Review: Watching Paul Taylor’s Road Not Taken (and Lessons Learned)

It might have been the most consequential move that the choreographer Paul Taylor ever made. Considered early on to be a possible heir to Martha Graham, the modern dance pioneer in whose company he performed, he was also seen — appropriately, if paradoxically, for a modernist heir — as a rebel. His rebellious move in 1962, more contrarian than calculated, was to make a dance to the not-modern, easy-on-the-ear music of Handel, a dance so light and lyrical it was almost a ballet.

This was “Aureole,” the work in which Taylor discovered how to be popular, a pivot point in his process of not just joining but determining the mainstream of modern dance.

All three programs that the Paul Taylor Dance Company is presenting at the Joyce Theater this week end with “Aureole.” And, though often performed, it remains a perennially satisfying construction, formal yet playful, like goofing off after church, and as fresh as clean linen.

There are also two premieres by choreographers other than Taylor, who died in 2018. But the revelations come in reconstructions of works that Taylor made before “Aureole,” some not seen in more than 60 years. They are glimpses of Taylor as an avant-gardist, of a road not taken, but also of lessons learned in how to be both radical and popular.

One work, “Events II,” comes from Taylor’s infamous “7 New Dances” concert of 1957. This was a series of experiments very much in the spirit of the 1950s avant-garde, in line with the ideas of the composer John Cage, who contributed music that many people wouldn’t think of as music, and of Taylor’s artist friend Robert Rauschenberg, who offered a live dog as a set piece.

Taylor danced a 20-minute solo to a recording of a woman announcing the time every 10 seconds. He presented a four-minute duet in which no one moved. The house was emptied before the first piece was over. Louis Horst, the chief arbiter of modern dance and one of Taylor’s teachers, reviewed it with a column of blank space: no review for what he considered no dance.

“Events II” isnt one of the most infamous selections. To the sound of rain, two women (Eran Bugge and the quietly captivating Jada Pearman) stand and sit in various postures as a breeze blows their 1950s dresses. This is found art, Taylor directing our attention to the ignored beauty of ordinary gestures of people in the street. It’s also painterly, the folded arms and tilted heads conveying character and mystery, as in an Edward Hopper image.

“Events II” is only a sketch or study, but it shows what Taylor said he learned from the experiment: That what he attempted to present as postures without emotional connotations ended up reading as dramatic gestures. It’s a discovery — along with the importance of stillness in dance, like negative space in painting or silence in music — that would run through the rest of his work, even “Aureole.”

The old pieces are full of such discoveries, the sense of Taylor finding himself. My favorites were the solo excerpts from the 1958 “Images and Reflections.” A man (John Harnage) festooned with Rauschenberg-designed fringe stretches his wings. A woman (Kristin Draucker) in too much tulle does a slow-motion version of the Swim, theatricalizing social dance. As spare and considered as their Morton Feldman score, these solos aren’t just foretastes of 1960s Judson Dance Theater; they could easily be the work of a present-day postmodernist like Beth Gill.

“Fibers,” from 1961, when Taylor was still dancing for Graham, is still tangled in her aesthetic. It’s a primitivist ritual in masks, with a symbolic tree and lots of Graham vocabulary. Though the present cast (with the exception of Lisa Borres) seemed not to know quite what to do with it, you can feel Taylor finding fault with the Graham of “Embattled Garden” (1958), groping toward his own ambiguous version of a dance rite.

“Profiles,” from 1979, is one of those rites, an inventive stunner for two couples who move in flattened poses and freak out formally. Presumably, it’s on the program to demonstrate how Taylor remained an avant-gardist. Juxtaposed with “Aureole,” it does that, along with giving a small taste of Taylor’s large post- “Aureole” range.

There’s a difference, though, between that coherent variety and the stylistic whiplash of the two premieres. Finding new works that fit with the Taylor repertory is a tough task.

“Hope Is the Thing With Feathers,” by the talented Michelle Manzanales, is set to a mix tape of bird-related songs (Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” the Beatles’s “Blackbird,” but also “Cucurucuc Paloma” and “Pajarito” del Amor”). It features some bird motion — pecking isolations, swooping flocks. It’s sweet, sentimental, fluent, fun.

Swinging arms, a wafting quality, a touch of cutesiness: “Hope” does have some relation to “Aureole,” though it grates against the chillier Taylor works on the program. “A Call for Softer Landings,” by Peter Chu, is from another world. It features heavy breathing and an exhortation that the audience say, “I am enough.” These gambits aren’t avant-garde; they’re phony.

With its low-slung, street-influenced style and the dance-punk band Liquid Liquid on its soundtrack, “A Call” looks more contemporary than anything I can remember seeing the Taylor company perform. It has drive, the dancers’ love and an appealing girl-power theme. (It’s a treat to watch tiny Madelyn Ho beat up big Lee Duveneck.) But its message about the oppressive present — a voice repeats the word “repeat” — is itself oppressive, and obvious.

For a lesson in how a more sophisticated choreographer suggests the menace of repetition, with a dramatic gesture as simple and complex as posture, look at the beginning and ending of “Profiles.”

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater;

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