Paul Taylor’s new vision for American modern dance

On Tuesday, Paul Taylor kicked off his company’s three-week 60th anniversary season, presenting a wide spectrum from decades of work, among them several masterpieces. The octogenarian keeps churning them out, with no apparent interest in slowing down. But on Thursday, he acknowledged mortality and gave thought to legacy, unveiling a bold new vision for the future of his company – and for modern dance.

This time next year, we’ll be introduced to Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. The entity hasn’t been entirely fleshed out yet and few specifics have been provided. But based on a press conference on Thursday and a public announcement at the company’s gala at Lincoln Center that night, the new organization will have a three-fold mission:

–       The continued presentation, and creation, of works by Taylor, performed by his company (currently on fine display on the Koch stage).

–       The commissioning of new works by emerging (American?) choreographers, to be set on, and performed by, Taylor’s company.

–       The presentation of American modern dance classics by Taylor’s contemporaries.

The prospect is exciting, if vague at the moment, and raises a number of questions yet to be answered. Among them, who’s curating the new work and what’s the artistic vision? What kind of dance will “American Modern Dance” champion?

In presenting classics from other choreographers – a worthy effort to preserve historic and foundational pieces of art – are these works to be reconstructed on the Taylor dancers? Performed by guest companies already specializing in some of that work (i.e., the Graham and Limon companies), or perhaps some other alternative?

In addition to these lofty intentions, another grand, and welcome, development: a commitment to live music “when intended by the choreographer,” according to the announcement. Indeed, live music is a noticeable no-show at the Koch right now. If you attend the New York City Ballet regularly, you get used to a lively presence in the orchestra pit and a full-bodied sound in the theater. An empty pit creates a buffer to the audience; it absorbs energy. Filling it back up will make many of Taylor’s best works feel whole again.

Legacy is a tricky beast in dance – both because of the slippery nature of handing down dances in general and because of the single-choreographer company model that defined (and to a large degree, still does) the structure of modern dance presentation. We’ve seen the problems of ownership that arise (à la Graham), the dispersal of a valued repertory (Cunningham) as well as a successful re-birth (Ailey).

Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance proposes a new idea that has the potential to be an important and sustainable home for Taylor’s works, other classics, and serve as a springboard for the next generation of visionaries. We eagerly await details.

Choreographing War

Movie poster for Lone Survivor.
Movie poster for Lone Survivor.

The latest war film to address America’s ongoing overseas engagement is Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” the story of a doomed Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan. In something of a surprise, it topped the box office last week, becoming one of the few post-9/11 military films to find a broad commercial audience. Many attempts in the past few years, though critically acclaimed (like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Messenger,” etc.) have struggled to attract indifferent viewers. But at least they’re trying.

Meanwhile, it seems not much war has popped up thematically in dance in the past decade. (Note: Since the initial publishing of this post, Bill T. Jones’  “Blind Date” (2005), Ronald K. Brown’s “Come Ye” (2003), and Garth Fagan’s “Life: Dark/Light” have been brought to my attention.) Please continue to share, in the comments section, examples of others works or artists that you’ve encountered that have engaged with the subject.

But on Thursday night at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, war and dance was the topic at hand. Not a survey of the field but a look at the repertory of Paul Taylor, the veteran modern dance choreographer whose company celebrates its 60th anniversary this spring. Writer and scholar Suzanne Carbonneau, author of the forthcoming Taylor biography, discussed Taylor’s approach to war in four works spanning a quarter century.

Company B
Paul Taylor Dance Company in Company B
Photo by Paul B. Goode

In “Company B” (1991), Carbonneau showed how Taylor subtly undermines the romanticization of World War II. In “Banquet of Vulture” (2008), she pointed to the usually apolitical Taylor’s rage against the war in Iraq. In a nod to Kurt Jooss’ 1932 “The Green Table,” perhaps the most famous of anti-war dances, Taylor borrowed the rigid bearing and heavy steps of the character of Death to create his own character explicitly modeled on George W. Bush.  In “Sunset” (1983), war remains hovering offstage; its only literal reference is the uniforms worn by the men. But in that work, Taylor zooms in on the way war disrupts youth and robs soldiers and their sweethearts of carefree innocence.

Dance isn’t always great at commenting on politics – some issues are just too complicated to capture in a nuanced way without words. But when it comes to illustrating how war affects our social relationships and communal psyche, dance may have something valuable to say.

From the evidence on Thursday, Paul Taylor is clearly committed to exploring these themes. Who among contemporary choreographers will join him?