Paul Taylor’s Company Without Him: Onstage, a Transition to a New Era
Several years before his death, Paul Taylor began preparing for his company’s future without him. The troupe would no longer perform his dances alone (he made nearly 150 in his 64-year career) but, like other veteran modern dance ensembles, would bring in outside choreographers to keep the repertory fresh, evolving.
Such a plan, while judicious, doesn’t guarantee stability. In its first major New York engagement since Taylor’s death last summer, the company finds itself, naturally, in a state of profound transition. Appearing as part of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Bach Festival, the troupe has a new artistic director, Michael Novak, who came to the role after eight years as a much-admired company dancer. And as newer dancers settle in, six longtime company members plan to depart this year, including the most senior, Michael Trusnovec, whose Bach Festival performances will be his last with the ensemble.
To watch the three dance programs at the Manhattan School of Music on Friday and Saturday, was to witness one era giving way to another, uncertain but with flashes of a bright future. For the first time, Taylor’s six works set to Bach, spanning four decades, are being shown together, providing an occasion to revisit classics like “Esplanade” (1975) and “Promethean Fire” (2002). In conversation with the Taylor oeuvre, the in-demand Pam Tanowitz (on Friday) and the Canadian choreographer Margie Gillis (on Saturday night) unveiled their own new responses to Bach.
Except for an early misstep, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s provided lush and crisp accompaniment. It was only during “Junction” (1961), the oldest work and the first on the opening program, that the music went glaringly astray, in a muffled and out-of-key cello suite. This piece was also rockiest for the dancers, as they seemed to still be adjusting to the small dimensions of the quaint Neidorff-Karpati Hall stage.
Not surprisingly, it was in Ms. Tanowitz’s bountiful “all at once,” for a cast of 16, that the company’s future — and present — looked brightest. The title could refer to her current popularity: After years of flying under the radar, she’s been earning rightful recognition, with commissions pouring in from the likes of New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet in London and the Martha Graham Dance Company.
[Read more about the works of Pam Tanowitz].
But the title also captures what Ms. Tanowitz does so well, here and elsewhere: cultivating multiplicity, composing a landscape of overlapping events in which, happily, you don’t always know where to look, and there’s no wrong choice. Like a camera bringing different areas of a frame into focus, she allows many centers to coexist, a welcome break, in this context, from Taylor’s frequent emphasis on symmetry.
In other ways, too, Ms. Tanowitz works against Taylor’s conventions, even as she cleverly borrows from his vocabulary and exaggerates its features. While in harmony with the music (Bach’s Oboe Sonata in G Minor and Concerto in A Minor), her steps don’t necessarily match it. Looking comfortable in Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme’s airy costumes — mists of tulle netting over neon unitards — the dancers carve their own rhythmic contours inside of the score, especially through darting footwork. At times the teasing, good-natured piece suggests a Taylor dance gone awry, like a skipping record: the same hops or scoots repeated over and over, approaching absurdity.
And the work continues to deepen once it’s over, as you spot its references in other Taylor choreography. Lee Duveneck’s fall into a plank position, toward the end of “all at once,” reappears more dramatically in “Promethean Fire” (the first program’s finale), as does the moment when one dancer drapes herself over another’s hunched spine.
While Ms. Tanowitz played up the choppiness of the Taylor style, Ms. Gillis, whose “Rewilding” shared the third program with “Brandenburgs” (1988) and “Cascade” (1999), injected more fluidity. To three movements from “The Art of Fugue,” 16 dancers abandoned themselves to breathy spins and ecstatic leaps (Devon Louis stood out for his extra-springy jump), a statement on the urgency of communing with nature. “It will be necessary to reintegrate with our wildness, respecting our natural world, if we are to remain on this planet,” Ms. Gillis wrote in a program note.
There’s a fine line, though, between wild and unstructured. Relying too heavily on running as a source of momentum, “Rewilding” remains a patchwork of ideas, not unlike Santo Loquasto’s vibrant but fussy costumes.
Not everyone can deploy the simplicity of running as Taylor did, most famously in “Esplanade.” Presented with “Musical Offering” (1986) on the second program, the Saturday performance of “Esplanade” displayed the sense of physical risk that sets this work apart from so many of his others. When a dancer almost trips — as Eran Bugge, a joy on every program, did in the third movement — that’s a good thing.
Ms. Bugge, fortunately, will be sticking around as many of her colleagues leave. If Mr. Trusnovec feels ready to go, it didn’t show in his consistently luminous dancing. The company’s promising newer dancers — Mr. Duveneck, in particular, is a force — has about two more weeks to watch and learn.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Through June 23 at the Manhattan School of Music, Manhattan; oslmusic.org.