Paul Taylor, now 87, is what my mother used to call a nervy individual. He formed a company in 1954, while performing in Martha Graham’s troupe, and tweaked every assumption about what was possible on a dance stage. He carries Graham’s passionate intensity deep in his choreographic DNA but is not afraid to parody it.
This season’s opening-night bill juxtaposed one of his strangest pieces, 1980’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), with one of his most engaging, popular, luminous works, the 1991 Company B. Sandwiched between them is this spring’s sole world premiere.
Set to a dual-piano rendering of Stravinsky’s iconic 1913 score, Sacre is a layered, cinematic, often bewildering work. Floating scrims and Jennifer Tipton’s ingenious lighting make abrupt work of frequent scene changes, and the stylized, angular choreography, which renders flatness in three dimensions, often slows things down. Though not a word is spoken, the piece is heavily plotted, the dancers clearly acting; in a rare departure from dance protocol, the characters in the piece are identified in the program. John Rawlings’s décor is Bauhaus black or white, except for a “baby,” swaddled in red, and a satchel full of sparkly bling, which, like the baby, gets snatched. Repeat viewings of this work reveal a lot, not least its resemblance to both a Dick Tracy comic strip and a Graham bodice-ripper.
A genius choreographer who’s received every honor the country offers artists, Taylor has made some very slight works in recent years; his new Ports of Call is one of them. It’s a big nothing, a series of postcards from a fictional journey, taking its structure from composer Jacques Ibert’s 1922 Escales, which traced a similar jaunt through less jarring geography. Contemporary with Stravinsky’s, Ibert’s music resonates with shadowy references to Le Sacre du Printemps but doesn’t galvanize the ear the way that masterwork does. Literally translated, the score provides the dance’s title. In the original it journeyed from Rome to Palermo to Tunisia to Nefta to Valencia; Taylor’s trifle begins in Africa, where a squabble between what might be warring tribes leaves a queenly woman (Michelle Fleet, the current troupe’s only black member) bereaved above the body of her dead consort. We move on to Hawaii for some wan faux-hula and then to Alaska for a silly tableau in which frozen people shiver and polar bears romp; the final stop’s a church wedding somewhere in the Midwest, where the bride is pregnant and the groom reluctant. It’s sexist and unfunny; both we and the superb dancers deserve better.
It gets a lot better in Company B, which premiered in 1991 to infectious pop recordings by the Andrews Sisters and captures in song and choreography the schizophrenia of American life during World War II. Energetic bobby-soxers and multiethnic men jump and jive in the foreground, while in a narrow corridor along the back of the stage, those displaced and damaged by the war voyage in silhouette. Tipton’s moody lighting and Santo Loquasto’s costumes contribute mightily to the impact of this formally elegant suite, as do the renderings of a range of characters by Taylor’s mature ensemble. The supremely capable dancers succeed because they look so genuinely human — performing, as it were, above their weight.
Since moving its annual spring season from New York City Center to Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater in 2012, the company has many more seats available, starting with spots in the orchestra for just $10. Live music has been restored. Five Taylor pieces share the remaining programs with works by Doug Elkins, Larry Keigwin, company alum Lila York, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham, whose Summerspace will be performed four times by the Lyon Opera Ballet. Go see them. This mélange is, for the most part, modern dance at its best; even jaded audiences may find their faith in the medium renewed.
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
David H. Koch Theater
20 Lincoln Center Plaza
Through March 26