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Victor Lucas, CoolCleveland  |  November 20, 2017

DANCE REVIEW: Paul Taylor American Modern Dance @ PlayhouseSquare by Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

Was the Ohio Theatre sold out? Yes. Did the men look like burly CrossFit athletes? Yes. Were we dazzled by the outpouring of energy and physicality from the first few moments of the first dance? Yes. Otherwise it would not have been the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Company. Yes, we love Paul Taylor - but now we dip a toe into the deep question of, why do we love Paul Taylor?

The concert began with Arden Court (1981), a dance for six men and three women set to excerpts from symphonies by an English Baroque composer William Boyce. The first musical selection plays while the curtain is down but for the second musical selection, a kind of fanfare in time, the curtain comes up and we see an explosive, proscenium-filling, diagonal-crossing display of big jumps by the six men.

These are not the apparently effortless jumps of male ballet dancers with impeccably pointed feet, slender elongated limbs in immaculate lines and nearly inaudible landings. For the Taylor dancers, especially the men, musicality and physicality run neck and neck for first importance. Power trumps line. Thudding landings are practically de rigueur.

As the fanfare ends, a woman runs out and is lifted onto a man's shoulder. (She and the other two women who appear in Arden Court are notably smaller than the men. That and the men's costumes by Gene Moore - bare chests and light-colored tights - emphasize the men's size.) The other five men exit and the couple stays on stage for an unusual pas de deux in which she dances around, over and - humorously - under him. He appears not to notice her until the final moment of their dance when she jumps into his arms and they look at each other face to face.

In the following pas de deux the man again appears oblivious to the woman's presence. But in the next pas de deux, she is oblivious to him as he dances around, over and under her until at the very end he touches her shoulders from behind and she turns to face him with a start.

In those first three duets, Arden Court provides strong examples of what critic Alastair Macaulay calls "drastic contrasts;" Taylor creates duets in drastic contrast to our expectation that dancers in a duet will be attentive to each other. And consider the next duet, which ends with an ultra-fast coda in which the two men repeat what looks like their entire duet - which critic Anna Kisselgoff aptly described as "two gentlemen outdoing each other in the arts of deportment" - in fast forward. We weren't expecting that either.

Or perhaps "upending of expectations" would be a better description of what happens later in Arden Court. The six men are again onstage, standing in big X poses rather than jumping when suddenly one of the men is in a big X-shaped handstand. Upending! Then the men exit with slow-motion, assisted cartwheels. More upending! This is one of those many moments in Taylor choreography that you don't have to be a dance geek to appreciate. Those cartwheels were a hit in the Ohio Theatre but they also would have brought the house down for stunt night at sleepaway camp.

Arden Court contains other, more familiar Taylor devices. For instance, for several of its dances two or more of the other dancers are onstage just watching, a framing device we enjoy. The dancers watch each other. We watch the dancers. People like to watch other people. There is a lot about this dance that is just plain likeable.

Other dance companies have performed Arden Court, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Joffrey Ballet and Taylor 2 . Arden Court is a difficult dance. Every opportunity for dance virtuosity threatens to expose a dancer's shortcomings. Watch the video and read the reviews to better appreciate some of the challenges the Taylor dancers overcame at the Ohio Theatre.

Formerly known as Paul Taylor Dance Company, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Company recently changed its name and its mission. No longer performing only the choreography of Paul Taylor, the company now performs the work of other choreographers as well as presenting other dance companies as guest artists. The next dance on the concert, Continuum(2017), by Lila York, a Paul Taylor alumna, is the company's first ever commissioned piece.

Michael Trusenovec

Does York have a strong track record as a choreographer? Yes. Was York prepared when she came to set Continuum on the Taylor dancers? Yes, according to the dancers in the post-concert Q&A, York had the entire dance choreographed in advance. Is Paul Taylor a hard act to follow? Yes. Was York intimidated? Yes, according to Bettie De Jong, longtime rehearsal director, "I think she was intimidated but she got what she wanted."

In Continuum, set to Recomposed: The Four Seasons by Max Richter, York has deployed an ensemble of five women and five men in light-colored costumes by Santo Loquasto against one small woman in orange who, over the course of the dance, leads them to the light. Continuum is a very beautiful dance, clearly conceived. If it suffers by comparison, sandwiched between two Taylor masterworks, remember that even some of Taylor's own work meets a similar fate. Paul Taylor is a hard act to follow, sometimes even for Taylor himself.

Piazzola Caldera (1997), set to the tango music of Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky with set and costumes by Santo Loquasto, was shown as a work in progress in the documentary film, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker. But we believe that this was our first time to see it live. When the curtain went up on the dancers - six women and six men arrayed against each other with hanging light fixtures and a red velvet backdrop - the audience emitted a soft "Ahh!" At first the two groups stayed largely separate, but then formed couples.

As the first musical selection ended, all the couples except one exited. We expected a duet but immediately five men and one woman entered, and the couple left. She approaches each of the men but they all turn away from her until she is left alone onstage, dancing solo to spare music in time, another iteration of Taylor's lonely girl/lonely guy motif.

Later in Piazzolla Caldera we see two of the men in a drunk dance, staggering against each other as if unable to stand unsupported. There's a blackout - pun intended - and when the lights come back up, the hanging light fixtures are slowly spinning around our two drunks. Again, you don't need to know much about dance to appreciate that moment, though one suspects good drunk dancing isn't really all that easy to pull off.

Piazzolla Caldera ended with an ensemble dance and the audience burst into sustained applause, a standing ovation.

So yes we love Paul Taylor but if you've read this far you have material to begin to explain why. He doesn't always give us what we expect. He knows and loves dance but his work often touches on the human and the universal. He has a deft sense of humor yet doesn't overdo it. He attracts and keeps amazing dancers who grow as he challenges them.

Coming next from DanceCleveland, Grupo Corpo from Brazil Sat 1/20/18@ 7:30pm and Sun 1/21/18 @3pm. Go to PlayhouseSquare.org or phone 216-241-6000 for tickets.
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