New York drama critics are forced to attend so many Broadway openings in March and April that they don’t have time to do much of anything else. Needless to say, I love theater, but I’m not monomaniacal about it, so I figured I’d better indulge a couple of my other artistic interests while I still could. To that much-needed end, I went to the press view of the Metropolitan Museum’s Marsden Hartley exhibition on Monday morning, and I went with a friend to Lincoln Center last night to see what is now, I gather, called Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.
No, the Paul Taylor Dance Company hasn’t gone out of business, but it’s changed its ways slightly. Here’s the official explanation:
Through a new initiative at Lincoln Center—Paul Taylor American Modern Dance—great modern works of the past and outstanding works by today’s leading choreographers are presented alongside Mr. Taylor’s own vast and growing repertoire. And Taylor Company Commissions enables the next generation of dance makers to work with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, thereby helping to ensure the future of the art form. As an integral part of Mr. Taylor’s vision, these dances are accompanied at Lincoln Center by live music whenever so intended by the choreographer.
I’m for all of this, so long as Taylor’s own supremely great dances don’t get lost, so to speak, in the shuffle. Fortunately, Tuesday’s program was a jackpot for anyone who loves modern dance. Not only did the Taylor company perform his Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) and Esplanade, but six dancers from the Lyon Opera Ballet performed Summerspace, a Merce Cunningham masterpiece made in 1958. As mixed bills go, that one is pretty hard to top.
Esplanade is, of course, Taylor’s signature piece, a joyous collage of “found” movement—running, jumping, hopping, skipping, sliding—set to the music of Bach. It was first seen in 1975 and hasn’t dated in the slightest since then. Esplanade is one of the dances I love best, but I don’t get to many dance performances these days, and though I went to see it last year for the first time in God only knows how long, I was more than glad to see so festive a piece for two years running, especially on the first day of spring.
As for The Rite of Spring (The Rehearsal), a surreal blend of dance rehearsal and gangster movie that is accompanied by Igor Stravinsky’s piano-duet arrangement of the greatest ballet score of the twentieth century, it doesn’t get done nearly as often as it should, nor can it be viewed on home video. It was premiered in 1980 and I last saw it danced in 2000, the same year that I watched Taylor rehearse his company and wrote about the experience. It’s one of the works by Taylor that I had in mind when I teasingly asked, “How dare a modernist be so much fun?” Yes, Sacre is more than merely fun—the climactic sequence is wrenchingly emotional—but the juxtaposition of frivolity and utter seriousness is an important part of what makes Taylor Taylor, and in no other dance is it so fully on display.
It’s been even longer since I last saw a performance of Summerspace, which is a somewhat tougher nut to crack, set as it is to a wispy, elusively abstract composition by Morton Feldman called Ixion. But Cunningham’s airy choreography and Robert Rauschenberg’s décor, a pointillistic backdrop into which the dancers, who wear similarly colored unitards, all but dissolve, turn out to be unexpectedly easy to like, and if you’ve never seen anything by Cunningham, Summerspace is a good way to get started.
My friend, a singer-songwriter who knew nothing going in about Taylor, Cunningham, or Rauschenberg, was thrilled by everything she saw and heard. Me, too. Dance on Broadway can be and often is wonderful in its own way, but it rarely aspires to the richness and subtlety that are constantly on display whenever you spend an evening looking at the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and it’s been far too long since I challenged my eye and elevated my spirits by doing just that. Better still to be able to share so wonderful an experience with a good friend. I went home feeling both happy and generous—a soul-satisfying combination.
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Kristine Scholz and Mats Persson play the two-piano version of Morton Feldman’s Ixion:
The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs the second movement of Esplanade, set to the slow movement of Bach’s E Major Violin Concerto, on PBS in 1978. The dancers are Carolyn Adams, Ruth Andrien, Elie Chaib, Bettie de Jong, Nicholas Gunn, Robert Kahn, Linda Kent, Monica Morris, and Lila York: