Richardson — Paul Taylor’s death in August 2018 left the dance community mourning, not only for another creative mind and warm spirit lost but for another twentieth-century modern dance pioneer gone, with very few left. Fortunately before he passed, he established Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, which would present not only his works at New York’s Lincoln Center but also those of early modern dance history and up-and-coming dancemakers. Many historic modern companies have adopted versions of this trifold effort to preserve and cultivate the art form, so as the trailblazers continue to pass on, their contributions still breath life.
While Paul Taylor Dance Company will travel with new commissions, artistic director Michael Novak treats this season of touring as a tribute to the diversity of Taylor’s body of work. Out of the 147 dances in the repertoire, he chose twenty-four to tour this year, with Richardson being the first stop. The Charles W. Eisemann Center has had a close relationship with PTDC since opening its doors in 2002, and the Feb. 9 performance marked the ninth time they’ve hosted the company.
An exquisite lineup of dances delivered the emotional range of a fulfilling narrative. A pleasing, clear opening jumped to the quirky and humorous, then the audience was swept up in intrigue and spice before the evening ended with breathtaking and profound unity. As programs go, it was a most stunning arrangement.
Aureole, one of Taylor’s early works from 1962, highlighted the simplicity and precision typical of mid-century modern dance. Five dancers in white costumes against a colored cyclorama deftly maneuvered through shapes of extended limbs and spiraling torsos, with various allegro traveling phrases sprinkled throughout. Sean Mahoney’s stunning solo exuded traditional modern technique qualities with utterly satisfying results. Joyful and upbeat, yet tempered enough to match the balanced Baroque music from George Frideric Handel, they engaged the audience and each other with delightful facial expressions.
That human aspect was nowhere to be seen with the amusing 3 Epitaphs (1956), in which the five cast members donned full-body gray suits with a mesh-like texture, and round mirrors placed on their covered heads, almost resembling a fly. A recording of the Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band playing a raw, early New Orleans jazz song matched their weighted slumped, slinking postures. As they interacted with each other, their awkward shapes seemed miles away from the pristine choreography of the previous piece, but their transitions and clarity demonstrated cohesion regardless of style.
After an intermission, the curtain rose on a textured crimson background with lights suspended from above. The twelve-member cast, divided into men’s and women’s groups, stood motionless for the audience to take in the stimulating picture. Ladies clad in floral dresses that revealed stockings contrasted nicely with the men’s dark pinstripe pants and black tops and vests.
Tango music by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky provided the mood for flirtation, seduction, resistance, and conflict, but although those are key facets in tango dancing, no steps from the Argentinian form appeared. Tight-knit ensemble segments broke into partnering, and a loose narrative thread featuring Parisa Khobdeh emerged. Displays of loneliness, passion, and searching shone through a sultry pas de trois with Eran Bugge and Robert Kleinendorst and various solo moments.
The piece contained much more complex choreography than the previous two works, but the dancers maintained their commit to clear, connected execution, with dazzling ensemble precision. The dance picks up speed with quick percussion, rapidly-moving partnering and ensemble segments, double cartwheels, and even swaying lights. Even with the dizzying picture, the dancers revealed effortless, impeccable qualities.
Following a second intermission, Promethean Fire (2002) proved the greatest of the evening. Johann Sebastain Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor (played with strings rather than the organ) began before the curtain rose, setting an ominous tone. A slow, dramatic curtain lift unveiled the entire 16-member cast dressed in black unitards with a gold V-pattern repeating along the length of the body. Although the music communicated uncertainty, the dancers displayed a fierce serenity.
Motifs from previous works repeated, with much of the cast appearing on stage the majority of the dance. It’s difficult to pinpoint a singular stunning moment, as each change of shape and quality exhibited its own breathtaking aesthetic, whether it was the unison choreography, the traveling lifts, or adagio with underlying resistance. Michael Trusnovec and Khobdeh delivered a beautiful duet complete with a heart-stopping leap and catch. Logical repetitions, visually-impressive canons and contrasting tempos added a marvelous depth and complexity, before closing with a dramatic, unified picture of hope and strength.