underscore the meticulous way each new generation of dancers is rehearsed to remain true to Taylor’s original vision. There are no new interpretations of roles.

Kristin Draucker and Christina Lynch Markham in “Big Bertha” by Paul Taylor. Photogarph by Ron Thiele

The next night, Program A takes an opposite tack, moving from light to dark. “Private Domain” (1969) is like an ice cream cone at the beach. Maria Ambrose and Devon Louis are nicely lyrical in “Duet” (1964). But for me, the glare of “Big Bertha,” distracts from both “Duet” that precedes it and “Airs” that follows.

For “Private Domain,” again the costumes and set are by Alex Katz. The dancers are skimpily dressed and the stage partially obscured, rendering audience as voyeur, peering through open terrace doors into a private party on a summer night. At times a character stops to pose in a doorway. Sexy posturing charms more than titillates, with undulating abs, jutted hips, a cheeky hand placed on a breast.

The depiction of incest and domestic violence of “Big Bertha,” is as hard to take in 2024, as it must have been in 1970 when the work premiered. Christina Lynch Markham is the garish mechanical carnival figure that draws a couple (Kristin Draucker and Lee Duveneck) and their excitable young daughter (Eran Bugge) to the dark side. Small cracks in normal begin with a spaced out expression, the odd jerk of a head. Has the mother perhaps been drinking? When the father shines his attention on the daughter, is he shielding a harsh view of her mother, or is there something more sinister going on? His intentions soon become clear—Taylor is not subtle here with blood stained disheveled clothing. The threat level swells to over the top cartoonish without being funny—and it’s the most exciting full-out dancing of the night. These are glorious athletic roles for a dancer. Along with “Brandenburgs,” this work has occupied me for days, when other program details have faded.

Madelyn Ho and Alex Clayton in “Airs” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Danica Paulos

Novak again chooses to go out on a joyful note with “Airs” (1978), but an intermission doesn’t give me enough time to recover from Bertha. Not the fault of performers costumed in shimmering aqua, who deliver liquidy unison work. Madelyn Ho and Alex Clayton again pair beautifully. At times the choreography matches the Handel music too closely, but when Jada Pearman and Austin Kelly move like skaters, jumping and turning in time to the racing music, the sychronicity works well. I’m struck by how dated the gender normative partnering looks. In these vintage Taylor works, girls only seem to pair up with boys.

Regardless of what’s going on with programming choices, it’s impossible not to appreciate the particular way Taylor dancers move. They don’t casually walk on stage, for instance, they perform walking. As Carolyn Adams describes it, there is a particular “sense of posture and gesture … the transfer of weight that is present in the simple act of walking.” When Parisa Khobdeh retired in 2019 after Taylor’s death, she told the New York Times, “The beauty of the Taylor company is it’s a circle that just keeps growing.” People have said that Taylor hired individuals, not clones. And yet, there are patterns, a sort of body cast that certain dancers fill. John Harnage in “Brandenburgs,” brought to mind Michael Trusnovec who until recently appeared in nearly every Taylor work for 20 years. Christopher Gillis originated that role in 1988. The five hunky men (Lee Duveneck, Alex Clayton, Shawn Lesniak, Jake Vincent, and Austin Kelly) all seem shaped in the mold of Paul Taylor, as is Novak himself. Beautiful ambassadors of the Taylor legacy that they are, will anyone in this current group rise to the star power of Trusnovec or Khobdeh? Or of Linda Kent and David Parsons? There may be no new Taylor roles to originate, but there will be new work, what with choreographer Lauren Lovette now in residence. Novak is only getting started in taking up where Taylor left off in 2018 after 64 years.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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