Iris DeMent has a mournful song called “Easy’s Getting Harder Everyday.” It’s about a marriage, but the sentiment applies widely in 21st century life, including dance. Whatever happened to the joyousness that one used to expect when watching dance? I like the tough stuff, more than most, but—can’t we just be happy sometimes?
The answer is “yes” when you are watching Paul Taylor, whose 80th birthday is currently being celebrated by the American Dance Festival, where many years ago he was a student, and where his company appears nearly every year. Even when his topics are dark or difficult, the man makes dances that cause your heart to rise up in response to their beauty. Often a Paul Taylor program sandwiches a more challenging piece between two that draw out happier emotion, but Thursday night’s opener of the three-night run was an exception (this program repeats Friday night; Saturday’s features different dances). The middle work, Phantasmagoria, is a new ADF commission — its world premiere was Thursday — and the darkest thing in it was a happy drunk.
Set to a selection of anonymous Renaissance music (lots of recorders), this 12-dancer work shows off Taylor’s storytelling skills and his and his dancers’ acute sense of timing, as well as their humor and lusty playfulness. It also features wonderful, inventive costumes by Santo Loquasto, and lively lighting by Jennifer Tipton. If you enjoy high polish, high production-value staging of the refined work of a master dancemaker carried out by superb dancers steeped in his style, hie yourself to the Durham Performing Arts Center for Friday’s repeat. This is the peaches and cream of the ADF season.
Phantasmagoria opens with a buoyant scene, led by Annamaria Mazzini, of dancing Flemish villagers, like a Brueghel painting sprung to life. With dream logic, it segues to a very funny scene with an undulating East Indian Adam and Eve — and a big green snake. Next up is a Byzantine nun in a preposterous headdress, then an “Irish” step dancer — the sparkling Michelle Fleet, who is patently not Irish, although her coffee-black skin does glow in Kelly green. Then come the Isadorables, barely dressed in floaty white and striking graceful attitudes all over the place, until they are interrupted by the Bowery Bum, marvelously rubbery and balanced in his tipsy imbalance (Robert Kleinendorst). In the final scene, the “St. Vitus’ dance infector” (Michael Trusnovec), perhaps standing in for the choreographer, passes the happy infection on until all are swept into unstoppable motion. What a sweet summation of a life’s work; what a loving look at Dance and its many makers.
The evening begins with Sunset (1983), set to Elgar (Serenade for Strings; Elegy for Strings), although it might as well be set to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Khaki-clad soldiers and young women in white play out the sad rituals of desire and departure against a backdrop by Alex Katz. The dancing is lovely, but when the men have gone and one woman rushes forward to pick up a fallen red beret and clutch it to her chest, you may cry — for the ever-recurring losses of war, and for the perfection of the dancer’s timing.
But the night ends with joy, joy, joy, in the form of Esplanade, still marvelously beautiful 35 years after its creation. The music is Bach (Violin Concerto in E Major; largo and allegro from the Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor), the glowing light is by Jennifer Tipton, and the dance language is vigorous Taylor in his early prime. I’ve watched this dance several times; Thursday’s was the best performance I’ve seen. Michelle Fleet was especially brilliant among a brilliant nine-member cast. There’s lots of necessary — not arbitrary — running, joyful running and sliding and tumbling, but in the middle of the work, the dancers draw together to form a compact circle on the hands and knees — it is like the pulsing center of a sea anemone — and Tipton’s lighting glows straight down, illuminating the tangle of angles formed by their bodies, before the creature exhales and spirals its limbs again in all directions. If you’ve never seen Esplanade, take this opportunity, and try for a seat in the mezzanine, just so you can look down on that moment. It’s unforgettable, and it will make you happy.
Paul Taylor Dance Company continues at ADF through July 17. See our calendar for details.