At last, Esplanade. The Paul Taylor Dance Company performed an exuberant version of what is generally considered Taylor’s most popular work to a very enthusiastic audience March 23 in Lake Worth.
To finally see Esplanade performed on the Duncan Theatre stage was like eating the cherry on top of a long-awaited ice cream sundae. The company has participated in Palm Beach State College’s very popular Modern Dance Series five times since 2012, and adding this signature work was the perfect choice for this year’s program, which celebrated the legacy of Taylor, modern dance’s beloved renegade, who died last August at the age of 88.
A man of few words whose dance works spoke volumes, Taylor found quiet inspiration in that which surrounded him. Never one to keep up with trends, his choreographic voice was uniquely authentic during the six decades he unpretentiously dominated the modern dance world. Taylor began choreographing in 1954 and continued while he danced with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, José Limón and Jerome Robbins. His vast array of works are immensely diverse and always relevant — spanning from the purity of movement in Aureole (1962) to the sharp social commentary on incest in Big Bertha (1970).
To see Esplanade was to see what drew people to Taylor’s work. It was accessible and it was artful, but above all, it vibrated with life. It started with a simple walk that introduced six women and three men who were dressed in beige and orange, dance-like street clothes. As they entered and exited, they slowly added variations to the walk, which the others copied as they started meeting and connecting. The jaunty little steps turned into patterns that looked so easy and fun to do that one thought it would be child’s play to join the dancers onstage.
Set to two violin concertos of J.S. Bach — the solo concerto in E major and the Double Concerto in D minor — the pace began to accelerate. The walking turned at times to crawling and variations on falling to the floor and rolling right back up. Soon the walking was elevated to running. At each entrance, the deceptively simple pedestrian-like movement was notched up, becoming so speedy and daredevil that audience members knew to abandon any dream of attempting (and surviving) any of those fleet-footed steps.
Artfully crafted with playful interactions, echoing canons and quadrille-like patterns, Esplanade was Taylor at his purest and it served as a marvelous closing to the evening.
Opening the program, and a perfect counterpart to Esplanade (1975), was the last dance that Taylor choreographed, his 147th work, Concertiana (2018). It is a suite of duets and trios within an ensemble work for 11 dancers, set to a commissioned score by Eric Ewazen, with costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by James F. Ingalls.
In the no-narrative, no-plot work, Taylor again chose to revel in the craft of moving dancers through space. Filled with gesture and movement motifs that could be referred as Taylorisms, he adeptly created a work that highlighted the newest dancers in his troupe together with his seasoned dancers (some of whom have been dancing with the company for nearly 20 years). In fact, this seemed to be a message Taylor wove into his final work — make room for the young and energized. It has been widely said that Taylor’s loyal and talented dancers are more than just his artistic tools; they were also his family.
The final moment in his final dance was a quiet moment, highlighted in a warm spotlight in the center of the stage, where the dancers collected to pose, standing close together and looking out to the audience. It was a keepsake — a beautiful family portrait.
The third work on the program was Dust (1977), and despite the music (a bright harpsichord concerto by Francis Poulenc called Concert Champêtre) and the jester-like humor that ran through it, Dust had a foreboding air to it. Gene Moore’s costumes and set also contributed to the somber mood. Just off center in magnified scale hung a black knotted rope that looked ominous and made the space subterranean and difficult to exit. No one even touched the set during the work, making one sense that death is a one-way road.
The costumes were flesh-colored leotards with red symbols attached to them that looked like skin sores, but they were also strangely beautiful, like the close-up image of a diseased cell under the microscope. The nine dancers looked contorted and disfigured, scratching and hobbling around. Sometimes they were covered by dark drapes as if they had met their destiny during the Black Plague, which Taylor somewhat satirized with his quirky movements.
It is interesting to note that Taylor chose which of his dances would be on the program for every performance and the Duncan Theatre program was no exception, which made including Dust an especially poignant choice. Did he know that when the Duncan program would be performed, he would no longer be here? It is classic Taylor juxtapositioning — dark against light.
I have always had the utmost respect for the life that Paul Taylor lived. I admired his enormous dedication to his art form. Very few have this kind of tremendous talent combined with an unflagging fortitude and too few have left such a legacy. I am grateful that Taylor had the foresight to create Paul Taylor American Modern Dance to ensure that his artistic legacy would be carried on for future generations to experience.
In addition to Taylor’s works, PTAMD has the mission to present the dance works of the great choreographers of the past such as Isadora Duncan, Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham as well as the dance works of important current choreographers.
Michael Novak, a dancer in the company since 2010, was surprised to be hand-picked by Taylor to carry on his legacy. Serving in his role as the new artistic director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company for just seven months, Novak said in the post-performance talk-back that he felt confident he would be able to carry out Taylor’s wishes. He explained how fortunate it was that, over the course of the last few months of Taylor’s life, he had the opportunity to learn personally from Taylor exactly what his vision for the company would be in the future without him.
Before the performance began, Mark P. Alexander, executive director of Palm Beach State College Theatres, announced which dance companies will be participating in the Duncan Theatre’s 2020 season. They are: Ballet X on Jan. 17 and 18; Dorrance Dance on Feb. 7 and 8; Chez Malambo/Argentina on Feb. 28 and 29; and Pilobolus on April 3 and 4.