Paul Taylor Dance Company
The Celebration Tour, Program A: Concertiana, Company B, Esplanade
San Francisco, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
19 February 2020
Small in number, yet mighty in scope – feels an accurate description of dance at San Francisco Performances. While the season has been made up of just two or three offerings in recent years, the featured groups and artists tend to be big names in the dance world. That trend continued on Wednesday as the Paul Taylor Dance Company (PTDC), led by Artistic Director Michael Novak, returned to SF Performances for a sixteenth time.
Titled The Celebration Tour, PTDC brought two distinct mixed bills that pay tribute to the choreography of founder Paul Taylor (1930-2018). Program A’s repertory line-up felt destined for a home run – 1975’s modern dance epic Esplanade, 1991’s penetrating Company B and the West Coast premiere of 2018’s Concertiana, Taylor’s final work. The result was more of a triple – a three-base hit – still pretty phenomenal.
PTDC shone in the two older works on the program, Esplanade and Company B. Set within a 1940s frame, Company B asks its audience to consider two stark realities of that time: energetic joy and unthinkable savagery. A collection of vignettes set to nostalgic Andrews Sisters’ tunes, the ensemble piece for thirteen highlights the fun and effervescence of swing dance culture while simultaneously examining the gruesomeness of war, presumably World War II. Sweeping jitterbug lifts, dazzling jive footwork and cheeky interactions filled the stage, the cast’s exuberant brightness matching the bouncy harmonies crooning through the air. And then all of a sudden, images of battle would invade and overtake the space – wounded individuals, soldiers desperately army-crawling into the wings, bodies frenetically shaking with terror. It was striking and powerful to see the two states side by side; to imagine such dichotomy happening at the same time; and to contemplate how often we encounter such dichotomies today. In a haunting solo to I Can Dream, Can’t I?, Christina Lynch Markham waltzed and swayed with an absent partner, someone who was possibly never returning home. John Harnage, dancing to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, was all smiles, buoyant and ebullient until his solo’s final moment. Violently contracting and flailing, he collapsed into a heap, his character a victim of brutal conflict.
Though it too has a number of emotionally charged moments, Esplanade seems mostly inspired by the nature of physicality itself. It’s about gesture, dynamic change, patterns, openness and possibility. With an uplifting Bach score, John Rawlings’ bright costuming and of course, Taylor’s choreographic prowess, I bet even the grumpiest viewers likely cracked a smile at some point during this breathtaking ride.
Structured in a loose A-B-A format, cheery, upbeat tones imbue the beginning and ending while a more somber middle section provides contrast. Taylor begins the journey by investigating simplicity – inviting palms, unfussy walking circuits and precise directional changes for the main cast of eight. In short order, the choreography crescendos and accumulates to include fast-paced running, leapfrog games and full-speed gallops, as well as a deep dive into the risk and reward that comes with moving backwards in space.
Esplanade’s middle section not only invites a ninth dancer to join its landscape, it also introduces a serious, sober mood, both musically and physically. Postures, gestures and shapes take on a mysterious, eerie quality, and new vocabulary, like crawling and lurching, enters the scene. Then, just when you need a lift, Esplanade’s jubilance and elation returns. Falling, rolling, spinning, sliding, leaping, off-center layouts – the company saturates the final minutes with a complete sense of abandon. And there is also a special intention that one can’t help but notice in this last section. Each movement, whether big or small, is informed by an undeniable sense of care, attention and kindness. Esplanade’s beauty cannot be overstated – it’s a timeless modern dance masterwork; a homage to all styles of movement, from pedestrian to stylistic, task-based to choreographically-derived.
Concertiana had plenty of strong points as well. More uplifting music, this time from Eric Ewazen, paired with Taylor’s lovely choreographic shapes and compelling stage architecture. Diagonal arms abounded as did parallel jumps. There were stag leaps and contractions, glide walks and arched arms. The eleven-member cast traversed serpentine pathways, seamlessly weaving around each other. Their motion was constant in this collage of solos, duets and group variations. Unison and partnering did prove elusive on Wednesday; perhaps indicating that the company needs a little more time with this particular work. And while the blue camouflage-print unitards did not pull focus from the dancing, they looked quite dated. But the real challenge with Concertiana is programming it on the same bill with Esplanade. Content-wise, they are very similar, both reading as a celebration of modern dance vocabulary, and in my book, Esplanade comes across as the stronger dance. It would certainly be interesting to experience Concertiana on a different program.