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Critic’s Notebook: In Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, Some Missed Connections


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Alexis Britford and Quentin Sledge with fellow members of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” part of Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance season at the David H. Koch Theater.

Credit
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

When dance succeeds, it creates an alchemy of time and space that transfigures the action; life itself becomes brighter, keener, more momentous. That alchemy is happening too seldom with Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance in its current three-week season at the David H. Koch Theater. Few of the dances are projecting well enough into the Koch’s depths and breadths to register; and the connection of music and movement doesn’t often click into focus.

Mr. Taylor has been one of our few great choreographers; he has many times linked dance and sound with originality and imagination. His American Modern Dance project is historically important, connecting his work to older and younger exponents of the tradition. What’s failing to happen here?

Part of the problem is the Koch itself. When the Taylor company first transferred its annual season there from City Center, it took time for the dancers to make the repertory strike home in the unfamiliar theater. If lessons were learned, though, they seem largely forgotten this season.

And, though it’s good to have live music, the Orchestra of St Luke’s — playing the highly diverse assortment of Taylor scores — frequently sounds like a chamber group, lost in this large space. (Some Taylor aficionados are missing the taped scores that were the norm until last year.)

The conductor Donald York is an expert whose association with Mr. Taylor goes back decades, but even in the 1980s I remember how it sometimes took him several performances before he gave a dance the musical propulsion it needed. When Mr. Taylor’s “Spindrift” — set to Schoenberg’s “String Quartet Concerto (after Handel)” — was revived on Wednesday, after six years, the solo violins (Krista Bennion Feeney and Anca Nicolau) sounded scratchy; and throughout the piece it was hard to feel any firm bond between dancers and musicians.

I’ve seen 16 of the season’s dances. The most potently delivered has been one of the non-Taylor works: the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s account of Donald McKayle’s “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder” (1959), which had its first Taylor’s American Modern Dance performance on Tuesday, at the start of the season’s second week.

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Parisa Khobdeh and Sean Mahoney of Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance in “Diversion of Angels.”

Credit
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The few times I’ve seen the Dayton company, it has shown that it knows how to give maximum impact to little-known choreography from the past, making it burst into life. “Rainbow” itself is vivid, sincere, but by no means great. A view of seven men working on a chain gang and the sole woman who is by turns the sweetheart, mother and wife of their memories and dreams, it’s at times very literal in the way it illustrates the words of its traditional African-American songs.

But “Rainbow” had marvelous intensity on Tuesday: Destan Owens, Michael McElroy and the Broadway Inspirational Voices made the music beautifully stirring, while the Dayton dancers brought rich texture and incisiveness to the movement. Made the year before Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” (1960) and to comparable music, this belongs to the same family and era; but where “Revelations” is about the transcendence of the human spirit, “Rainbow” evokes how much there was for many African-Americans to transcend. It’s a strong piece of American dance history; I’m grateful to have seen it.

Martha Graham’s “Diversion of Angels” (1948), which joined the repertory on Tuesday, danced by the Taylor company, is a more esteemed historic work that leaves a more questionable impression. Here the Orchestra of St. Luke’s rose to make the most of Norman Dello Joio’s score; controversy arises about how the Taylor dancers handled the Graham choreography. Taylor style and Graham style are strongly related; Mr. Taylor danced leading roles in the Graham company for many years. I hope Taylor’s American Modern project will revive other Graham works in future seasons.

“Diversion of Angels,” one of Graham’s plotless works, is a study of three male-female couples (each costumed in a different color) with four other women and one other man; it suggests different kinds of love and energy, arranged architecturally and musically. It has one moment — a woman standing on a man as he lies horizontally on the floor — that unmistakably anticipates Mr. Taylor’s classic “Esplanade”; and for this and other reasons it’s sweet to see this Graham work in this Taylor context.

For many people, “Diversion” is a Graham classic; but a problem with the Graham company’s way of dancing it has long been that it doesn’t so much dance it as give a master class about its methods and effects. The Taylor company’s way is fresher and less glossy, but also more flawed. In a few jumps, differentiated contractions, and angled stances, you can see strains and imperfections. Will later performances solve this? If the Taylor company is to keep acquiring masterworks from other repertories, this issue will continually recur: “American Modern Dance” is a realm containing dance languages so diverse that nobody can speak them all convincingly.

Why has the Taylor company revived “Snow White” (1983) and “Three Dubious Memories” (2010)? The first is a slight comedy that has outlived its shelf life; the second is a quizzical study in ambiguity that, tepid when new, has grown entirely tedious.

“Spindrift” is a Taylor work whose drama — a lone man is both distanced from others and seen in their context — didn’t spark into life on Wednesday, but there’s material here that could easily become encompassing. For some, that’s already true of “Profiles” (1979, last seen in 2007), a quartet (to a commissioned score by Jan Radzynski) in which Mr. Taylor gives his dancers a primitive, two-dimensional, rough-hewed look with angled knees and elbows. On first viewing on Tuesday, I was impressed but not engaged. The season ends on April 3; so far it’s adding up to less than the sum of its parts.

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