Does the future of “American Modern Dance” reside in its past? – What’s next for Paul Taylor Dance Company

Paul Taylor, 1960. Photo by Carl Van Vechten

Paul Taylor, 1960. Photo by Carl Van Vechten

Just last week, I mentioned in my review of Martha Graham Dance Company the risk of bringing in new choreographers to create dances under the auspices of companies that are still heavily associated with the memories of their founders. Since I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend, it’s quite timely that yesterday The New York Times released an article by head dance critic Alastair Macaulay describing a major transition that’s about to take place for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Starting next season, the company will be renamed “Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance,” and will begin to incorporate other classic works from 20th-century modern dance greats, many of whom were Taylor’s peers (like Martha Graham and José Limón), as well as new works by present day choreographers.

Paul Taylor Dance Company is celebrating it’s 60th Anniversary Season at Lincoln Center through the end of this month, and considering that the entirety of the company’s current repertory is Taylor works, this is a big transition. As Macaulay points out, expanding into new choreographic territories means the dancers, who have spent years perfect Taylor’s physical, theatrical style, will need to adapt to new movement vocabularies very quickly. Furthermore, it’s one thing to revive works by the “American moderns” that are known and loved, but to bring new choreographers to such a well-known company puts the company’s reputation in the hands of the unknown.

On the other hand, Mr. Taylor is now 83, and planning for an artistic transition is a very responsible thing to do to ensure the longevity of his company for many years beyond his time. Other companies have certainly done this and had successful results – Martha Graham Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are two stories to note. But, as Macaulay touches upon in his article, this season of PTDC has not been as satisfying as many audience members and life-long Taylor fans expected. The dancing is wonderful, without a doubt, but the selection of repertory left something to be desired. I saw PTDC last Wednesday, March 19th, and was a bit confused by the evening’s programming. The program began with 2013’s Perpetual Dawn, an aesthetically pleasing work that had its ups and downs (because of the earth-tone dresses and Baroque music, I couldn’t help by compare it to Esplanade, which probably explains my lack of enthusiasm). Perpetual Dawn was followed by Fibers, a piece from 1961 that felt unfortunately dated. Though the music by Arnold Schoenberg was wonderful, and the costumes and sets were colorful and exciting, I felt like I already knew what the piece would be like before it even began. Third on the program was the reduced version of Troilus and Cressida, which I have to admit was just too wacky to enjoy. The dancing was supposed to look funny, I know, but it ended up looking unskilled.

Any shortcomings of the first three pieces were redeemed by the final work, Black Tuesday. Using music from the Great Depression era, the piece picks apart the meaning of love, friendship, hope, and despair during a time of universal hardship. Solos danced by Heather McGinley (to The Boulevard of Broken Dreams) and Michael Trusnovec (to Brother Can You Spare a Dime?) prove that this piece is really Taylor at his best. He knows how to play to his audiences’ emotions by confronting them with undeniably familiar images. He’s tackled tough topics like war, sexuality, religion, and violence, as well as love, patriotism, and man’s place in nature. As far a social commentary goes, Paul Taylor is the master of using his art to make a point.

So, with this incredible arsenal of sixty years’ worth of dances to pull from, why did this program include three lackluster pieces? Macaulay and I are of the same mind on this topic – some of Taylor’s best pieces, like Aureole and Company B, are conspicuously absent from this season’s program. I understand that a Diamond Anniversary is an opportunity to stage a rigorous retrospective, but still, this is an incredibly visible season, and one that I hope will be remembered for what it was, not what it could have been.

It’s easy to pick apart artistic decisions from afar, but when Mr. Taylor joined his dancers on stage for their company bow after Black Tuesday, any sense of criticism I had immediately fell by the wayside. In the presence of Mr. Taylor, all I could think about was how much this man loves dance. He loves his dancers, too. Even at 83, he’s still finding ways to provide for them. As he bowed alongside his cast, the audience couldn’t help but stand and applaud this man who has dedicated his entire life to reaching people through his choreography. I sincerely hope that 60 years from now, that artistic passion is still alive and well in Mr. Taylor’s evolving company.

To read Alastair Macaulay’s article about the future of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, click here

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