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The Paul Taylor Dance Company Is 'Bach'

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Jun 06, 2019


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After a 14-month hiatus, the venerable troupe returns with an all-Bach program


The past year has been a period of major transition for Paul Taylor American Modern Dance (PTAMD). Last August, the troupe's namesake and founder passed away at age 88. Shortly beforehand, he appointed longtime company member Michael Novak as artistic director designate. Although Taylor helped plan the programs before he died, PTAMD's performances at the inaugural Orchestra of St. Luke's Bach Festival this month are the first with Novak at the helm. The company will do all six of Paul Taylor's dances set to Johann Sebastian Bach, with live accompaniment by the OSL at Manhattan School of Music.

Taylor's Bach dances were created over four decades, from 1961's Junction to 2002's Promethean Fire. "With six works spanning that time, you see the evolution of a craftsman," says Novak. "With his exploration of movement and counterpoint, and how he's able to play with Bach's music and also against it, you can observe his evolution not just in terms of movement, but also in terms of mood and emotional range. It's quite an accomplishment to have such diversity considering that it's all inspired by the same composer."

For each piece, Taylor approached the Baroque master in distinctive and often unexpected ways. "Junction falls into a category of dances where Paul was exploring what he called 'scribbles:' a way of moving where energy is stimulated at your core and thrown out of your body," explains Novak. "He had been a competitive swimmer in college. In his early work, the way he used his back and arms, it was almost like he was thrashing in water. It's free, uninhibited, loose and dynamic."

Conversely, Promethean Fire, one of the choreographer's finest late works, is a somber full-company dance featuring intricate configurations. "Paul's use of geometry is something that I've always valued tremendously, "says Novak. "The way he guides the viewer's eye is just incredible. His Bach repertory, particularly Brandenburgs, Esplanade, Musical Offering and Promethean, have glorious patterns."

Taylor's most celebrated work to Bach is Esplanade, created in 1975 shortly after he stopped performing. Somehow he managed to transform walking, running, sliding, falling and other commonplace movements into a playful and poignant dance with constant surprises and an exhilarating finale.

Donald York, PTAMD's longtime music director who will be conducting the OSL for these performances, began collaborating with Taylor shortly after Esplanade premiered. For several decades, he was a fixture in the orchestra pit at the company's performances. Then came a period, York calls it "the hollow years," when the troupe could no longer afford to hire musicians.

That changed in 2015 when the company started working with the OSL. Their collaboration has been mutually rewarding and actually led to this month's festival, which features PTAMD as its centerpiece. "I encourage the musicians to watch videos of the dances," says York. "In playing for dance, we have to keep tempos. I've noticed that their awareness of that has grown and changed over the years."

PTAMD's lineup also includes world premieres by Margie Gillis and Pam Tanowitz. Before he died, Taylor started commissioning other choreographers to create new repertory for the company, including these two dance-makers. Gillis' Rewilding is set to a string arrangement of Art of the Fugue. Tanowitz's all at once uses sections from an oboe sonata and a violin concerto.

For York, conducting these programs at Manhattan School of Music in Morningside Heights has special resonance. "I attended the old Juilliard School in that same building," he recalls. "My first experience with modern dance was watching a program on that very stage: works by Martha Graham, José Limon and Anna Sokolow. My conducting teacher was in the pit. I'd never seen anything like it. It blew me away. It was so human. I remember thinking at the time: I want to do that. I don't know what heavenly spirit led me to Paul Taylor, but here I am doing a full circle in that same pit."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Paul Taylor American Modern Dance's Esplanade. Photo by Paul B. Goode.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.