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Paul Taylor Dance Company first performed at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in 1961. Six decades later, the company brings a diverse and daring ensemble of highly gifted dance artists. Paul Taylor, a world-renowned choreographer, studied dance at Julliard and danced with Martha Graham for seven seasons. In 1954, he started his own company and became a prolific dance maker, earning him the MacArthur Award, the Samuel H. Scripps ADF Award, and the Americans for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. Upon his retirement, Taylor tapped company dancer Michael Novak as artistic director. Under Novak’s leadership, the company of dancers represents a continuing powerful hold of modern dance.
The program began with Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom (1976), based on Dutch philosopher Spinoza’s thoughts that man is a social animal. Elegantly dressed in tuxedos and formal, long, flowing gowns, the choreography matches the Baroque era music by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and more contemporary music by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) and Malloy Miller (1918-1981). With paired voices of harpsichord and violins, Taylor’s choreography replicates subtle, formal movements setting the stage for a formal ball. The women began with gentle hip sways into signature Taylor piqué arabesques with twisted shoulders and chaînés turns with arms wrapped at the waist. The Baroque music built with matching choreographed sweeping waltzes with high, curved port de bras. The men entered the stage with a regal air. The couples united briefly and then executed counter movements, resting while each group danced. There were moments of stillness and explosive jumps woven throughout the performance.
Taylor’s work lays the foundation for the dichotomy of formal and primitive society. The men’s section took a dramatic turn to match the deep bass drums and timpani. With strong foot stomping, the men enacted dance battles to show their animalistic ferocity with twirling front attitude turns, kneeling chaînés turns, and grand Sissonne jumps. Seated and drumming for each other, the men primitively scooted along the ground and united hands to stand. Playful leapfrogs showcased the dancers’ acrobatic skills. This section showcased the brutal strength of Taylor’s demanding choreographic style. The final section exemplified the cloven concept of the societal world split in two. Harmonious and dissonant music, dancers adorned with mirrored headpieces and masks, a serene masquerade waltz became a farcical display of social dance. Taylor’s classic, comedic, and playful choreography concludes with conga lines, high Rockette kicks, and revelry absurdity.
Michelle Manzanale’s new work Hope Is the Thing with Feathers (2022) showcased her Mexican American heritage. Gentle whistles preceded the curtain rising and segued into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” A lone dancer, Devon Louis, was contracted in a small ball, perhaps an egg. He broke through his shell in subtle birdlike movements. The full company entered with nomadic walking and birdlike port de bras. The light, muted, gold, flowing costumes with embroidered waists by Santo Loquasto gorgeously matched the amber lighting design by Christopher Chambers. Manzanale graciously has given each dancer a solo, creating a space for them to flaunt and fly through the space. The music by Gustavo Santaolalla, an Argentinian genre-skipping composer who wrote for everything from The Last of Us video game series to major films such as Brokeback Mountain and Babel, poignantly moved the middle section with guitar string plucking to match the dancers’ pulses. Manzanale work pays homage to Martha Graham with running triplets with cupped hands and chaînés jeté, creating images of birds in flight caught in wind currents. The final section is set to the music of Bobby McFerrin’s percussive acapella rendition of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s “Blackbird.” The dancers emulated birdlike movements with jabbing and circling necks, little hops, rib cage isolations, arm flutters, angular elbows, and flowing flocking patterns.
Hope Is the Thing with Feathers is a beautiful new ensemble work with a commanding performance by Louis. Louis attended The Ailey School (Oprah Winfrey Scholarship), where he studied with Horton technique icons Ana Marie Forsythe and Milton Myers. A Paul Taylor Dance Company member since 2018, Louis is an athletic force of nature. His high running stag leaps soared through the air and his intense dramatic performance burst through the fourth wall, deeply connecting with the audience. The ending shape of Louis in a low, hinged backbend to the sounds of fluttering wings brought this new work to a soaring dramatic end.
The program concluded with Taylor’s Syzygy (1987), which contains a commissioned synthesized score music by Donald York. Based on the astronomical concept of a nearly straight-line configuration of three or more celestial bodies in a gravitational system, Taylor’s choreography is frenetic, fluid, flinging, and fun. Loose, energy-releasing arm gestures described by Taylor as scribbling, make room for dancers’ freestyle exploration of energy. With traveling hand stands, aerials, barrel jumps, continuous spinning, this work features classic Taylor choreography. Like stars bursting with energy and rotating in near-constant collisions, the chaotic choreography was exhilarating. Taylor dancer Madelyn Ho was notable for her petite, powerful performance. In 2015, Ho earned a Doctor of Medicine from Harvard Medical School and also joined Paul Taylor Dance Company. Ho mastered the choreography with technical aptitude, executing perfect pirouettes, effortless stamina, and a commanding stage presence. The end of this perpetual motion work culminated with Ho in a slow-motion attitude promenade.
Like the stars, continually blinking in the night sky, Paul Taylor Dance Company continues to shine brightly with a diverse, dynamically daring group of devoted dancers.
The American Dance Festival continues in different venues across Durham through Wednesday, July 20. For more details on ADF events, please view the sidebar, search “American Dance Festival” on CVNC’s homepage, or visit https://americandancefestival.org/ for full program details.