The American Dance Festival presented the Paul Taylor Dance Company, one of the heavy hitters of this and many previous seasons of this internationally renowned and locally presented dance festival. Although not quite standing room only at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), it was a packed house for one of the most loved, respected, and long-living companies in modern dance. Paul Taylor has choreographed an astounding 138 dances since 1954 and continues to be a vibrant and productive presence in this highly competitive world even into his 80s. Tonight’s program was a triptych of works spanning thirty years that serve as both a microcosm of his vision of dance as well as pointed contrasts.
The opening work is the most recent, having premiered in March, 2013 at Lincoln Center in New York City. Perpetual Dawn is set to two of Johann David Heinichen’s Dresden Concerti and is basically a straight-ahead non-profound creation set to similarly described Baroque concerti of which there are reams. This description is not meant to be derisive but indicative of the carefree, youth-centered, primary hobby of chasing after a partner. The set, by Santo Loquasto, consists of a static, muted, pastoral landscape that is perhaps used to even out the raging hormones of the dancers. A constantly changing couple configuration flits across the stage as the brief musical movements change with the pairing. This was an athletic, predominantly joyous celebration of the excitement of the chase and the goofy and often naïve expectations of young love. This was in stark contrast to the upcoming middle panel of this evening’s works.
The basic theorem that dance is “movement set to music” takes on new meaning after experiencing one of the most spellbinding merging of the arts that I have seen. Eventide, set to two compositions by the twentieth century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, is, among its many virtues, a complete antithesis to the Heinichen work. Williams’ music is highly introspective, deeply emotive and wistful, and never glib or flippant. We again have sets by Loquasto and costumes that evoke an early 20th century dreamlike ethos. We have five sets of couples in the first six sections, set to the composer’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra. This is serious, solemn stuff depicting stages of relationships, perhaps for mature audiences only but not for the usual reasons. Like the outer panels of tonight’s triptych “Eventide” assigns most of the action to couples with the full company onstage as the exception. While there are certainly moments of remarkable moves and even breathtaking choreography, what is most compelling to me is Taylor’s daring to be simple. There are entire sections where the full company is just walking (but oh what elegant and profound walking it is!), and yet the audience is drawn into a magical and floating world that defies description. The final scene, set to Hymn-Tune Prelude, No. 1, is a wistful depiction by the entire company of what Eden could have been.
If the previous work was a paean to an inward looking, dreamlike state of contemplation, Arden Court is just the opposite: an in-your-face celebration of brashness, strength and an extrovert’s delight. Set to a selection of movements of the symphonies of the late-Baroque British composer William Boyce, this 1981 work has become one of Taylor’s signature pieces. It is so highly regarded in the dance world that even the rival Alvin Ailey Dance Company and Joffrey Ballet have adopted it as part of their repertoire. This is an exhibitionist work in the best sense of the word. Gone are the form-hiding costumes of the previous two works: for men, shirts off and tight leggings; women in body-hugging white. Timing and strength are impeccable and the ease in which all the dancers tossed off these flights of beauty was breathtaking.