Review: Watching Paul Taylor’s Road Not Taken (and Lessons Learned)

It might have been the most consequential move choreographer Paul Taylor has ever made. Considered very early on as a possible heir to Martha Graham, the pioneer of modern dance in whose company he performed, he was also perceived – rightly, although paradoxically, for a modernist heir – as a rebel. His rebellious gesture in 1962, more upsetting than calculated, was to dance to Handel’s unmodern and easy-to-hear music, a dance so light and lyrical that it almost sounded like a ballet.

It was “Aureole,” the work in which Taylor discovered how to be popular, a pivotal point in his process of not just joining but determining the mainstream of modern dance.

The three programs that the Paul Taylor Dance Company presents at the Joyce Theater this weekend with “Aureole”. And, though often executed, it remains an eternally satisfying construct, formal yet playful, like a boner after church, and as fresh as clean laundry.

There are also two premieres from choreographers other than Taylor, who died in 2018. But the revelations come from reconstructions of works Taylor did before “Aureole,” some unseen for more than 60 years. These are glimpses of Taylor as a trailblazer, of a path not taken, but also lessons learned on how to be both radical and popular.

One work, ‘Events II’, is taken from Taylor’s infamous 1957 ‘7 New Dances’ concert. It was a series of experiments very much in the spirit of the 1950s avant-garde , following the ideas of composer John Cage, who contributed music that many people wouldn’t consider music, and Taylor’s artist friend Robert Rauschenberg, who offered a live dog as a centerpiece .

Taylor danced a 20-minute solo to a recording of a woman announcing the time every 10 seconds. He presented a four-minute duet in which no one moved. The house emptied before the first room was finished. Louis Horst, the chief arbiter of modern dance and one of Taylor’s teachers, reviewed it with a column of blank space: no criticism for what he considered not to be dance.

“Events II” isn’t one of the more infamous selections. To the sound of rain, two women (Eran Bugge and the quietly captivating Jada Pearman) stand and sit in various postures as a breeze blows through their 1950s dresses. It’s found art, Taylor drawing our attention to the unrecognized beauty of the ordinary gestures of people on the street. It’s also painterly, with folded arms and bowed heads conveying character and mystery, like in an Edward Hopper image.

“Events II” is only a sketch or a study, but it shows what Taylor said he learned from the experience: that what he tried to present as postures without emotional overtones ended up being read. like dramatic gestures. It’s a discovery – with the importance of stillness in dance, like negative space in painting or silence in music – that will run through the rest of his work, even “Aureole”.

Ancient coins are full of such discoveries, Taylor’s feeling lying. My favorites were the solo excerpts from 1958’s “Images and Reflections.” A man (John Harnage) scalloped in Rauschenberg-designed bangs spreads his wings. A woman (Kristin Draucker) in too much tulle does a slow-motion version of the Swim, dramatizing social dancing. As understated and considered as their Morton Feldman score, these solos are not just foretastes of 1960s Judson Dance Theater; they could easily be the work of a contemporary postmodernist like Beth Gill.

“Fibers,” from 1961, when Taylor was still dancing for Graham, is still tangled in its aesthetic. It’s a masked primitivist ritual, with a symbolic tree and lots of Graham vocabulary. Although the current cast (with the exception of Lisa Borres) doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of it, you can sense Taylor finding fault with the Graham of “Embattled Garden” (1958), fumbling towards his own ambiguous version of a dance. rite.

“Profiles,” from 1979, is one such rite, an inventive stunner for two couples moving in flattened poses and formally freaking out. Presumably, it’s on the program to show how Taylor has remained a trendsetter. Juxtaposed to “Aureole”, it does just that, while giving a small taste of Taylor’s wide post-“Aureole” range.

There is, however, a difference between this consistent variety and the stylistic boost of the first two. Finding new works that fit Taylor’s repertoire is a difficult task.

“Hope Is the Thing With Feathers”, by the talented Michelle Manzanales, is composed of a mix tape of songs related to birds (“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, “Blackbird” by the Beatles, but also “Cucurucucú Paloma” and “Pajarito of Love”). It features bird movements – pecking isolates, diving flocks. It’s sweet, sentimental, fluid, fun.

Swinging arms, a floating quality, a touch of cuteness: “Hope” has a certain relation to “Aureole”, although it grates against the colder Taylor works on the program. “A Call for Softer Landings”, by Peter Chu, comes from another world. It features heavy breathing and an exhortation that the audience says, “I am enough.” These gambits are not avant-garde; they are wrong.

With its street-influenced bass styling and dance-punk band Liquid Liquid on its soundtrack, “A Call” sounds more contemporary than anything I remember seeing Taylor perform. There’s vibrancy, love for the dancers, and an engaging girl power theme. (It’s a treat to watch little Madelyn Ho beat big Lee Duveneck.) But her message about the oppressive present — a voice repeating the word “repeat” — is itself oppressive and obvious.

For a lesson in how a more sophisticated choreographer suggests the threat of repetition, with dramatic gesture as simple and complex as posture, watch the beginning and end of “Profiles.”

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Until Sunday at the Joyce Theatre;