Buff Paul Taylor dancer Michael Apuzzo, wearing little more than a suntan, graces the cover of the company’s season brochure; the allure of this blue-chip dance ensemble is in no small part the athletic physiques of its eighteen members. Their fearless leader, at nearly 88 the last member standing of the founding generation of modern choreographers, has made 147 dances in 64 years at the helm of his troupe. He spent hours, growing up, in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.; you see his interest in the animal world in the way his dancers behave. He began as a swimmer, and you also see those ingrained muscular habits in much of his movement.
The season now underway at Lincoln Center features one new work, Concertiana, by Taylor himself; another, The Beauty in Gray, by award-winning young choreographer Bryan Arias, widely experienced here and abroad; and a third, Half Life, by Doug Varone, who’s been making dances since the Eighties and now works extensively in opera and fashion. Most of the nineteen pieces scheduled are graced by the presence of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, offering live renditions of both classical and contemporary scores conducted by Donald York and David LaMarche.
The three premieres are sandwiched between Taylor masterpieces; this programming makes it easy to discern the cultural changes shaping choreography in different generations. Last Thursday’s gala, for instance, opened with Taylor’s 1981 Arden Court, which begins with six bare-chested men in tights leaping and rolling in front of a backdrop painted with a big pink rose. Deemed a masterwork when it was new, its orderly deployment of heroic-seeming men and three maidens who admire them foregrounds the female gaze, but winds up looking like a display of beefcake.
Arias’s Beauty, by contrast, deploys the entire ensemble, the dancers’ bodies tamely covered in “casual Friday” sportswear by Carlijn Petermeijer, and most of their feet in socks. Its recorded score by Nico Muhly and Ólafur Arnalds juxtaposes piano and percussion, full of overtones and electronic strings. The dancers look like refugees from a cube farm, unsure of how to relate to people; they touch one another but their eyes rarely meet. They are the anti-heroes. 22-year veteran Michael Trusnovec, the company’s senior member, lies down in a circle of light and manipulates his own limbs as the other dancers wander through.
The middle section of this meandering piece occurs under a big moon-spot, suggesting that the office drones have been let out to play, but don’t know how to manage it. Interludes for couples, trios, and the occasional soloist alternate with the wandering crowd; some of the women manifest a welcome toughness, some of the couples attempt a bit of jitterbug. By and large Beauty is a “wallpaper” dance, devoid of major incident, given emotional valence by James F. Ingalls’s lighting. But it’s bracing to see the Taylor dancers allowed to behave naturally. The gala program closed with Taylor’s masterful Esplanade, a 1975 work that fetishizes naturalistic movement and always brings the house to its feet.
A design aspect that bedevils choreography on the Koch stage is the fact that the proscenium arch is about fifty feet tall, while most of the dancers don’t break six feet, resulting in a huge emptiness for most of the vertical dimension. The second guest premiere, Varone’s Half Life, derives much of its emotional heft from designer Santo Loquasto’s decision to drop the ceiling, first to about half the height of the proscenium, and ultimately to just above the dancers’ heads. Ingalls laces this lid with LED lights, adding an ominous quality to the proceedings, which transpire to music by Julia Wolfe.
This dance, like Arias’s work, lets its dozen dancers appear to be a lost generation, scuttling and sliding in Liz Prince’s gray and brown tights and tops. Have they been witnesses to a disaster? Are they the disaster? They fall, they spiral up, they run around and burst into abrupt jumps and spins, form lines that fizzle, counterbalance one another in a big group tug-of-war, build and dissolve piles of bodies. Notable inside the chaos is a female couple that breaks apart and re-forms. Just before the sky falls, striped with flashing yellow lights, a black drop closes down even the bright space at the back of the stage.
The new Taylor work, Concertiana, comes sandwiched between older dazzlers, on last Sunday’s bill Cloven Kingdom (1976) and Piazzolla Caldera (1997). Both vintage pieces channel high levels of distress, Kingdom by juxtaposing human and animal behaviors against a score blended by John Herbert McDowell from music by baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli and contemporary clangs and bangs by Henry Cowell and percussionist Malloy Miller. Piazzolla Caldera is a fraught, passionate suite of dances to recordings by Gidon Kremer of tango classics; the cast of seven men and five women, under fifteen hanging lamps by Jennifer Tipton, render these dances with a blend of athleticism and authenticity that heats the blood. Parisa Khobdeh suffers her solitary state in a universe of couples.
Concertiana, on the other hand, is mostly sunny, with hand-painted unitards by William Ivey Long and a score, commissioned by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, by Eric Ewazen. It contrasts a central couple with a line of eight or nine figures who cross the stage at the back, often in silhouette, gamboling, rolling, and crawling. Like many Taylor works, this one unevenly distributes roles between genders; three women and eight men fill the space, with redhead Heather McGinley often surrounded by Ingalls’s bright yellow light. Like Promethean Fire, which closed Saturday’s show, this one resolves into a portrait finish: If you’re not sure how to conclude a dance, you could gather the troupe and have everyone smile at the audience.
Suzanne Carbonneau, who’s writing a biography of Taylor, offers concise and illuminating talks about his life and work before Wednesday evening performances and on the afternoon of March 25. She’ll convene a panel of distinguished dance writers before the special ICONS performance on March 18, when the Trisha Brown Dance Company performs the late choreographer’s Set and Reset featuring photographs and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. Completing that program are New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns in Dances of Isadora and the Taylor company in his landmark Esplanade.