Review: Paul Taylor Dance Company at The Kennedy Center

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The last living – and working – link to the founding generation of modern dance choreographers, Paul Taylor remains true to his values as a consummate dancemaker imbuing his works with impeccable craft, the wisdom of his experience and varying shades of light and dark moments of the soul and spirit. Wednesday his company, now in its xx year, returned to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater with a program of classics – including what is now the troupe’s signature work, “Esplanade,” with its barreling runs, fearless dives and beautiful evocation of two Bach concertos played live by The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Paul Taylor Dance Company's Esplanade. Photo by Paul B. Goode.
Paul Taylor Dance Company’s ‘Esplanade.’ Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Taylor, now 85, continues to create on his company of 18 dancers, but during this Kennedy Center visit, which runs through Saturday, the opening night program was filled with older works, both classics and a little-seen challenge: “Polaris,” which tests the mettle of both dancers and audience alike offering up Taylor’s crafty, often rule driven, processes that push his works into distinct boxes.

“Mercuric Tidings,” from 1982, whips through excerpts from the fast and quicksilver Schubert Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. The dance is demonic filled with dizzying spins, arms pinwheeling around the body like a whirligig, off-kilter leaps, dashes across the stage and back and plenty of knotty partnering that winds and unwinds like kite-string on a windy day.

Twenty-year Taylor veteran Michael Trusnovec partnered Laura Halzack in these knotty, twisty moments. Clad in peachy pink dresses for the women and tights for the men, the company took on the details of the complicated steps. The rapidity and detail almost reference 20th-century ballet icon George Balanchine, known for his speed and complexity, but the Taylor dancers tackle the grounded, earth-versus-air nature of the dynamics with absolute aplomb here.

The evening’s centerpiece, “Polaris,” has been little seen and it’s a challenging work featuring sets and costumes by long-time Taylor collaborative partner painter Alex Katz, along with a commissioned score by Taylor’s music director Donald York. Taylor often likes to give himself a challenge when he choreographs. “Polaris” was created in 1976 in two parts, and  each utilizes the same steps; the music, the lighting and the dancers differ. The result is two entirely distinct pieces and if you didn’t know the thought process behind the work, you might not recognize it and identical choreographically.

Paul Taylor Dance Company's 'Polaris.' Photo by Paul B. Goode.
Paul Taylor Dance Company’s ‘Polaris.’ Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Set in an oversized empty cube delineated by metal pipes, five dancers in half-black and half-white briefs, bra-tops for the women and bare-chested for the men, are confined, one in the center, one in each of the cubes corners and then break through the demarcated walls. First they’re somber, serious even, to York’s mid-20th-century sounding neo classical score, then they turn jaunty with a bouncy walk head bob. The piece is twisty, and not exactly rigid, but rule-bound and highly conscientious about spatial relationships. The backdrop, a deep post-dusk blue, lends a lush moody tone. As the second cast slowly walks in and changes places with the outgoing dancers, the backdrop – lit by master dance Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton, changes to a chalky black. The score turns harder, choppier, more insistent, and the new cast of dancers attacks the same choreography with a totally new dynamic. Sharpness and a heavier more insistent attack mark it as different from the first rendering. The distinctions between parts, unlike the costumes, are not black and white. It’s a hard piece to chew on with only one viewing and it comes off as more ponderous than providential. This is Taylor the experimenter.

The evening closed as the company dancers soared and dove, skipped and crawl through the sheer physical joy of “Esplanade,” the company’s now signature work, which was created in 1975 to Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major and his Double Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. In creating this piece, he intended to choreograph the entire dance using only pedestrian movement. That it soars with such playful effortlessness, is tribute to both the choreography and the dancers who on Wednesday night attacked the work with the childlike abandon it demands in the allegro sections, then with restrained shadings of loss for the largo, or slow, middle movement. In the post-show discussion, Bettie de Jong, on whom the role of lone women in pants was created, recalled that Taylor, who doesn’t like to explain too much about his dances only told her that this section was about a “haunted house.” The dancers, first a tight-knit trio which later expands, reach toward one another but never touch, the restraint, the eyes that look but never see or connect, suggest that in Taylor’s vision, suggests a difficult rendering of a haunted past.

But what audiences – and dancers, too, according to Trusnovec in the same post-show discussion – love about the work is the breathless abandon, the daring dives that slide into the floor, the leaps that hang five seconds longer that should be humanly possible, and the signature mid-air catch of a soaring woman (one that looked very close to a near miss from more than a few gasps in the audience). This cast, dancing to live orchestra, captured the essence of the piece with joy.

In a dance and choreographic career that spans close to six decades, Paul Taylor remains the last of the living 20th century dance masters of his generation. To that end, a little more than a year ago, he announced the formation of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, an initiative that will both revive classic modern dance repertory works from the past on the Taylor company and commission a new generation of rising choreographers to craft works on this company of top dancers. At this point the revivals and new pieces – this year including works by Larry Keigwin, Doug Elkins and Lila York, a Taylor alum – have been seen only in the company’s New York season. Let’s hope this project will make its way to Washington’s Kennedy Center and around the country to provide both an historical connection with modern dance’s past and a look at what the future will hold

Running Time: Approximately two hours.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs through May 28, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater-2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.