Performing Arts: Dance
June 16, 2019
The transfer of leadership has begun at PTAMD and Michael Novak, the newly appointed artistic director succeeding the late Paul Taylor, is off to a good start. The company is dancing as part of the Orchestra of St. Luke's (OSL) Bach festival, presenting all six dances Taylor created to Bach’s music. This programming is also a declaration of Novak’s intention to mine the company’s rich history, positioning the company as an important steward of classic American modern dance, while moving it forward with new commissions.

Tuesday night’s program opened with Taylor’s Musical Offering (1986) to Bach’s Das Musikalische Opfer, BWV 1079, orchestrated by Anton Webern and Michael Beyer. A curious work with a simplified movement vocabulary and a somewhat limited range of motion, the dancers worked with a spatial restraint that seemed unusual for Taylor. Inspired by wood sculptures from New Guinea, its stiff, side to side rocking bodies and angled arm positions with flat palms belatedly inserted Taylor into a long history of Western choreographers and artists who have appropriated “archaic” form from other cultures to explore their own. The costumes by Gene Moore have an outdated “Tarzan” look, presumably to match the “primitive” movement. I wonder if Taylor had been aware of the art historical controversy that exploded over MoMA’s exhibit “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” just a few years before the premiere of this work.

Either way, this dance’s abstraction of visual art into movement was reminiscent of dances from Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun (1913) to Jerome Robbins’ Antique Epigraphs (1984), as it created a different world from those, where a community simultaneously celebrated and mourned a young woman’s imminent death. Yet the stilted beginning gave way to something more spectacular, embedded deep within the structure of the work. Toward the end, veteran leading dancer Michael Trusnovec, who is retiring after this season, danced a solo with such exquisite artistry, technical precision, and intent, that suddenly we understood Taylor’s movement, the logic behind it, and the beauty in it, even in this constricted form. Through Trusnovec’s dancing, Musical Offering went from an unusual exercise to that place were dance outdoes words.

The program closed with Taylor’s masterpiece Esplanade (1975) to the Violin Concerto in E major and sections from the Double Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. It slowly built to its unforgettable finale, where the speed and daring of the dancers as they run, jump, roll, and catch each other make for an exhilarating closer. One eventually gets used to the costumes in shades of bright orange (brighter than usual?), becoming absorbed in the patterns and fearlessness of the dancers. The last two movements, which are danced to the same music as Balanchine’s iconic Concerto Barocco (1941), demonstrated a true feat of a great choreographer: through the force of his own vision, Taylor completely remade the indelible images some of us associate with this epochal music, giving us another possibility, and a superlative gift.
EYE ON THE ARS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson

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