Even before spring officially arrives, the Paul Taylor Dance Company will dispel any lingering wintry gloom when it returns to New York City Center March 2-18. The sheer range and inventiveness of this master choreographer's works, which are as likely to inspire pure exhilaration as to provoke disturbing thoughts, will be amply on display in the season's repertory. It promises to be an especially rich and varied selection this year.
Dances that have become beloved classics — such as Esplanade and Company B — will be seen alongside his two latest creations: Troilus and Cressida (reduced), in which Taylor has his own wacky way with one of Shakespeare's bitterest plays, and Lines of Loss, a world premiere set to scores from several centuries recorded by the Kronos Quartet. Some of his earliest extant dances — Aureole and Piece Period, both from 1962 — will stand alongside such profound mature works as last year's searing Banquet of Vultures and his eloquent Promethean Fire. In all, there will be eighteen different dances through which to experience Taylor's unique insights into the human condition.
At college, Taylor was majoring in art and competing on the swim team when he was suddenly seized with the realization that he was eager to be a dancer. He transferred the discipline of endless laps in the pool to the challenging requirements of training in dance techniques, soaking up the best that the early 1950s had to offer. At the American Dance Festival and the Juilliard School, he studied with some the most influential dance figures of the day, and soon became a prominent member of Martha Graham's company. Performing in the works of this groundbreaking original who helped define American modern dance is how Taylor first came to prominence. His muscular body, with its broad shoulders and athletic dynamism, enabled him to excel in Graham's heroic and mythic works. But his quirkily inquisitive nature soon led him to explore his own choreographic voice, and fortunately that process has continued unabated for more than five decades.
Taylor's choreography incorporates numerous sources of inspiration. His well-known fascination with the natural world, particularly insects, is as likely to be a launching point for a dance as is a literary allusion or an observation on human instincts and interactions.
Over the years, there have been attempts to pin labels on the dances that have poured forth from Taylor's rich imagination. His early efforts were classed as "avant-garde," even rude, in their use of stillness and naturalistic movements. When he broke with standard modern dance expectations with Aureole in 1962, his choice of Baroque music (Handel), pristine white costumes, and his incorporation of airy leaps and tender encounters were considered a betrayal of the strictly contemporary ethos of the time.
But while that work did feature a luminous use of Baroque scores that has continued through the decades, it was just one of many occasions when Taylor's choreography would confound expectations and catch viewers by surprise. For all the appeal that his works have had for ballet companies — dozens of which include Taylor's works in their repertory — they call upon so many different ways of moving that his dancers, a robust collection of individuals known for their verve and daring, may look like completely different people over the course of a single program.
The sheer eloquence of the dancers' power as an ensemble comes through in such works as Promethean Fire, a heart-rending testimonial to communal hopefulness, and Syzygy, in which the dancers slice through space as though powered by an electrical current, their bodies seeming to explode in multiple directions. Taylor can also narrow the focus to an intimate group, as with the two couples in Profiles who make edgy, tentative connections within a constrained two-dimensional vocabulary. Sunset's bittersweet, dream-like encounters between soldiers and women in a park seem suspended in time. They suggest a nostalgic past but also transcend specifics with their delicately haunting sense of loss. In Roses, Taylor offers an array of couples relating to each other in ways both profound and giddy. Leave it to Taylor to make cartwheels and somersaults fit naturally into a dance that is deeply romantic.
When the music Taylor selects for his dances evokes a specific time and place, he may allude to clichéd expectations while also turning them inside out. Piazzolla Caldera seethes with fury, sensuality, and bitterness, evoking the essence of the tango without using any standard tango steps. On one level, Company B, set to songs of the Andrews Sisters, keys into a nostalgic evocation of jitterbugging bounciness and gleaming innocence. But what has made it a landmark work is the subtle way in which Taylor tempers his distillation of Americana with the shadows of GIs dying in World War II.
From popular music to scores by Bach and Handel — there is no predicting what will launch a new Taylor dance. He is as likely to spring on us a wildly playful, rambunctious caper, a dance of luminous eloquence, or a searing work probing the darkest questions of the day. The Paul Taylor Dance Company's season offers an elegant sampling of his abundant delights and surprises.
Susan Reiter is a freelance arts journalist who writes for Newsday and other publications.