Review: Paul Taylor Dance Company Premieres Goofy, Vibrant Dance

Feb 7, 2017

The Paul Taylor Dance Company is often called America’s finest dance organization. The troupe performed in Providence over the weekend, premiering a brand new dance that will open this week in New York City. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Bill Gale says the performance was well worth watching.

The Taylor Company, small and swift, agile and driven, looked quite wonderful at a one-time only performance in Providence. After a residence period in town sponsored by the arts organization Firstworks, Taylor troupers provided a brand new dance that was winsomely funny, along with two of the choreographer's greatest works that were, well, just great.

The only thing missing, unfortunately, was the appearance of the 86-year-old master of dance himself. A curtain-time announcement said Taylor had suffered a “fractured” leg and could not make the trip to Providence. However, the announcement added, “He hopes to be here the next time the company is in Providence. He also said, ‘Please enjoy my dancers.’” 

There was no problem with that. The first work was “Airs,” a dance from 1978.  Four women and three men take the stage amid the vibrant music of Handel. Their moves are all quicksilver, both playful and dramatic.

Speed is the essence of “Airs” along with jumping, racing, driving and finding moments together for the dancers, who quickly split, only to return once again. Time after time it seems that there will be dancers in collision. But with superb technique, near-misses were the result.

“Airs” has a certain movement that sometimes feels more like ballet than modern dance. But then it suddenly slips into modernity, all air and lightness. It's a fast, dazzling change, a true display of this great choreographer's ability to present the new amid the well- known.

“Airs” ends with tranquility and desire. You never know how that happened, but you have to love it. A dramatic work filled with beauty.

Over the years, Taylor has been criticized for sometimes doing work that is seen as shallow, or perhaps merely whimsical. That's the case with the world premiere shown Friday night. “The Open Door” began with performers coming out in, well, ridiculous costumes. There's one guy in shorts and sneakers. Another enjoys a perhaps 1930s military uniform. Then arrives a wildly overweight gal, who specializes in falling off chairs. 

The dancers shuffle and collide. There are fist-fights and falls. A “host” becomes more of a referee as the others frolic. All of this is to the music of Edward Elgar's “Enigma Variations,” no less.

What's it all about? Don't ask me. It's a goofy, funny, silly and very well done piece, perhaps known only to its creator.

The evening ended with Taylor's 1975 seminal work, the glorious “Esplanade.” Set to the music of Bach, played with vibrant sound by the Brown University Orchestra led by conductor Paul Phillips, the dance begins with vibrant exhilaration. 

Women and men are propulsive, athletic, moving so quickly, so smoothly. They jump and walk, hurdle and slide. It seems as if the world is a golden place. Then, “Esplanade” switches. It's slow and dark, solemn in movement, fearful in thought.  Dancers crawl on the floor in near blackness.   

Where has the joy gone?

Life changes for us all, Taylor seems to be saying. Happily, “Esplanade”  ends with joyous drive. It's optimistic really. And it is also a particularly fascinating – and very American – masterpiece. 

The Paul Taylor Dance Company was brought to Providence by the Rhode Island arts organization Firstworks. 

Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.