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Room for Manoeuvre

There were shots fired—blanks, of course—when the New York-based Paul Taylor Dance Company, founded in 1954, opened the 20th season of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center during the last weekend of April. Indeed, in a concept program of three anti-war works, which may have looked good on paper, the program mostly misfired, none of the works more than Lauren Lovette’s world premiere, “Dreamachine.”

Performance

Paul Taylor Dance Company: “Company B,” “Dreammachine,” and “The Green Table”

Place

The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA, April 28-30, 2023

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Lee Corrigan in “The Green Table” by Kurt Jooss. Photograph by Ron Thiele

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Bookended by “Company B,” a 1991 classic made by Taylor, who died in 2018 at 88, and Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table,” choreographed in 1932 and still a powerful statement on the horrors of war, Lovette’s 30-minute, three-part folly, proved an inexplicable foray into what can only be called the Marvel universe.

Whether it was from Lovette’s misplaced intentions, i.e., rampant arm-flailings, Santo Loquasto’s bizarre costumes, or the accompanying score—excerpts from Michael Daugherty’s less than memorable 2014 percussion concerto (heard on tape)—patrons fled the theater in what might be termed, well, a show of anti-audience sentiment.

Lovette, 31 and a former New York City Ballet principal who left the company in 2021 to try her hand as a dancemaker—she’d already been choreographing at City Ballet and for the Vail Dance Festival—was appointed resident choreographer of the Taylor company in March of last year. But why Michael Novak, the former dancer turned artistic director who was hand-picked by Taylor, offered the coveted position to someone with a ballet bent rather than a maker with a modern dance background, remains an enigma.

This was apparent in Lovette’s third piece for the company, “Dreamachine,” saying that the work is, “my playground. I imagine and explore a world of its own, one the dancers bring to life,” adding, “For many years I’ve thought about invention and what compels someone to dream up a device—a machine?—that can change everything.”

This device, however, would have been better left on the drawing board.

The opening section, dubbed “Da Vinci’s Wings” (all titles are Daugherty’s), began with a stellar Kristin Draucker, clad in a bright orange dress, moving to the sounds of a pulsating xylophone in swoop-and-swirl mode, before a bevy of, er, sci-fi stormtroopers bedecked in black and silver, including helmets and face guards (a kind of S & M faction meets Star Wars), surround her. These pesky galactic warriors then proceed to gambol about the stage in meaningless formations, including creating a Star Trekky-like pyramid.

Where is I.M. Pei when you need him?

And when in doubt, throw in a handstand or cartwheel, moves that added to this section’s lunacy, as did the back wall, a series of taupe-ish squares, giving the look of a padded cell (set design also by Loquasto).

Thankfully, the second part, “Electric Eel,” a duet between Jessica Ferretti and Kenny Corrigan, made the most of Jennifer Tipton’s divine lighting (seen throughout the work). Here, bars of lowered and angled fluorescent tubes gave the whiff of a rectangular halo, proving a potent factor in this portion’s quasi-nod to ballet.

Corrigan, jeans and sneaker-clad, glided across the floor by dint of an attached ball bearing or small wheel, with Ferretti, also sporting jeans but sans a sliding apparatus, valiantly trying to connect by dint of her shiva-like arms. Yes, there was the mandatory outstretched limb and random back bend, as well as an occasional lift, but to what end?

While this section of Daugherty’s music was said to represent an “eel slithering through murky waters,” this reviewer heard echoes of Kodály, and hoped that E.T. would actually appear, beseeching the couple to not only, “phone home,” but go home.

Act III’s “Vulcan’s Forge,” (Vulcan being the Roman god of fire, with a nod to Mr. Spock), which featured the company in battle fatigues and, inexplicably, sun glasses, was nothing less than an appropriation from the Nijinsky/Stravinsky “Rite of Spring.” With Devon Lewis the Chosen One, and the incessant snare drums giving the finale its über-rhythmic beat, Lovette’s footwork at least proved serviceable.

But if, as she said about “Dreamachine,” that, “sometimes it feels like I’m landing on different planets,” perhaps she’d like to be a little more earthbound in her next choreography. And yes, we do need more female choreographers, so kudos to the Taylor troupe for supporting that cause. But it was telling that after repeated efforts to secure images of this world premiere, both from the Music Center and the Taylor company—what A-list troupe doesn’t document their newest works—the future of “Dreamachine” does not look promising.

Lee Duveneck and Paul Taylor Dance Company in “Company B” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Whitney Browne

On a happier note, the concert opened with Taylor’s iconic “Company B,” an homage to the Andrews Sisters, with nine of their songs serving as the source for this nostalgic look at life in 1940s America as seen through social dance. However, the work, performed with verve and jive and normally seen in a more intimate venue, alas, suffered from the enormity of the Chandler stage, with several of the dancers occasionally plagued by shaky technique.

That said, Tipton’s tan hues and Loquasto’s khaki-colored pants and flared skirts for the gals and trousers that echoed uniforms for the guys, provided requisite charm. Brimming with spirit, flirtations and fun, but shadowed by fleeting glimpses of war and death, the number was a showcase for the 13-member cast that managed swift shifts of style relatively smoothly.

Standouts included: a sassy Madelyn Ho in “Rum and Coca-Cola;” an indefatigable and bespectacled Lee Duveneck in the ebullient, “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!”; and John Harnage in “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B),” whose explosive leaps and high energy inspired.

This seemingly carefree song, however, normally ends with the bugler being shot and slumping to the ground. But on this night, there was no gunshot, merely a crumbling body, with the work ultimately proceeding to the jaunty Yiddish number, “Bei Mir Bist du Schon,” which begins and ends the piece.

Paul Taylor Dance Company in “The Green Table” by Kurt Jooss. Photograph by Ron Thiele

Concluding the program was Kurt Jooss’ undisputed masterwork, “The Green Table (A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes).” Created some nine decades ago, when Hitler was rising to power in Germany, “Table” is bookended with diplomats wearing grotesque masks gathered around a green board and fervently waving their hands. When negotiations fail, rifles are fired, with F.A. Cohen’s forceful score, performed live in the pit by two pianists, David LaMarche and Blair McMillen, emblematic of the work that explores, life, death and disaffection.

With the despicable war in Ukraine well into its second year and fascism on the rise, “Table” is as relevant now as it was when Jooss danced the role of Death at the 1932 Paris premiere. Unfolding as a series of vignettes, where Death (Shawn Lesniak), a hypnotic, albeit robotic presence marching behind the young soldiers, always wins.

Featuring Corrigan as the Standard Bearer and Harnage an unctuous figure as The Profiteer, the work also gives us wailing women, refugees, an old mother, a scene in a brothel and the inevitable aftermath of war.

As author Margaret Atwood once said, “War is what happens when language fails.” Fortunately, we have dance to remind us of our humanity.

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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