“The Open Door," “Continuum,” “Brandenburgs”
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
Paul Taylor Dance Company
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
March 9, 2016
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2016 by Michael Popkin
What a feast Thursday night’s Paul Taylor New York gala was. With Taylor himself now 89 years old, the New York premieres of his latest work “The Open Door” and Lila York’s “Continuum” (commissioned by the company) showed that we can still regale ourselves with the living source of a great wellspring of contemporary dance, both in the person of the choreographer and in that of the company he has shaped. “The Open Door,” understated on its surface, steadily developed a poignant force that stayed with one long after the performance ended. “Continuum,” while effortful at times, was also a keeper, with York’s choreography providing the base for extraordinary dancing , especially that of Eran Bugge in the leading role. Meanwhile Taylor’s “Brandenburgs” ended the evening with a work of genius that felt as fresh today as it did in 1988 when new.
Photograph © Paul B. Goode of Francisco Graciano and James Samson in "The Open Door"
At the beginning Novak fussily rearranges the chairs to the music of a prelude. When the cast of ten assembles, they first introduce themselves with brief comic vignettes before proceeding to action. Halzack engages in pratfalls when she can’t fit into her chair, but as the music takes on sonority and force, Jamie Rae Walker – whose character is a painter in a blue smock and a beret, carrying a palate and brush - dances an expansive solo ending a gracious lift. Graciano’s soldier and James Samson (costumed in contemporary shorts, sneakers and sweater in red), have been seated on either side of her and respond by fighting over her. Yet as soon as the host settles the dispute with good manners and the music swells up in lyrical chords, the open-hearted dancing of Walker’s solo spreads to the others on stage. The entire cast rises in unison advancing in a small block across the stage extending their palms upward to dance ensemble. It feels like reconciliation. All then take their leave, exiting through the open door one by one.
But still the piece is not over. Left alone onstage, Novak first fiddles with the chairs – another of Taylor’s iconic outsiders, preoccupied and isolated. As the music becomes pizzicato in the final Enigma variation, deconstructing the original theme one final time, he dances a poignant solo of small half bends of the knee and slightly awkward motions of the back, like those of old age and pain but nonetheless graceful. Meanwhile the light outside turns to sunset. Novak exits. The stage is bare.
Watching, one cannot help being struck by the powerfully indeterminate subtext of Taylor’s poetry in this piece, suggesting in its choice of personae at once portraits of his dancers as individuals, of the company as a group (and now on the verge of what sooner or later has to be his loss) and perhaps Taylor’s own nostalgia or pre-grief at having to say goodbye to them. The emotional trope extends to the audience as well. But still more, if you make the supposition that a fair amount of improvisation by the company dancers themselves may have been involved in the composition of this work, it also suggests a self-portrait by Taylor’s children on the edge of the unknown, all to Elgar’s swan song for the Edwardian Age. Yet everything is uncertain and fleeting, an enigmatic dance to Enigma Variations. What a “subtle artist” Taylor is, as the critic Robert Johnson has so often said.
After an intermission, Lila York’s new “Continuum,” to Max Richter’s “Recomposed: The Four Seasons,” provided a nice contrast to the nostalgic subtlety of the preceding dance in both the boldness of its dancing and visual strength of its mise-en-scéne. Soft overhead flood lighting relieved by spotlights on the individual dancers (designed by James F. Ingalls who also lit “The Open Door”) bathed the performers in the kind of dramatic illumination usually reserved for sculpture. The opening tableau had cast of seven men and seven women (all dressed by Santo Loquasto in off white or soft pastel shades, the men in leotards with piping, the women in chiffon to the knee) gathered in a tight group lifting Eran Bugge in a shorter chiffon pink dress above them. To stirring music Bugge then exploded across the stage in diagonals of startling virtuosity, seeming an animating principle amongst the rest of the cast, suggesting at once a Mercuric messenger or Biblical logos. At about half an hour’s length, York’s structure for the work continued to alternate solos for Bugge (along with a strong duet for her and George Smallwood) with group entrances for the ensemble and a series of duets for other couples.
In the dance’s best moment (apart from Bugge’s always free and powerful dancing), Sean Mahoney and Heather McGinley performed a hushed adagio duet of continuous partnered turns and lifts, where the unspooling of their promenade matched the quiet shimmering of the music and the turning never stopped. As part of a composition where York (herself a member of the Taylor company from 1973 to 1985) has stated she took inspiration from the Thomas Paine quote: “[w]e have it in our power to begin the world over again,” this was the moment she was most herself as a choreographer and most free from the style of her mentor and alma mater. Another duet that had Michael Trusnovec anxiously contracting himself on the floor while Laura Halzack quietly turned across the stage in one of Taylor’s signature penché balances felt both overly derivative of the parent company style and nearly a parody of Trusnovec’s stage persona.
Still, closing the program in “Brandenburgs” later in the evening, Trusnovec was fully himself. Merely posing in contr’aposto (spotlit by Jennifer Tipton’s design) while he watched Michelle Fleet, Parisa Kobdeh and Bugge dance a trio of unison turns, he became an equal partner in their dance while standing still. A unique performer of rare physical genius, Trusnovec is Taylor’s outsider personified, the central emotional figure in so much of the choreographer’s opus. Yet even here you can’t properly single just him out for praise. Throughout the evening the entire company danced with extraordinary focus and force as a whole, while the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (conducted by Ted Sperling) provided flawless musical accompaniment.
Further photographs copyright © Paul B. Goode:
Middle - Jamie Rae Walker (dancing) with left to right (seated) Laura Hallzack, Michael Novack, George Smallwood, Francisco Graciano and James Samson in "The Open Door;"
Bottom - George Smallwood and Christina Lynch Markham in "The Open Door;"