paul taylor dance company

Paul Taylor and White Bird, intertwined

The Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to Portland with sparkling versions of three mid-career Taylor dances

White Bird has brought the Paul Taylor Dance Company back to Portland for the sixth time this weekend, a remarkable dedication to the twisty elegance, dark undercurrents and sheer fun of Taylor’s work and the talent of his dancers. This particular visit touches all those bases with a program that spans a period in Taylor’s choreography after he’d moved past youthful exuberance toward a more layered, focused art. Arden Court (1981), Syzygy (1987) and Piazzolla Caldera (1997) are all well-made dances that retain Taylor’s playfulness and his darker side, on one hand, and integrate them into formal movement invention of the first order.

I’m going to talk a little about each of those pieces, but in the analytical process, I hope neither the delight of the visual spectacle nor the bone-deep communication of the dances gets forgotten. That experience is the most important aspect of a Taylor concert, after all, and the reason that the company’s many visits to Portland make sense.

Paul Taylor Dance Company, “Arden Court”/Photo by Paul B. Goode

Paul King and Walter Jaffe started White Bird 20 years ago, and the first company they brought to town was Taylor’s. I think of this decision as a sort of marker, a statement about how King and Jaffe thought then (and perhaps continue to think) about quality, creativity, importance. And it has served them—and their audience—well through those two decades.

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DanceWatch: Paul Taylor takes White Bird back to the beginning

A busy Oregon dance week also includes Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Espacio Flamenco Portland

Jamuna Chiarini

This week in Oregon, dance delivers. Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to Portland thanks to White Bird, an evening of conversation and performance with Espacio Flamenco, and Nicolo Fonte’s Rhapsody in Blue continues for a second weekend at Oregon Ballet Theatre. The Northwest Screendance Exposition opens in Eugene featuring an evening of Portland films, and Nartana Kuchipudi presents Sri Krishna Satya. So much dance goodness in this beautiful week.

Looking back, Bob Hicks reviewed the work of Complexion Contemporary Ballet last week in The Complexion of the Times, and Matthew Andrews reviewed Narayana Katha in Narayana Katha Bharatanatyam review: enchanting dreamscape.

Performances this week

Rhapsody in Blue by Nicolo Fonte. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Rhapsody In Blue (World Premiere) and Never Stop Falling (in Love)
Choreography by Nicolo Fonte
Performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre, directed by Kevin Irving
October 7-14
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
See above.
Rhapsody In Blue, a collaboration between Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte and Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale continues for a second weekend, along with Never Stop Falling (in Love), Fonte’s 2014 work created for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary. It features Pink Martini singer China Forbes and a medley of Pink Martini songs.

Two weeks ago I sat in on a rehearsal for Rhapsody In Blue. The costumes for Rhapsody are a gorgeous, textural mix of electric blues in satins, laces, brocades, and matte cottons, with swirling skirts, and tailored suits, evoking decadent sumptuousness and ease. The movement, like the chosen color, is also electric and explosive, shooting out from the dancer’s centers like arrows, creating dramatic, stretched lines with arms and legs. It sweeps and falls, rebounds and flies, describing the music and the space around the notes perfectly. Sometimes the dancing is large and uses the whole cast, and sometimes it is quiet and uses a single gesture. It’s a beautiful, dynamic work that might make you see/hear Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue in a whole new light.

Diálogos: An evening of flamenco conversation and performance. Photo courtesy of Espacio Flamenco Portland.

Diálogos: An evening of flamenco conversation and performance
Presented by Espacio Flamenco Portland
Featuring Alfonso Cid (singer), Jed Miley (guitarist), Lillie Last (dancer), Christina Lorentz (dancer), Brenna McDonald (dancer), and Nick Hutcheson (percussionist)
October 11
7 pm Lecture Demonstration
8 pm Performance
McMenamins Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan St.

In celebration of the flamenco language that links singing, guitar, dance, and percussion, Espacio Flamenco Portland presents Diálogos: An evening of flamenco conversation and performance— a combination lecture demonstration and performance presenting world-renowned flamenco guest artists alongside some of Portland’s finest Flamenco artists.

In a pre-show interactive lecture/demonstration, professional flamenco singer Alfonso Cid will take the audience on a historical journey of flamenco, discuss differences in styles, talk techniques behind the vocals, guitar playing and dance, and introduce some of Flamenco’s most influential artists.

Arden Court, Syzygy, and Piazzolla Caldera
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Presented by White Bird
October 12-14
Newmark Theatre, Portland’5, 1111 SW Broadway
Celebrating full circle, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, who performed for White Bird’s first season, returns to perform three classic Taylor works, two of which appeared on White Bird’s inaugural program in October 1997—Arden Court and Piazzolla Caldera.

Arden Court, set to the Baroque composition of William Boyce, was originally choreographed in 1981. According to Anna Kisselgoff for the New York Times, the piece is a “continuum of non-stop movement.” Clive Barnes for The New York Post wrote that “[Arden Court is] one of the few great art works created in [the 20th] century.”

Syzygy, from 1987, hurls dancers across the stage like orbiting and eclipsing planets to a commissioned score by Donald York. ArtsWatch executive editor Barry Johnson, at the time with The Oregonian, wrote that it is: “Full of utterly brilliant and seemingly disconnected shards of choreography. A full-throttle exercise in physicality, loose-limbed and speedy… It simply continues to increase its velocity, its sense of elfin delight, as the dance goes by. Leaves the audience gasping for more.”

Piazzolla Caldera, Taylor’s tribute to the Argentine tango, from 1997, danced to Astor Piazzolla’s seductive music, captures the culture and dance of tango without a single authentic tango step.

Taylor trained with Martha Graham and José Limón, joining the the Graham Dance Company as a soloist in 1955. He also worked with Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine who created the solo work Episodes for Taylor as a 1959 New York City Ballet guest artist.

His choreographic career began in 1954 and his work became hugely influential to the advancement of modern dance in the 20th and 21st centuries, inspiring dance and choreographers worldwide.

In an interview with Jeffrey Brown for PBS, Taylor talked about his work and said, “Well, you see, dance, I think, consciously or unconsciously symbolizes life. And it reflects the human condition, or it can. It tells us the joys, the sorrows, the fallacies, the idiocies, the brilliance, anything human.”

Robert Battle, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is recorded on video on the company’s Vimeo channel talking about how Taylor’s work has influenced his own work, and about setting Piazzolla Caldera on Ailey in his inaugural season as artistic director in 2011. You can see that video here and also an excerpt of the Ailey company performing Taylor’s Arden Court here.

A still from Libera, a film by Walter Yamazaki. Photo courtesy of The NW Screendance Exposition.

The Northwest Screendance Exposition-Eugene
Founded and Directed by John Watson
Presented by the University of Oregon Department of Dance
October 13-14
University of Oregon Department of Dance, Dougherty Dance Theatre, 1484 University St.
7:30 pm October 13, The Portland Project – films from Portland screendance film makers
10:00 am October 14, So This is Screendance! Seminar/workshop led by John Watson and Shannon Mockli (Free)
4:30 pm October 14, The Juried Films, Part 1
7:30 pm October 14, The Juried Films, Part 2

Curated by founder and director John Watson, this annual Eugene-based screendance festival celebrates artistic collaborations between dancers, choreographers, filmmakers, and sound artists on film.

The festival includes 24 films by filmmakers living in Canada, China, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, UK and the USA.

The Portland Project which opens the festival on Friday October 14, will feature four films by Portland filmmakers; Eric Nordstrom’s Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present, Fuchsia Lin’s Crystals of Transformation, Gabriel Shalom’s Warehouse Samba, and Living The Room by SubRosa Dance Collective.

ArtsWatch’s Gary Ferrington based in Eugene previewed the entire festival, which you can read here.

Sri Krishna Satya-Thematic Dance Ballet. Photo courtesy of Nartana Kuchipudi.

Sri Krishna Satya-Thematic Dance Ballet
Hosted by Nartana Kuchipudi
3 pm October 14
Portland Community College Rock Creek, 17705 NW Springville Road

Presenting Sri Krishna Satya, a Kuchipudi dance ballet about Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama, produced, directed and presented by Guru Sri.Pasumarthy Vekateswara Sarma, performed by the students of Anuradha Ganesh.

Kuchipudi is one of the eight major Indian classical dance forms originating from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The style is a blend of dance and drama, has similar costumes to Bharatanatyam, and is known for it’s plate and pot dances where the dancer performs while standing on a brass plate while balancing a pot on her head.

Upcoming Performances

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Paul Taylor Dance Company: the beautiful and the daffy

The legendary choreographer balances the pretty and the disturbing

Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack in "Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)"/Paul B. Goode, Paul Taylor Dance Company

Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack in “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)”/Paul B. Goode, Paul Taylor Dance Company

The Paul Taylor Dance Company hit town last night, thanks to White Bird, and maybe that’s all you need to know. Taylor has bent his mind and body to making dances in the U.S. since 1954, and he’s one of the few modern dance choreographers these days with a national reach and reputation. Although he hasn’t created a dance quite so legendary as Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” say, or operated quite so centrally in the serious dance world as Merce Cunningham, he’s still among the most recognizable names in modern dance, if not the very first one.

I’ve always found this surprising, because I find his dances so personal and quirky, twisty and even nutty, that I have a hard time understanding how he attracts as large an audience as he does, even though his dances can be quite beautiful. Not that—in the grander scheme of things—ANY modern dance choreographer attracts as large an audience as the worst sitcom on network television, more’s the pity. But so many Taylor dances have a mordant humor, and frankly, mordant dance, even with a sense of humor, doesn’t seem like the pathway to fame.

The three dances that the PTDC performed here are a case in point, and I’ll write about them rather briefly, not so much to “review” them as to catalog a few of their disquieting elements. For those who haven’t seen the company, I should probably say that Taylor’s dancers are excellent, quick and definite but also retaining some of the wateriness of the fluid movement experiments of the Sixties and Seventies, which our more expressive, muscular time has replaced. This is especially true of the women in the company, but even Michael Trusnovec, an astonishing dancer who deserves a story all his own. Paul Taylor has always worked with fine dancers (Trusnovec’s most recent equivalent was the glorious Patrick Corbin), and the tradition continues.

****

Eran Bugge, Robert Kleinendorst, and Aileen Roehl in The Uncommitted/ Rick McCullough

Eran Bugge, Robert Kleinendorst, and Aileen Roehl in The Uncommitted/ Rick McCullough

Let’s drop in on the dances, starting with the first one, “Brandenburgs” (1988), which naturally enough is danced to Bach. On the face of it, it’s a jolly enough dance to the bright tempo of the music, full of classical poses and funny bouncing and prancing around the stage. The three women (Amy Young, Parisa Khobdeh and Eran Bugge) provide the sinuous counterpoint to the unison leaping and calisthenics of the five men. As I watched, I thought of the men as Austrian goatherds, maybe because Santo Loquasto’s costumes seem vaguely Alpine to me.

Then Trusnovec arrives and his interplay with the women is…strange. They seem to compete for his attention, not that any one of them can keep it once it’s attracted. And Trusnovec spends a LOT of stage time standing still, just watching the women, aloof, faintly imperious.

So, we have Bach danced playfully and whimsically, though quite well and full of some gorgeous classically lovely moments, and then a psychosexual element of attraction and competition right in the middle of the gentle burlesque.

Next up, the most recent dance on the program, “The Uncommitted” (2011), an altogether darker dance to somber (and beautiful) music by Arvo Part. And it doesn’t fit my thesis very well, because it doesn’t wander into goofy territory at all, though it extends the battle of the sexes idea that “Brandenburgs” planted. It also picks up a frequent gesture in that dance—an arm tucked hard against the side with the elbow cocked at a particular acute angle—but that’s another story, one I’m not prepared to tell, about shared phrases and the semaphore of the movement, how it projects an independent meaning all its own maybe or somehow underscores the more surface “story” of the dance.

Taylor fills “The Uncommitted” with lots of inventive partnering, though it isn’t “lovely” dueting, really. It tends to be a little awkward and difficult, and sometimes it becomes overtly hostile: a man reaches across to embrace his partner and she pushes his hand away. Maybe the most telling sequence is at the end, a sort of “Survivors” scenario, with the ensemble shedding dancers gradually, until only a man and a woman are left. They break away and head for separate corners of the stage; she turns back toward him and gestures longingly; he continues off stage without glancing backwards.

****

And then we were dropped into the odd world of “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)” (1980), which mixes a weird ‘30s detective melodrama plot into a dance rehearsal, maybe a dance about a weird detective story. No, nothing to do with pagan rituals, though the Stravinsky was played beautifully by two Portland pianists, Jeffrey Payne and Susan DeWitt Smith.

John Rawlings’ set and props help tell this narrative, though audience members who can’t follow it will be forgiven entirely: I only know what happened because I did a little research ahead of time. It involves a jewel heist, a kidnapping, police chases, a dream sequence, and a stage strewn with bodies at the end. The whole thing is a little crazy.

What does it mean? I guess I see it as a social/political commentary, something about the way we grasp for the loot, how absurd it makes us look, tragic and absurd. The doll (representing the kidnapped baby) doesn’t stand a chance!

****

I’m not making a big point here. Taylor’s work is complicated because he allows it to channel lots of different parts of himself—his whimsy, his sense of the surreal, his dyspeptic view of relationships, his confusion, his hurt, his need to communicate. And his choreography expresses these aspects of himself and the music he chooses as a soundtrack in seemingly simple but ultimately demanding ways.

Even when the elements are at war with each other, it’s pretty interesting stuff. Maybe ESPECIALLY when they are at war with each other. After all, we’re all a little disjointed, unintegrated, irritable, dissatisfied, pessimistic—at least some of the time, yes? Or maybe Paul Taylor and I are the only ones?

I interviewed Taylor once, on the phone before one of the company’s other four visits to Portland during White Bird’s 15 year run. And the part that is most appropriate here ran like this:

Me: I liked what you said about Debussy, about how there’s always something unsettling under the surface of so much of his work. And I guess I think of your work in a similar way.
Taylor: Well, I’m a realist. I report. The world is not all glossy.
Me: Right.
Taylor: And I’m not either.

Paul Taylor as a reporter is quite delicious. Of course, he’s not just reporting on his sense of the world, he’s also reporting on his own “interiors”—his memories, his emotions, his private thoughts. Instead of attempting to quash or mask those, they come rolling out on stage, too. Particular to Taylor, sure, but something all of us do, too.

I suppose all I’m trying to do here is argue myself out of my own sense of surprise at Taylor’s relative popular success. OK, I give in! At some point, usually multiple points, in just about every Taylor dance I’ve ever seen, I’ve wanted to turn to my seat neighbor and say, “Did you just see THAT?!?!” And that’s a pretty amazing thing, all by itself.

NOTES

If you are still perplexed by “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal),” Deborah Jowitt can help you out!

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