A dancemaker’s legacy

The Annenberg Center Live and NextMove Dance present Paul Taylor Dance Company

4 minute read
Military occupation as a backdrop for romance: the Paul Taylor ensemble in ‘Sunset.’ (Photo by Paul B. Goode.)
Military occupation as a backdrop for romance: the Paul Taylor ensemble in ‘Sunset.’ (Photo by Paul B. Goode.)

On its 17th visit to Philadelphia, Paul Taylor Dance Company performed three dances from its repertoire of 147 works. The program began with a short film about Taylor (1930-2018), the so-called bad boy of American modern dance, whose namesake company is now under the artistic direction of Michael Novak. In the film, Taylor distilled his legacy of pushing the boundaries of modern dance by describing himself as a dancemaker. The evening’s three very different pieces aptly conveyed the breadth of form and content in Taylor’s dancemaking, as well as the company’s fine members, illuminated by Jennifer Tipton’s soulful lighting design.

All three of the dances were created decades ago, yet each contained elements of freshness and innovation. Syzygy (1987) combined electronic music with modern dance and breakdance, Piazzola Caldera (1997) incorporated Latin and ballroom styles, and Sunset (1983) portrayed love and desire from heterosexual and homosexual perspectives.

Celestial bodies

The program began with Syzygy, a dance named for celestial bodies moving in conjunction or opposition, such as the sun and the moon. The dancers wore shimmery metallic costumes by Santo Loquasto, and a comet-like light projection behind them suggested forces of nature or the heavens. Fittingly, their movements captured unstoppable energy and even the laws of physics. Bodies set in motion, with whirling arms spinning like gears, conjured the dance of planetary orbit.

The dancers seemed animated by external forces, such as when the women kicked their feet frenetically as their male partners lifted them. Sometimes the energy was graceful, as in a sequence of barrel turns followed by the formation of two lines of dancers weaving forward and backward. Tipton’s lighting bathed the movement in warm, gold light and cast gentle shadows. Heavy use of synthesizers in Donald York’s music made Syzygy sound a bit dated, but it was beautiful to see. Madelyn Ho shone as an orbiting figure, turning slowly on one leg, like a music box ballerina or the center of a solar system.

Love and war

Sunset followed with a narrative and figurative dance that set it apart from abstract aesthetics of Syzygy. Male dancers wore costumes by Alex Katz resembling military uniforms, complete with red berets, while female dancers wore white dresses with swingy skirts. Together, they suggested young soldiers and townspeople turning each other’s heads, with war or military occupation receding into a mere backdrop for romance. Sometimes the men stood at a railing, looking downward as if in surveillance, but Sunset focused on the interactions between the men and women.

In one romantic sequence, female dancers seemed to watch wistfully as one from their group joined the soldiers for a series of graceful lifts. Next, the men formed a human staircase that the female dancer descended, escorted by a gallant soldier. A middle section used nature sounds and shadow projections to suggest nighttime, yet it seemed out of place in the dance as a whole. More interesting was a duet between two soldiers who sought affection in one another.

South American flair: the Paul Taylor ensemble in 'Piazzola Caldera.' (Photo by Paul B. Goode.)
South American flair: the Paul Taylor ensemble in 'Piazzola Caldera.' (Photo by Paul B. Goode.)

Tango, bullfighting, and a bar

Piazzola Caldera rounded out the evening with South American flair, beginning with a quote from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in the program. While I admire the passion and earthiness of Neruda’s writing, his lines about the baseness and confusion of the human condition made me apprehensive about the dance I was about to see. Happily, Piazzola Caldera evoked structured elegance rather than vulgar chaos. The first movement suggested tango with ballroom-style partner dances, as well as bullfighting with male dancers spinning with hands on hips.

Other memorable images included a female dancer who straddled the neck of her partner, and a man who carried a female dancer on each arm. Lamps suspended from the ceiling gave the set the look of a bar or dance club, and they began to sway during a duet with two dancers affecting tipsiness. They slumped down, collapsing into sleep, and the dance ended with a sensual pile of bodies suggesting the end of a raucous, sexy evening.

Movement landscapes

Like both Syzygy and Sunset, Piazzola Caldera seemed a bit too long, with discrete sections that did not always cohere. The same was true for the program as a whole, for while these dances highlighted the company’s range, they did not necessarily fit together. Taylor’s strengths as a choreographer include creating movement landscapes out of tempo, space, and formation, in addition to the unique blend of dance styles and provocative subjects for which he is known. His dances may not say much beyond these innovations, but perhaps they don’t need to.

What, When, Where

Paul Taylor Dance Company, presented by the Annenberg Center Live and NextMove Dance. January 24 through 26 at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., Philadelphia. (215) 422-4580 or annenbergcenter.org.

The Annenberg Center accommodates the needs of individuals with physical disabilities. Details are available online. The Annenberg has a gender-neutral restroom.

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