The first word that comes to mind when I think of the iconic Paul Taylor Dance Company is energy-boundless energy. That energy left me breathless Saturday night, as I watched the first of 2 performances the company danced this past weekend at the Auditorium Theatre, after an absence of 30 years. The company’s return here was long overdue.
Considered the greatest living pioneer of America’s indigenous art of modern dance, 83 year old Taylor has been making dances since 1954, was a soloist with Martha Graham for seven years, and has contributed 140 works to the canon of American dance over the past 60 years. Not content to rest on his laurels, he continues to choreograph several new works a year.
The vibrant, almost non-stop movement by Taylor’s 16 young, powerful dancers, was emblematic of his dynamic but smooth and fluid approach to modern dance, grounded in often pedestrian gestures and movements of everyday people, rather than the more lofty steps and poses of more traditional dance. Walking, running, rolling, leaping and jumping begin as simple propulsion, but with Taylor’s vision take on a beauty and strength that become expressions of joy, sadness, disappointment, flirtation, or love. He excels in creating stories of relationships through pure dance movement, and explores larger themes of war, sexuality, mortality, and spirituality.
The 3 works on the bill embodied different moods and different times. Opening with “Black Tuesday”, first performed in 2001 but recalling the era of the 1930s, the dancers performed to songs from the Great Depression, striking poses reminiscent of the era.Portraying Vaudevillians and doughboys, showgirls and newsgirls, and costumed by Santo Loquasto, the ensemble effectively illuminated both the can-do spirit, as well as the hardships of the times. Solos by Heather McGinley to the torch song “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, and Michael Trusnovec to“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” were particularlycompelling.
Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Elegy for Strings set the mood for “Sunset”, a poignant look at camaraderie among soldiers and the sweethearts they leave behind. This piece, first performed in 1983, is one of several “war story” dances Paul Taylor has made, causing the New York Times to call him “one of the great war poets”. It is a moving meditation on one of Mr.Taylor’s big themes—war and relationships—and examines the impact of going off to battle, loss and memory. He paints pictures of emotions through moments of stillness and seamless phrases of continuous movement and spirals that glide and shift effortlessly in time and space.
But it is in Mercuric Tidings, set to excerpts of Franz Schubert’s wondrous Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, that the exuberance of Mr. Taylor’s creative energy is on full display. This is dance for the sheer joy of dance, and dance phrases flow easily one into the next almost as rolling waves and spirals. Although the title refers to the messages being delivered by the god Mercury, the word itself reminds me of “mercurial”--speedy, lively and sprightly, changing moods quickly and often—all seen in this masterful dancework.
Like his signature work, “Esplanade” (1975), and employing some of his most recognizable moves, Taylor has the dancers move at full throttle--in circular runs, stag leaps, and racing across the stage that end in slides on the floor. Softly rounded arms reach either heavenward or diagonally down, often repeated or shadowed by one or more dancers, and quick, lightning speed, non-stop running makes me think the dancers’ muscles must be crying for oxygen as they exit into the wings for a moment to catch their breath.
Taylor makes you want to run up on stage and join the action. I was left breathless, but certainly alive. Santo Loquasto again created the costumes, this time full length blue leotards and tights with white bands encircling torsos and legs that carry out the theme of unending circular movement.
Mr. Taylor’s work is astonishingly athletic, often beautifully romantic. He has been hailed as a great “Dancemaker” (1998 documentary). He is also a consummate storyteller. I hope Chicago does not have to wait another 30 years to see this company on our stage again.
Go to the Paul Taylor Dance Company Website for more information.
Photos: Tom Cavaglia