Paul Taylor: Elegant, Genteel, Pretty and Fun to Watch

When Jerry Garcia died I remember thinking, “I wish I’d seen the Grateful Dead live.” Everyone talks about how amazing they were in concert and even though I was never a Dead Head I wish I had experienced it firsthand.

Under the direction of their 85 year-old namesake The Paul Taylor Company is something of a modern dance equivalent to The Dead. It’s impossible to briefly summarize Taylor’s artistic accomplishment and influence; In 1985 he received the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and he’s been the subject of multiple biographic films worth watching.

Taylor’s dances are engaging, enjoyable, and in certain ways, fulfilling. His dancers execute with physical modern dance virtuosity within a bound human range. They usually perform in bare feet, work with curvature of the spine typical to modern dance, and use some momentum in the phrasing. You don’t expect – nor will you see – a circus act at a Taylor show but that keeps open the space for a strong empathy with the performers.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performing "Mercuric Tidings"

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performing “Mercuric Tidings”

This week at The Kennedy Center the company is performing six better-known works created by Taylor between 1975 and 2008. One critic recently panned the new Taylor choreography “Sulliviniana” (2016) writing, “the whole thing feels like ballet – elegant, genteel, pretty – without generating any fun”. Taylor’s older works cannot be criticized in the same way; they are elegant, genteel, pretty, and they do generate a lot of fun.

One section of Taylor’s “Esplanade” (1975), a work currently in performance at The Kennedy Center, features a female dancer performing a petite Irish Jig of sorts while standing on the pelvis of her recumbent male partner. This irreverent reorientation is still crazy after all these years and it’s part of what made a generation fall in love with American modern dance.

The Taylor dancers are as strong as ever and in the first two pieces you could see that literally. “Mercuric Tidings” and “Polaris” set the dancers in costumes that could possibly be found in the underwear section of a fashion boutique. In “Tidings” they’re hot pink and in “Polaris” they’re black and white, but in both they’re skimpy and skin-tight.

Even with the disco-runway fashions, Taylor orients toward classicism and that’s always been part of his charm. Performed to Schubert, the choreography of “Mercuric Tidings” maintains a very square relationship to the music and the postures are classically derivative. The dancers’ feet hit every beat as they scamper around the stage, and their arms extend to hit perfect sculptural lines. It’s easier to describe “Mercuric Tidings” humorously than accurately (an expressive herd of hot pink nymphs/nymphets?) but as Anna Kisselgoff wrote in her 1982 review, “To suggest that Paul Taylor’s ‘Mercuric Tidings’ just sings is not quite right. It is a dance work that bursts seemingly into song.”

Athletes in underwear are easy to watch or whatever and last night “Polaris” (1976) was the more interesting character study. Danced in and out of a cube (designed by Alex Katz) the music, an original score by Donald York, reminded me at times of Jimmy Stewart movies and functioned nicely with the contemporary (sic) set. The closer on Wednesday night’s show was Taylor’s “Esplanade” (1975). Set to violin concertos by J. S. Bach, nicely played in this run by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, “Esplanade” is still a gorgeous romp, loosely inspired by a woman trying to catch the bus. The whole show was highly watchable theater dance.

In 2014 the Taylor Company reinvented itself to become “Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance featuring the Paul Taylor Dance Company”. That business model may allow the company to smoothly evolve past its founder’s day to day direction and one can expect we’ll have opportunity to enjoy Taylor dances for decades to come.

I saw the Merce Cunningham Company in one of their last performances before Merced died and the company disbanded, and I’m glad I did.  While the decades when new Taylor dances were reliably trenchant and inventive are gone – the French government knighted him in 1969! – the dancers are gorgeous under his direction and this run of shows at the Kennedy Center is a feast of his older, astute, works.

This article was published here on DCTheatreScene.com.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.

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