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John Harnage in “Solitaire” by Lauren Lovette. Photograph by Ron Thiele

Taylor Revamped

New works by Lauren Lovette and Amy Hall Garner for Paul Taylor Dance Company

This November, the Paul Taylor Dance Company returned to the Koch Theater for the first time since 2019 under the tagline “Taylor: A New Era.” They’ve had a rough go of it since 2018, when Taylor passed away, at age 88, months after handing the reins over to former company member Michael Novak. Then, just as the troupe was restructuring after the loss of its founder, a pesky virus you may have heard of set them back again. But now, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of so very many brushfires, they have emerged on the other side with a new roster (8 of the 16 dancers were hired in 2019 or later, only three joined before 2017) and renewed purpose. (Though a discrimination lawsuit in the company’s costume department is countering the fanfare of their rebirth.) Novak, wisely, is not riding on old glory and the recognition of the Taylor name; instead, he is working to educate a new generation on Taylor’s legacy. His outreach has been multipronged and clever, including piggybacking on the Guggenheim’s Alex Katz retrospective by programming four of the painter’s 16 collaborations with Taylor this season, as well as producing a lecture on the pair at the Library for the Performing Arts. Donor Jody Arnhold has also funded a program to bring NY public school students and their families to shows throughout the run. It was heartening to hear Novak declare, in his gala speech, that “dance and dance education are one thing”—a surprisingly radical declaration for a dance director. In addition to showcasing Taylor anew, Novak is expanding the repertory through new works (this season’s premieres are by Amy Hall Garner and Lauren Lovette) and smart acquisitions (like Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table”). The two programs I saw were remarkably well-crafted, offering an overview of Taylor’s artistic journey as well as a glimpse of where the company is headed.

Eran Bugge and John Harnage in “Arden Court” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Whitney Browne

In his remarks, Novak shared “the secret to what makes Taylor Taylor.” He spoke of dichotomy, polarity, the familiar and the surreal, the dark and the light. As Fjord contributor Apollinaire Scherr recently pointed out, this dark and light business is not much of a secret; rather, it is the prevailing read.  But you can’t knock Novak for rebranding this thesis for a new crowd and programming the season to support it. “Arden Court,” from 1981, opened the gala and presented Taylor in euphoric, neo-classical mode. It began with the dancers striding about the stage in happy Smurf lunges to William Boyce’s baroque melodies. The lovely Madelyn Ho was swung around in a recumbent position—a reclining nude who’d lost her bed. She scurried under other dancers’ legs and smiled up at them as blithely as my two-yr-old playing peekaboo. The dancers cavorted and assisted each other in cartwheels, all done in front of a faded, tea rose backdrop by Gene Moore. “Esplanade,” (1975) which closed another bill, had a few darker patches, but it mostly operated in the same harmonious plane. In both “Arden Court” and “Esplanade,” Taylor employs pedestrian and social dancing moves that are skewed and heightened. In the latter, Taylor riffs on the grapevine, rock-a-bye baby lifts, and baseball slides. He works wonders with simple walking and catch steps linked tightly to Bach’s complex rhythms.

Lisa Borres and dancers of Paul Taylor Dance Company in “Esplanade” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Whitney Browne

Both “Arden Court” and “Esplanade” also feature the grounded, yet uplifted, running that is a Taylor hallmark. Like Iron Man, Taylor’s dancers seem to have a power source in their chests which compels them to flock about the stage. I think of them as Quaker elands: they herd, leap, and run as if guided by this inner light. Even when they sit back to watch each other in “Arden Court,” they do not casually slouch à la Jerome Robbins; their upper backs remain as straight as pointer dogs. This same, held quality applies to their arms too. The dancers often extend their arms out and up as if carrying large beach balls (the position screams “hosannah”). Their elbows are rounded, but stiffly so. And though their arms and backs do bend other ways, they return to these home bases like the cuffs and collar of a freshly ironed shirt. No flappy, despairing, Swan elbows or wrists in sight. In the same way that a Balanchine ballerina’s weight is always in the balls of her feet so that you can slip a piece of paper under her heel, a Taylor dancer’s upper body is always spiritually erect.  

Maria Ambrose and Devon Louis in “Scudorama” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Whitney Browne

But the perverse “Scudorama,” which opened the second program I saw, was a reminder that this attentive grace was hard-won. Taylor was no preachy, untested zealot; he found his postural faith by walking through fire. “Scudorama,” a dance about Dante’s circle of hell reserved for the soulless, demonstrates Taylor’s tormented process. It was made in 1963 as a knee-jerk reaction to the popular success of 1962’s pretty “Aureole.” Taylor was conflicted about the ease of making “Aureole” and his subsequent banishment by the downtown dance scene. Thus, “Scudorama” is a danse macabre composed of creepy crawling, disjointed flopping, jagged demon leaps, and violent tosses. The dancers are often hunched over, draped in Alex Katz’s beach towels like haunted house furniture. It is grotesque and unsettling, and it would make a more authentically scary choice for Halloween programming than the many toothless Dracula ballets out there.

Maria Ambrose and Jessica Ferretti in “Scudorama” by Paul Taylor. Photograph by Whitney Browne

But even in this uglified rebuttal, Taylor employs classical tools. In some of “Scudorama’s” eeriest passages, the dancers erupt into mincing waltzes. Taylor, an astute observer of movement, understood that the intrusion of courtly politesse into a hellscape is the most frightening thing of all. A trio of women in black unitards with white RBG collars was terrifying because of their chic uniforms and the tight unison of their flailing dances—they were like a demented precursor to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video. The interjection of a few organized tropes into bleak chaos is what makes “Scudorama” so startling and effective. Whether he was comfortable with it or not, by that point, Taylor had crossed a Rubicon of sorts—he was synthesizing his anarchic past with his classical drift, and in doing so he found his voice.

John Harnage in “Solitaire” by Lauren Lovette. Photograph by Whitney Browne

“Scudorama” next to “Esplanade” and “Arden Court” is a great primer on how the Taylor company came to be. But where is the troupe headed now? The recent appointment of Lauren Lovette as resident choreographer is somewhat of a bellwether, though she is an artist in flux. Rather than charting a course and steering the dancers through it, she is letting the winds take her where they may. This is not a bad thing; it is even refreshing after centuries of oversized male egos fueling the dance world’s de facto choreographer-god complex. But when Lovette’s alliance with the PTDC was first announced, it confused many. Stylistically, it is an odd pairing: her background is light on modern and heavy on Balanchine, she was a beloved principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. Biographically, however, it maps well. Lovette was successful yet unfulfilled at City Ballet, just as Taylor felt stifled while dancing for Martha Graham. And in Lovette’s work so far, she is more concerned with the symbolism of a body in motion than its abstraction—much like Taylor. Also, to fall back on that sturdy cliché, she is likewise exploring both the dark and light aspects of humanity. This was exemplified by her newest work for the company: “Solitaire,” which was subtitled “a single gem set alone.” This piece focused on one man’s feelings of alienation and isolation, whether alone or in a hostile crowd. But after he hit rock bottom in a despairing solo, he was pulled back into a more welcoming society in a hopeful, Taylor-esque group dance.

From left: Devon Louis, Maria Ambrose, Austin Kelly and Jessica Ferretti in “Solitaire” by Lauren Lovette. Photograph by Whitney Browne

This gemstone-inspired work proves Lovette has come a long way from her roots as a glittering interpreter of the spiky “Rubies” section of Balanchine’s “Jewels.” “Solitaire” nods to diamonds, but in the way of their pressure-cooker formation. The clunky rhombic set and dusty brown palette evoked Tatooine, the deserts of Dune, and other dystopian, sci-fi milieu. In the harmonious group finale, the dancers sported drab separates with beige tulle and frolicked in what appeared to be a dust bowl (Santo Loquasto did the costumes and set design). I read in a Fjord interview that the ropy scenery that floated in for John Harnage’s central solo was based on Aspen trees. They read more as prison bars than a woodland phrontistery to me, but that supported the solo’s “Hamlet” vibes: “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” One man’s stopping by the woods is another’s mental agony.

In “Solitaire,” Lovette employed less ballet vocabulary and more of the Taylor vernacular than ever before. And just as she is working outside of her own comfort zone, she is challenging the dancers to do the same. She demanded more movement from their thoracic and cervical spines than they are used to, and she dabbled with a sinewy fluidity too, especially for Harnage, her protagonist. His internal struggles were broadcast via wrestling himself into double-jointed elbow knots. He is a beautiful, lissome mover—which was more apparent in “Solitaire” and his debut as the Profiteer in the “Green Table” at the 92nd St Y last year than in some of the Taylor standards. At this moment in time, Lovette seems to be gathering intel and experimenting with a new tool kit, to the benefit of the company members. Her voice has not yet crystallized, we haven’t seen her “Aureole.” But in the PTDC, she has found a promising laboratory. Her contract lasts 5 years; Novak has placed a lot of faith in her growth, showing the same generosity of spirit in running the company that his dancers display while running about the stage. I expect good things to come from such largesse.

Paul Taylor Dance Company in “Somewhere in the Middle” by Amy Hall Garner. Photograph by Whitney Browne

But good things are already happening. Amy Hall Garner’s “Somewhere in the Middle” was an absolute pleasure to watch—except for when some of the impasto paint swirls hanging above the stage threatened to fall on the dancers’ heads. This is only the second work of hers I’ve seen (I previously reviewed a ballet she made for the ABT Studio Company during the pandemic), but in both instances she proved adept at taking the pulse of a troupe while also satisfying her own motivating query. For the PTDC, she toyed with pitting the dancers’ grounded foundation against the floaty and meandering qualities of jazz music by Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Bill Evans. The dancers seemed to delight in the game, with Lisa Borres especially good at letting loose in swinging abandon while maintaining her rooted power.

Madelyn Ho in “Somewhere in the Middle” by Amy Hall Garner. Photograph by Whitney Browne

Just when the freewheeling happiness of the dancing, the circuitousness of the music, the bright curlicues of the set (by Donald Martiny), and the tie-dyed neon rainbow costumes (by Mark Eric) started to be too hypnotic, Garner threw in a somber pas de deux for Maria Ambrose and Devon Louis, who changed into black versions of their outfits (both were terrific in everything they danced). Here, as in the group dances, Garner followed Taylor’s lead of twisting social dances into social commentary. Louis dipped Ambrose, but without the guiding safety net of his embrace. Instead, she arced backwards with the full force of her own gravity, and he caught her mere inches from the floor at the last minute. Garner skewered ballroom dancing by teasing it into something between a corporate teambuilding trust fall and free-solo climbing. I worried for a second that Ambrose would crash to the floor. But Ambrose and Louis were nonplussed. This ambivalent cliff dive, sandwiched between sections of noodly elation, was a tell. Though Garner played by the house rules, she oh so subtly noted that not everything can be sifted easily into dark and light—just like the poor creatures who defied categorization in “Scudorama’s” purgatorial realm. Somewhere in the middle indeed.