Remodeling the Repertory
Paul Taylor’s ambitious plan to strengthen and expand modern dance took its first stately steps last spring at Lincoln Center. Whether the newly launched Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance will fulfill the promise of its initial publicity is still to be determined. There’s evident sincerity in Taylor’s desire to preserve the art form he’s been working in for more than 60 years. Though he delights in the role of malcontent, he knows, honors, and ingests dance history with uncommon respect.
The PTAMD plan as originally announced had two main parts: Taylor would continue to produce his own past works and make new ones, and he would enlist other dance companies to perform “masterworks” during his company’s seasons at Lincoln Center. Live music would accompany all of this. The newly named company would commission new dances from young choreographers as well. The key to all of this is what choices will be made to fulfill those aspirations. Plans were released to commission new works by Doug Elkins, Larry Keigwin, and former Taylor dancer Lila York. In its grand scope and mainstream inclinations, this plan sounds like a national modern dance repertory company, if such a thing could exist.
The Taylor company never had its own theater in New York. Until 2012 it rented City Center for regular seasons. Now, Taylor and the spinoff PTAMD have taken a significant step toward a long-term home base by crafting an alliance with the New York City Ballet, proprietor of the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater). Executive Director John Tomlinson told the Huffington Post the company has signed a six-year lease with the Koch and has an understanding for an additional ten years. The idea seems to be to preserve the Paul Taylor Dance Company as a touring entity, while securing a virtually permanent platform in New York. Straddling both experimentation and comfortable stability, Taylor and his company have survived since 1954, to become part of what dance historians Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick describe as a “second establishment within the older modern order.”
Perhaps it’s my own wishful thinking to interpret the PTAMD plan as leading to a true repertory encompassing the entire past century of American modern dance. Paul Taylor hasn’t said he’s imagining that. Modern dancers are by definition committed to endless exploration and the creation of new works. Since Merce Cunningham and the counterculture argued that repertory brings about a museum-like ossification and deprives both the performers and the viewers of spontaneously experiencing the work, succeeding generations have regarded the idea of repertory with distrust verging on dread. They have adopted it to appease the demands of marketing. Repertory is a necessary component of the playlist for any dance company that tours extensively. Paul Taylor has been carrying some of his own dances in active repertory ever since he formed his company, and he long ago started having his dances written down in notation. The Taylor works at Lincoln Center last spring went back as far as 1962 and his first big success, Aureole.
There’s more than expediency in this. Dances, ancient and recent, must be performed live. They change gradually, by accident or intention, but without the immediate witness of repertory, history—even the history of one long-lived company—dissolves into hearsay and myth. (Taylor has done more than a bit of mythologizing in his extraordinary autobiography, Private Domain.) As a practical matter, the older works fill out programs without requiring excessive rehearsal time. The audience likes recognizing old favorites. The incorporation of a solid core of proven works gives cultural weight to the company and wards off uncertainty at the box office, while a smaller proportion of new works captures the attention of the press.
In addition to his own dances, Taylor has allowed his dancers to create new works for the company, including David Parsons, Christopher Gillis, Danny Ezralow, and Thomas Evert. None of these experiments entered the permanent Taylor roster, but the dancers who got the tryouts went on to choreograph for groups of their own. In asking established younger dancemakers to make new works now, Taylor may be seeking to enrich and diversify his company’s repertory. The other idea of repertory—as a collection of old masterpieces from various artists—Taylor seems to have addressed in enlisting outside companies to present their own repertory works. The gathering of several autonomous companies under one umbrella doesn’t really replicate the wide-ranging model of ballet companies and symphony orchestras. Idiosyncratic modern dance styles are elusive, even for those already trained in them as members of second generation choreographer-centered companies.
As an art form, modern dance has been culturally marginal. Homeless and attached to personal styles and preferences, it never gained a lasting identity as a technique or approach. In its early days its strength—and its isolation—came from projections of individual artists, who notoriously couldn’t work together in a single company. As early as 1930, multiple dance companies joined forces on occasion, then dispersed without forming lasting bonds. But the notion of incompatible creative egos was dubious even then. Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman began their complementary partnership in 1928; it continued until 1944 when the Humphrey-Weidman company disbanded. After that, Humphrey served as artistic director of the José Limón company until her death in 1958. A strong collaborative tradition still exists among independents to share production costs and sometimes dancer resources.
Multi-choreographer repertory within a single company is not a novelty, despite modern dance’s reputation as a single-voice artform. Alvin Ailey, probably the initiator of diverse modern dance repertory, was an ecumenical spirit, whose company and repertory were interracial and multi-voiced from the beginning. Ailey needed other choreographers to beef up his own output of dances, especially after his company began international touring in the 1960s. Over the years the Ailey repertory has devoted special attention to classics by African-American choreographers like Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty. The Ailey company’s June 2015 season at the Koch Theater included works by 11 choreographers as well as the late founder himself.
During the rise of the Ailey company, which was also the era of the boundary-smashing counterculture, modern dance was dissolving from a collection of individual voices into a fusion of diverse forms. First, its chronic resistance to show business broke down; it adopted the skills of ballet; then the doors opened to multiculturalism and populist idioms. The present generation’s important choreographers are eclectics and collaborators, not inventors. With Merce Cunningham gone, Paul Taylor and Mark Morris seem to be the last of that breed of determined individualists who made the modern dance the modern dance. The original modern dance techniques, each developed as a vehicle for a single choreographer’s ideas, have blended and softened into less individualized regimens. Neither the Paul Taylor school nor that of Morris offers an eponymous formal technique; rather, adult classes focus on overall modern dance preparation.
The Ailey company, then and now, had to make its own way. It’s always had major grants and government-sponsored tours, but its survival as a hugely popular organization is self-generated. The same is true for Taylor and Mark Morris. The few vestigial old modern dance groups, including the Limón and Martha Graham companies, are hanging on by the ingenuity of their managements, with reinforcements from disciples, alumni, and outside choreographers. Real stability, on an institutional level, has been rare. That dream stirred a few times, petered out.
There is a precedent for Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance as an independent company with a strong style of its own that invites outside attractions. In 1964–65, what was then the New York State Theater had just opened as the home of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. In a nod to the struggling indigenous modern dance, the American Dance Theater was created under the direction of José Limón. Aimed at bringing together the feuding factions of modern dance, the ADT was composed mostly of Limón’s dancers, supplemented by students at the Juilliard School, where Limón was on the dance faculty. They performed repertory works by Limón and Doris Humphrey—including Humphrey’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor—and appeared in dances by Donald McKayle and Anna Sokolow. Martha Graham opted out of the enterprise, but for a second brief season the groups of Alwin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham joined, as did Valerie Bettis, Pearl Lang and other notable dancer-choreographers of the time. Houses were very good, but the ADT never got the funding together to continue. Two years later, the Rockefeller Foundation created Repertory Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City, which survives to this day as a producer of modern dance classics and contemporary works.
Half a century after the abortive ADT, in the very same theater, now renamed for its benefactor David H. Koch, Paul Taylor’s hatchling presented Shen Wei Dance Arts in Shen’s Rite of Spring and the Limón Dance Company in Humphrey’s Passacaglia. It’s unlikely either of these works will be seen again under the Taylor auspices. Taylor has admitted asking without success for works from Twyla Tharp and the Graham custodians. These initial choices may not be as random as they seem, but if Taylor has a long-term plan for preserving classic modern dance rather than ad hoc specimens, it hasn’t been announced.
After seeing the Shen Wei Rite of Spring, I couldn’t imagine it in the masterpiece category. Or understand why the Taylor company didn’t revive his own Rite of Spring from 1980, which was a truly original dance. Shen Wei spoke of his Rite in a program note as having “movement concepts and structural principles that resonated with the music.” This explanation could apply to almost any dance that’s been choreographed to a piece of music, including Humphrey’s Passacaglia and most of Taylor’s work.
I found Shen’s dance forgettable, but after looking at some excerpts on YouTube, I can appreciate his structural emphasis. Shen discarded the ritualistic scenario in which a girl dances herself to death to ensure the survival of the tribe. He deployed certain movement motifs with variations, many of them resembling movement created by Vaslav Nijinsky for the original ballet in 1913. We don’t really know what those were, but Shen seems to have harvested some of Nijinsky’s choreographic ideas as reconstructed in 1987 by Millicent Hodson. Shen used these movement motifs quite dispassionately, overlooking what must have been one reason the original ballet caused so much furor: the movement not only adhered to the structure of the music but took on the music’s dissonance, its savagery. This was a grave offense and a provocation to an audience that preferred its savagery tamed, like the faux-Orientalist slaves in Schéhérazade and the monsters of Firebird. In those and other ballets of the early-Diaghilev period, only subhuman or barbaric types could flout the classical line and behavior so drastically, not people who represented a human community.
What I didn’t see in Shen’s Rite was any relation to the original sensibility of the famous score, its tribal atavism and sacrificial hysteria. Shen’s choreography is cued by the musical changes rather than the shattering dynamics. He used the two-piano version created after the Nijinsky premiere by Stravinsky himself. Taylor also used this transcription of the ballet’s large orchestral score. But where the piano reduction enhanced Taylor’s comic-strip scenario, it seemed to thin out Shen’s dance. The sixteen dancers work individually a lot of the time and are spread out over the stage. There’s very little group dancing, and the focus is out toward the audience. This Rite looked a lot like other contemporary works that want you to concentrate on individual dancers and don’t bother with collective patterns.
Humphrey’s Passacaglia (1938) does qualify as a canonic work in American modern dance, but the account we saw last spring wasn’t persuasive. I’m not sure when the Limón company last did Passacaglia, but I’m fairly sure it isn’t in the Limón’s current repertory. The dancers looked diligent, earnest, but not transfigured, and so did the dance. Some of Humphrey’s unfortunate reputation as a stodgy choreographer may come from the worshipful way her heirs perform her dances, and some of it might be attributed to the watering-down of the Humphrey technique. Her legacy is infrequently performed, and she’s usually represented by small pieces from her formative years. These early studies are regularly reconstructed from notation in universities. They’re modest in production, simple in design, and provide useful training grounds for student dancers. The dramatic works Humphrey made for the Limón company and the troupe of young dancers she led at Juilliard in the 1950s are seldom seen on our stages. Smaller scaled and less abstract, they express human experience in a way that’s out of fashion but still holds power. I’m thinking of the gorgeous Day on Earth; the elusive Night Spell; the celebration of a bullfighter, Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. And even the casual flirtation between women and men going off to war, Ritmo Jondo, which I’ve often thought of as a close relative of Paul Taylor’s Sunset.
Humphrey’s big, abstract works, Passacaglia and the New Dance Trilogy from the mid-1930s, are all but invisible now. For Passacaglia a grant from the Bennington School of Dance allowed her to augment the Humphrey-Weidman company with student apprentices, to make a cast of 25 at its premiere. It was scaled down to meet the requirements of subsequent groups, and its 1957 Labanotation score can accommodate between 14 and 18 dancers. Humphrey constructed it to the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor of Bach, one of the composer’s most familiar works for organ. It’s a grand baroque piece consisting of 20 variations on a repeating theme with a concluding fugal expansion on the same theme. It’s been transcribed for everything from piano to string and brass ensembles. Humphrey choreographed her dance to recordings of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestrated version, and performances at the Bennington premiere used a piano arrangement for four hands.
For the Taylor season’s four performances, the Bach was played by noted organist Kent Tritle. Listening to it, I thought the sound was strangely un-organic, and after some research I learned the company had rented a Hauptwerk “virtual organ” for the occasion. The Koch Theater lacks its own instrument. A virtual organ means it’s not a pipe organ at all, but a digital sampling of organ sounds. Tritle’s performance sounded blurry to me, muted in spots and garishly loud in others, but without clear rhythmic definition and without the momentum that could have been more supportive to the dancers. The choice of this oh-so-modern instrument seemed misguided to me. There are portable pipe organs that might have served this chorography better. Alternatively, the company might have broken its “live music” vow and used a recording, as they did with the Andrews Sisters’ inimitable songs for Taylor’s Company B.
Passacaglia is both metaphorical and architectural. The early modern dancers used movement deliberately to carry meaning, in ways contemporary dance does not. Multiple turns and split leaps were unheard-of for modern dance in those days; that kind of virtuosity would have been shunned by the early idealists. Humphrey’s dancers walk, they take little jumps on the run. They use their arms deliberately, sculpting and scooping out the space, so that the audience can see a bigger implication in what they do, more than the sphere around the individual performer. In Passacaglia they move in choral unison groups as counterpoint to solo statements. The dance takes place on stacked boxes, a Humphrey-Weidman device that carries little scenic value but gives the stage a dimension of height.
As the dance begins, you see the company posed on the boxes in silhouette, with their arms raised in an ambiguous gesture, neither praying nor rejoicing but striving upward. Individuals gradually distinguish themselves out of the mass, rising and advancing across the forestage. Two leaders emerge, demonstrating new themes that are taken up by the group. The movement is subjected to variations—crossings, turning in profile, sliding down to a sitting position, jumping vertically with straight arms clanging together and legs splaying open. The dance is oriented to the audience until Bach’s final cadence, when the leaders turn toward the group, and the whole ensemble, kneeling, bows in mutual acknowledgment. Humphrey spoke of her dance as an affirmation of faith in a troubled time. I see that idea in the lifting and suspended breath of the movement. Not all the Limón dancers fulfilled this exalted merger of hope and physicality, but just to see the outlines of the dance again was a vindication of Humphrey, and of the reason we need a living dance museum.
I got to see one of Taylor’s two new works, Death and the Damsel, on one of the four programs I attended at the end of March. This is not Taylor’s first or only journey into the dark. The title refers us to the perennial image of Death and the Maiden (by Franz Schubert among other composers and painters), and the dance itself suggests another icon in films and visual art, the Dance of Death. The allegorical Grim Reaper who harvests souls of every kind and occupation appears in Kurt Jooss’s 1932 German modern dance The Green Table, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and countless graphics going back to the Middle Ages. Taylor’s dance, set to the shifting harmonics of Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano (played by Margaret Kampmeier and Myron Lutzke), turns the prototype slightly inside out. Death is indeed a seductive figure (played by Michael Trusnovec), but he brings along a pack of eight glitzy accomplices. So the battle is inverted—-not Death alone versus the universe, but Death’s legions stalking and carrying off a single victim.
The damsel (Jamie Rae Walker) greets the morning with a carefree dance in her bedroom. Hardly a moment later, she’s visited by Trusnovec, who summons his sequined helpers and seduces her with less innocent pleasures. I’m not sure when Trusnovec sinks his teeth into Walker’s neck, or when the foxtrotting starts. But soon they’re all in an off-kilter dance club (neo-expressionistic sets and shiny black costumes were by Santo Loquasto), where Taylor indulges his gift for glamorous corruption and fatal surprises. Walker gets pursued and symbolically gang- raped by Trusnovec and his pals. She struggles in slow motion with a formidable female demon (Laura Halzack). I was rooting for her, despite the odds. But the swarm overwhelms her in the end. Taylor reworked the ending, according to reports, so I’m not sure which version I saw, or if there ever was a final one.
Critical reaction to Death and the Damsel ranged from dismissive yawns to righteous feminist outrage. There wasn’t a thing in the dance that Taylor hasn’t done before. It’s no cruder than Big Bertha, no more decadent than Last Look. For shock value, he hasn’t topped the shamanic hermaphrodite in Runes. Maidens lost their virtue in Agathe’s Tale and the aforementioned Big Bertha. Perhaps the critics were expecting Taylor to come up with a totally new invention, but one of the advantages of repertory is its ability to reinforce itself. Doubling back on the past can enrich both past and present. In another time, Death and the Damsel could have been an AIDS dance. Today it could be read as a reference to terrorism, espionage or identity theft. Or the temptations of sex.
Thanks to Taylor’s preservation of his own repertory, you can read his body of work thematically, as with the literature of any great artist. You can see his dances resonating against each other. I was fascinated to revisit The Word (1998), which I didn’t fully take in the one or two times I saw it previously. The female in that dance, who mesmerizes a group of other people, leads her acolytes off to their doom, or their reward. She could be a religious leader or a dictator, or Death herself.
The rest of the 2015 Koch Theater repertory tilted heavily toward Taylor’s lighter side. The three weeks were dominated by all-dance pieces, from the spirited (Esplanade, Arden Court, Aureole), to the goofy (Cloven Kingdom, Troilus and Cressida), to the elegiac (Beloved Renegade, Sunset). With only a few slots assigned to Last Look, The Word, Big Bertha, and Damsel, the audience wasn’t to be unduly challenged or disturbed. However muted, it’s astonishing that one choreographer can lay claim to such a range of attitudes and formats and has applied his craft in so many different ways. Since few of us can remember dances in detail, repertory can refresh this perception and renew our appreciation.
Anna Sokolow’s biographer Larry Warren described the 1964–65 American Dance Theater’s mission in terms that could summarize the as-yet unrealized ambitions of Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance:
The goal . . . was to create a permanent company of dancers versatile enough to perform the works of all modern dance choreographers. Classics of contemporary dance were to be revived and new works by composers and choreographers commissioned. . . .
As a hybrid of true repertory and umbrella for visiting troupes, can the PTAMD work? The new company title is misleading if not presumptuous. I can see why the likes of Twyla Tharp, not to mention Martha Graham’s successors, would balk at allowing their dances to be represented as if they were Paul Taylor’s invention. American modern dance deserves a serious institution, now that the nonballetic category has become a blandly virtuosic contemporary dance and anything old is stigmatized as hopelessly retrograde. Modern dancers now pride themselves on being able to do modern, ballet, jazz and hip hop, whatever comes their way. But the modern dance classics can’t be credibly brought to life in some all-purpose contemporary vernacular. We don’t really know yet how to retrieve the particular idealistic energy and the simple beauty of modern dances. Both the dancers and their audiences need to be educated and encouraged to appreciate the treasures of the past as well as the creations of the present. A big task, one that could occupy the PTAMD for the next half century.