Paul Taylor never plans programs by halves. His troupe’s 2017 Lincoln Center season is beyond dizzying, boasting 17 classic Taylor works, several premieres, and a special program dedicated to the linked legacies of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Taylor. Performed across a 20-day span in March, it totals over 20 performances and takes in decades of Taylor’s prolific output. The array is splendid, if endearingly baffling, like some of Taylor’s works themselves.
Wednesday night saw an oldie-but-goodie program culminating in a revival of Taylor’s 1975 masterpiece Esplanade. Using the E Major Violin Concerto and the D Minor Double Violin Concerto (largo and allegro), Esplanade is Taylor’s most radiant interpretation of Bach.
Applause flooded the theater as the curtain rose on the dancers, clothed in apricot and coral costumes and bathed in Jennifer Tipton’s warm glow. What is it about Esplanade after all that makes us so elated, so satisfied, so moved?
One mark of Taylor’s genius is the deft dichotomy of carefree ease and formal classicism (a trait often seen in Morris). In Esplanade this colors the allegro movements, particularly the first, which is like a glass of bright, crisp summer wine. Dancers flit and float with a casual but perky breeziness, taking paths forward and backward, zig zagging, weaving, running, even racing in meticulously crafted routes which are far from improvised. Skips punctuate the pedestrian movement, calculated to accentuate the rising tension in Bach’s score. Yet the dancers’ warmth and effervescence give the impression of bright young things flirting in a field.
For all Esplanade’s wit and charm, it is suffused with yearning. The second movement is an elegiac lament and the fourth aches with tenderness, opening with two couples, each woman cradled in the arms of their partner. Even in the brisk movements, dancers lightly touch one another, as if to say “play with me, please.” Desire borders on devotion for both sexes: a man supine on the ground, props a woman up on his stomach, and promenades her like a music box ballerina. Women stroke the men’s stomachs as they kneel before them. But neither sex is a slave to the other, nor are the women infantilized when cradled by the men, nor is it trite. Taylor dancers are modern, free agents, openly communicating craving and appreciation.
If the first movement is a crisp rosé, the final and famous fifth movement, is a series of gutsy shots straight to the back of the throat. The audience gasped as dancers hurtled themselves into the floor, thud after bruising thud, and into each other’s arms with terrifying verve and force.
How punk, how irreverent to tear around to Bach. But the recklessness of the final movement is no less structured than Bach’s music, the climax no less ecstatic. The sense of space Taylor creates in Esplanade is immense. His choreography makes the cathedral of Bach not just visible but sensorial, the architecture present but not confining: an open-aired ruin, with the dancers soaring to the loftiest aural heights.
Despite winning performances, particularly by Eran Bugge, Madelyn Ho and Parisa Khobdeh, fatigue was evident during Esplanade, likely due it being at the end of a long night. Preceding Esplanade was The Word, an intense work from 1998 with commissioned music by David Israel. A group of dancers styled as prep school boys in Weimar style makeup and slicked back hair practice a fervent, blind faith while haunted by a deviant succubus, danced by Khobdeh. She writhes and lurches at them, and they seethe with desire, though she fails to convert them fully to the dark side, at least, on the surface.
The playful Book of Beasts opened the evening, a wild, early 70s Taylor work that amounts to a tongue and cheek take on the medieval bestiary. Costumes by John Rawlings include a fluffy Jim Henson-esque beast, a fantastically camp phoenix, and a Von Rothbart-at-the-disco number. The medley of familiar tunes is comprised of E. Power Biggs’ pedal harpsichord recordings of tunes such as Saint-Saens’ “The Dying Swan” and Tchaikovsky’s Russian dance from The Nutcracker. Michael Trusnovec is positively majestic as the phoenix. With a delicate flick of the wrist he gets uproarious laughs for his flaming, deconstructed cheerleader pom-poms – a sassy ballroom dancer run amok. Robert Kleinendorst was equally camp as the demon, gyrating his hips and flashing his terrifying nails with no remorse.
It is worth noting at this date and time that two out of the three dances on this program, Beasts and Esplanade, were originally made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Two out of three. What would modern American dance be without Esplanade? How many other future masterpieces might the lights go dark on, if the Trump administration gets its way?