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The American Dance Festival celebrates this holiday weekend with a concert combining annual favorite, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with a first appearance by the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet Company for an evening of splendid dancing.
It is an unusually well-thought-out program. The modernist Taylor is so balletic, and the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet so modern, that the alternating structure of the program works well, and the set of dances manages to cover the bases of politics and passion, faith and death, love and assertive individuality very adroitly.
The evening opens with a recent Taylor work, CHANGES, set to music by John Hartford, John Lennon/Paul McCartney, and John Phillips. (Phillips was one of the four Mamas and Papas. The Mamas and the Papas, good lord! You have to wonder what's next — the Trogs? The Carpenters?) CHANGES is not exactly a celebration of the 1960s but an urging to remember and revive and restore the powerful aspects of that era's youth culture. It was a dreaming time, as the strange scene with a dancing bear recalls, but it was also a time when it did not seem impossible that individual freedom could coexist with an almost tribal group identity, a time when peace still had a chance. Even its excesses seem almost innocent now, as we see from Annamaria Mazzini's channeling of Janis Joplin in "California Earthquake." Mazzini is a great dancer any time, but on the 3rd she seemed to be running on rocket fuel — irresistible, dangerous, fast, and explosive. The piece itself, while it may not go down as one of Taylor's greatest, is charming in its mixture of '60s social dances, circle dances, and crowds that bunched and dispersed — with everyone vividly and appropriately costumed. It closes with the anthematic "California Dreamin'" a song so full of longing that we can hear it very clearly during this long, if metaphorical, rainy season.
From the harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas we segue neatly to the spiritual longing and sacred harmonies of Shaker singing that support Twyla Tharp's Sweet Fields (1996). Dressed all in white, with underclothes snug and robes floating open, the eleven dancers of the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet move with elegance and precision through Tharp's demanding choreography. On the 3rd, they were in complete control of the roll and flow and sudden reversals of Tharp's design. One of its most striking scenes has four men, as pallbearers, carrying a fifth man — stiff, arms crossed — overhead. They roll him over, they turn beneath him, they change direction — but somehow all this just emphasizes the truth that there is no return from death, no reversal in life's flow. Although it is filled with complexities and difficulties at any given moment, the overall work radiates purity and simplicity, even when almost-too-cleverly integrating the famous shaking motions of the Shaker sect. The smooth order of Sweet Fields makes a lovely contrast with rougher pattern of CHANGES.
The program's second half opens with Taylor's mordantly humorous 3 Epitaphs from 1956, last seen here during the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 50th anniversary celebration in 2004. Four small figures and one large one, all dematerialized in mud-gray bodysuits studded with coruscating mirrors (costumes by the late Robert Rauschenberg), flit and ooze about to the strains of early New Orleans jazz performed by the Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band. Death be not proud, indeed.
From gray we switch to black and white for Sinatra Suite, the two-dancer abbreviated version of Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. Danced by Katie Dehler and Seth DelGrasso of the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet with unusual precision and considerable panache, the piece comes as a welcome return to love in an interlude between death and destruction.
The evening ends with Paul Taylor's great work from 2002, Promethean Fire. Like 3 Epitaphs, it was last seen here in 2004, and the performance on the 3rd was even more powerful than the one four years ago. On the stage, 16 avatars of strength and grace are suited in second skins like soot striped with fire. They flash and flee, catch and fall, mound and tumble and rise with the wrath of the righteous. Through the beautiful rationality of J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Prelude in E-flat minor, and Chorale Prelude, S.680, the splintering angles of the dance stab at you like shards of falling glass. Nearly seven years after 9/11, which inspired the work, we are deep in the sucking quicksand and the oil fields of "the war on terror." Promethean Fire, while having detached somewhat from its original topicality, seems all the clearer and more potent in its larger purpose. Led and urged by the magnificent Lisa Viola and Michael Trusnovec, the dancers, and more particularly, we the viewers, are propelled toward an honest heroism, one that builds from ash, rather than raining down fire. It is a potent message for the Fourth of July.
Note: This program continues on July 4th and 5th. See our calendar for details.