Powerful Dancers Counterbalance Choreographic Inconsistencies: Paul Taylor Dance Company at Northrop Auditorium

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Dancer: Michelle Fleet Photo by: Tim Caravaglia

Dancer: Michelle Fleet
Photo by: Tim Caravaglia

The first time I saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company was their performance of Esplanade in the 2008 Fall for Dance Festival at New York’s City Center. I still recall Amy Young’s spirited leaps over that long diagonal of rose and orange-clad dancers laying prone and sometimes rolling up or downstage. That moment—reminiscent of playtime among friends—made a special impression and has stayed with me ever since.

Six years later, making my way to Northrop Auditorium this past September 27, I realized that I was en route to my first full evening’s worth of performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Considering the impact that Taylor and his dancers have made worldwide, my realization was thrilling—”Finally!”—and shocking—”Where have I been?!?”

The company presented three pieces, all choreographed by Taylor: Aureole (first performed in 1962), Beloved Renegade (first performed in 2008), and Piazzolla Caldera (first performed in 1997). This range in the program gave us in the audience an opportunity to see how Taylor’s choreographic style has progressed through time.

Taylor’s dancers are remarkable athletes who exhibited impressive strength and stamina. Onstage interactions suggested the same playful, comfortable relationship that I had sensed among the PTDC dancers years ago. A glance at the program shows that most company members have been affiliated PTDC for at least 10 years; perhaps the apparent ease with which the company interacts follows from their longstanding relationships with one another and Paul Taylor.

Aureole opened the evening. During the pause that followed the piece, some other audience members suggested that, though pleasant and important from a historical perspective, Aureole was a lackluster and dated work of art. I had a different impression. The piece is a cheery, often symmetrical, depiction of human interaction through solo, duet and ensemble dances.  With a mix of quick jumps, tilting bodies, hops on one leg, and arms sweeping from overhead V-shapes to relaxed, low positions, it is all undeniably Taylor. And Aureole is without question of an earlier time. But this is precisely why it is an exciting work of art—Aureole offers a priceless glimpse into decades past.

Next up was Beloved Renegade.

It felt long.

Pairs and small groups of dancers walked, knelt, and lifted one another across the stage, regularly reaching up to the ceiling with clasped hands as if pleading or praying. The piece succeeded in evoking a solemn, almost mournful mood, but never made much conceptual or compositional progress past that.

"Piazzolla Caldera" Photo by: Paul B. Goode

“Piazzolla Caldera”
Photo by: Paul B. Goode

I wanted to love Piazzolla Caldena, a dance set to music composed by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla and performed live by Pablo Ziegler’s world-renowned New Tango Ensemble. About a dozen whimsically shaped lamps warmed the stage floor with dim, golden light, setting a glamorous, sultry tone.  The dancers took to the stage in costumes reminiscent of those worn in Michael Jackson’s “Blood is on the Dance Floor” music video, the piece began, and my heart sank.

Save for some lucky moments—the juxtaposition of forceful torso movements with the elegance of the music, an athletic and nuanced male duet—the movement was mostly disappointing and off-putting. Piazzolla Caldena, though perhaps not as problematic as other, similar cases of appropriation, was unfortunate nonetheless—a blend of stereotypical Latin characters, Hollywood star Rodolph Valentino’s sensationalized and mixed-up version of the tango, and gestures associated with the bullfighters and flamenco dancers of Spain. Borrowing the flavor but not the substance of a culturally specific dance form lends itself to making significant, even offensive, errors. I expected more from this final piece of the program.

Choreographic glitches aside, it was a joy to watch the members of Paul Taylor Dance Company in action. The dancers are powerful examples of excellence in modern dance. Their long-standing commitments to  Paul Taylor and his choreography not only bring brilliant performances to stage today, but help ensure his artistic legacy. 


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