When the Paul Taylor Dance Company last appeared in San Francisco in 2017, it was just months before the dance world would lose one of its greatest choreographers—Paul Taylor. Soon, the dance maker whose innovative career set contemporary dance standards for over six decades–appearing regularly in San Francisco for three of those decades–would be gone. At the age of 88, the prolific Taylor had produced his final work, “Concertina” and managed to premiere it in NYC before his death. Tonight, in the city Taylor considered his second home, that work has its bittersweet West Coast premiere. But first, as part of the company’s “Celebration Tour”, the performance started off with a short video homage to the late dance legend with fast clips of many of his most renown works along with images of Taylor at various ages.
“Concertina” is an eloquent and definitive last dance, a luscious and poetic work that flows like currents of wind across a bare, blue-washed stage (lighting, James F. Ingalls). The ambience for this dance is created by composer Eri Ewazen’s music, that unlike the music in “Esplandae” (Johann Sebastian Bach) and “Company B” (the Andrew Sisters), doesn’t drive and dictate the choreography but instead delicately blows through and with it. The dancers move through Ewazen’s, Aaron Copland-styled music like a cloud shadow across the planes, moving as background or foreground to soloist Heather McGinley center stage. It would be fair to say that her lengthy solo may be a first for Taylor, who hadn’t designed substantial solos for a woman before. And with “Concertina” he seems to be more specifically showcasing the amazing talent of his dancers, all of whom are noteworthy. It’s as if he was passing the baton, from McGinely’s eye-catching solo to George Smallwood’s masculine certainty and power (replacing Adam Dirkerson for this performance), and the still relatively new talent of Alex Clayton with his youthful exuberance and catapulting leaps–all the lithe dancers seem to hardly touch the ground as they swiftly move across it. And, yet, there are still these constant modern dance references, Graham-like gestures that ground the piece in its historical modern context as it reinvents itself in 2020 lyricism and freshness. Willian Ivey Long’s contemporary blue-streaked bodysuits also add to this breezy up to date sensibility.
“Company B” (1991), set to the nostalgic music of the Andrews Sisters, has always felt like it was choreographed for a popular Broadway musical instead of a modern dance. “They clap their hands and stamp their feet, because they know how he plays when someone gives him a beat…”
It is fun in a grimacing sort of way, embarrassingly pleasing and ultra-predictable. Every movement and every 1940s costume (Santo Loquasto) and hairstyle are figurative. Kick-pleat skirts and cinched waist khaki pants, women rolling over the backs of their guys with rolling splits and couples swing dancing–all are what one would expect and is exactly what one gets. The dancers feel trapped by a concept, smiling cheek to cheek to make up for it as they snap their fingers to the music. A pack of male dancers drool over Eran Bugge in a fleeting solo to “Rum and Coca-Cola” as women are tossed across the stage into the arms of their knightly guys. Alex Clayton’s solo in “Tico-Tico” is sharp and fluid with unbeatable timing and rhythm. As is, John Harnage’s solo in “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)”, saluting through air splits before collapsing backwards onto his back at the end of the song.
“Esplanade” (1975) is a Marathon of dancers dashing across the stage to keep up with Johann Sebastian Bach’s, “Violin in E Major, Double Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (Largo & Allegro”). They are a blur of pastel color, variations on orange, running in and out of chorus lines from downstage to upstage and at times rewinding themselves backwards into those lines. A duet with Kristin Draucker and Maria Ambrose takes “Esplanade” beyond its cotton candy depth into something more complex when Ambrose, dressed in stretch pants like the men in this piece, moves stoically as Draucker (in a dress) frenetically, desperately dances around her, falling frequently to the floor as her untidy hair covers her face like a mad person. The counterpoint of movement, Ambrose vertical to Draucker’s mostly spiraling horizontal, the allusion to gender ambiguity, along with the vagueness of this relationship, is a substantive moment that ends magically with Ambrose sitting along on stage as the next segments begins with dancers crawling around her like a herd of animals until she become one of them and the dance goes on.
All that this evening’s performance was missing was the commanding presence of Michael Apuzzo who was out nursing an injury as Lee Duveneck worked hard to fill his shoes. Program B was indeed a celebration, a tightly orchestrated program showing a range of Taylor’s iconic choreography and the talent of this remarkable and rejuvenated dance company.
David E. Moreno