Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Pays Homage to Isadora Duncan

Classic Arts Features   Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Pays Homage to Isadora Duncan
The company is performing at Lincoln Center through March 25.
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance in Taylor’s Esplanade
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance in Taylor’s Esplanade Paul B. Goode

It all began with Isadora. The mother of American modern dance, Isadora Duncan crisscrossed Europe in a whirlwind, returning to her native land occasionally to scatter the seeds of a new art form. In the early years of the last century, Isadora imagined a future peopled by the descendants of pioneers, hardy and confident. The women would be barefoot and feel easy in their bodies. Each would own an independent vision.

Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, as an institution, enshrines these tenets. Ambitiously this company seeks to preserve the canon of masterpieces that Duncan’s successors produced, and to encourage modern dance’s further development. This season, however, the troupe will pay homage to Duncan herself, that daring rebel in a Grecian tunic who started it all, so long ago. The Dances of Isadora will be a featured item when PTAMD returns to the David H. Koch Theater, March 6–25, for its annual residency. Specialist Lori Belilove, herself a windswept beauty, has taught an expanded version of Duncan’s solo Narcissus to Sara Mearns, a guest star from New York City Ballet whose substance and grace, and whose appetite for movement, make her a force of nature. Mearns will appear on March 18, 21, 22, and 24.

The majority of the Taylor company’s season remains devoted to the dances of Paul Taylor, a giant in his own right, and a beloved figure whose creative range encompasses the over-boiling cauldron of emotions in Promethean Fire; the acrid, social criticism of Banquet of Vultures; and the slapstick comedy of Gossamer Gallants. Those dances as well as sprightly Esplanade, dreamily romantic Arden Court, and down-and-dirty Piazzolla Caldera will share the bill this season with other favorites.

Trisha Brown Dance Company in Brown’s Set and Reset
Trisha Brown Dance Company in Brown’s Set and Reset Stephanie Berger

Varying the season still more, Taylor has invited the Trisha Brown Dance Company to present one of their most popular works. A collaboration among Brown, artist Robert Rauschenberg, and composer Laurie Anderson—not to mention the original dancers, who contributed to the work through improvisation—Set and Reset unspools crazily along and past the edges of the performance space, which Rauschenberg’s designs render transparent. Though Set and Reset reaffirms Brown’s faith in abstraction, at the same time viewers can glean information by watching the dancers interact. Speaking about this dance in 1996, Brown said we would find “a lot of hilarity, a lot of caring…and bravery” in it. For those who take a special interest in how different choreographers handle tight maneuvers and close scrapes, Set and Reset will be paired with Taylor’s Mercuric Tidings on March 14 and 20. Other performances are March 16 and 18 (evening), the latter an “ICONS” program co-produced by the American Dance Festival.

Significantly, Isadora Duncan’s legacy does not reside only in her impetuous dances, but in the dissemination of her ideas. What would she think now, if she could see how her vision, rooted in courage, love, and nonconformity, has spread across the land? Isadora danced alone. This season, however, the Taylor company will present premieres by three American choreographers belonging to overlapping generations. That’s proof, if proof is needed, that American modern dance is flourishing. Taylor will unveil his latest dance, opus 147, on opening night, smoothly continuing his life’s work. He is now 87 years old. Doug Varone, 61, is a celebrated dancemaker and composition teacher who has directed his own company, Doug Varone and Dancers, in New York, since the 1980s. Bryan Arias, the youngest of the trio at 31, assembled his first pickup group for a tour to Canada in 2016.

A rogue energy tears at the choreography in Varone’s new piece, Half Life, set to a score by composer Julia Wolfe that the Orchestra of St. Luke’s will perform live. Far beneath the dancers, tectonic plates appear to shift making them unsteady. Unruly forces shove through orderly lines, and entropy pulls apart a huddled mass of people who cling to one another for dear life. “Don’t you feel like the world is coming apart a little bit right now?” Varone asks during a phone interview. “I don’t make political work,” he adds. “I never have, but I always have been pushed by the world around me, and I am drawn to the issues of the day and how they affect us.”

Varone explains that he creates dances, in part, by deploying internal and external energies, which he places in the context of emotional relationships. Working with Taylor’s dancers, who are mature and highly skilled professionals but used to working in a different style, has been “a wonderful journey,” Varone says. His goal was “getting them to be the energy, rather than be people creating the energy…They’re so used to being humans that form shape, and I’m asking them to be humans that are constantly in transition.

Paul Taylor American Modern Dance in Taylor’s Promenthean Fire
Paul Taylor American Modern Dance in Taylor’s Promenthean Fire Paul B. Goode

“I’m really intrigued by the mystery of change,” the choreographer continues. “How does chaos look controlled? How do these bodies constantly spill out into space and have a reliability to them, but always make it look like it’s spontaneous? That was something that I figured out how to do at a certain point in my career, and to me it has been a key to unlocking these choreographic transitions that continue to push a dance forward.”

Though born and raised in California, Isadora Duncan found she could only realize her dreams in Europe, where the cognoscenti embraced her. Today, some young artists like Bryan Arias still find it necessary to leave home in order to jump-start a career. Originally a hip-hop dancer, Arias received his formal training at LaGuardia High School of the Arts in New York City, but he credits his artistic formation to the time he spent dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater and NDT 2, where his guiding lights were choreographers Jiˇrí Kylián and Crystal Pite. Success at the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition launched Arias as a dancemaker in 2013.

Speaking of the opportunity to work with the Taylor company, Arias says, “I got very lucky!”

His new work, tentatively titled The Beauty in Gray and set to a composite of Minimalist scores by Nico Muhly and Olafur Arnalds, suggests an artist interested in sustained movement development rather than frenzied articulations. Seen on a rehearsal video, Arias’ dance presents clear shapes, and is mined with inventive surprises. The choreographer explains that he is fascinated by the films of Swedish director Roy Anderson, who likes to record scenes in a single take, creating environments in which his actors fully inhabit their characters. Arias is also interested in creating characters, and in establishing a holistic working environment. He seeks “a world…where we become extensions of each other, and honesty is present, trust is present, and ultimately authenticity is present.”

The Beauty in Gray, Arias explains, offers a meditation on change, highlighting the interactions among real people and reminding us that our world is not black-and-white. “The magic is always in the gray,” he says.

Robert Johnson writes about dance for NJArts and for The Dance Enthusiast, among other publications.

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