Paul Taylor, hailed by Martha Graham as the “naughty boy” of modern dance back in 1957, brought his company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, to Denver this past weekend for two performances at the Newman Center on Saturday and Sunday, February 20 and 21. The highlight of the show was the world premiere of a dance co-commissioned by Newman Center Presents. Dilly Dilly, Taylor’s 144th dance, celebrates American folk music, the cowgirl/boy culture of Colorado and the Wild West.
As the curtain went up for the first dance, a stage within a stage was revealed. The set was stunning—a throwback to old, smaller, ornately designed stages, complete with wings on both sides and a backstage area, visible thanks to the translucent material of the set itself. The dance, Also Playing, is, as the program states, “dedicated to all Vaudevillians, especially those who went on no matter what.”
At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. I was completely taken off guard. The audience was silent as well, save for two lone voices, laughing together somewhere behind me. This was my first time seeing a comedic dance. Before too long, and definitely by the time the drunken horse was tap dancing, I was laughing too. A cabaret of performance mishaps, Also Playing honors the determination, the drive, and sheer will to continue, sometimes against all odds, that is often at the core of a performer’s heart.
And the dancers. Oh, the dancers. Every one of them blew me away; each of them very different, but every one committed, strong, and skilled. Through the comedy of the movements and gestures—chasing hats, holding up skirts, missing cues, a swan dying over and over and over again, three bulls terrified of the matador, hiding in the corner—the immense control and power of the dancers shone through. Laura Halzack, who danced the ballet, amazingly on pointe shoes with bent knees and a curved back, proved to be the most memorable. By the end of the dance, more than half the audience was laughing. And then Robert Kleinendorst, who danced the Stagehand, took center stage with his broom and one light, capturing the audience and our laughs in a sweet and poignant bluesy dance.
The second dance, the world premiere of Dilly Dilly, invited the audience into a completely different world. Using the whole stage this time, and a full backdrop for the set, the opening scene was like a technicolor rodeo. The backdrop was yellow with thick lines of bright solid colors crossing, curving, and continuing. The dancers all wore bright solid colored western shirts and black cowboy hats. The dance is made up of seven songs, American folk songs, to be specific, each one sung by Burl Ives. All eleven dancers in this one, there are sixteen total in the company, took part in bringing the songs to life, dramatizing the lyrics, and fleshing out the characters. Of course, there are lead, or title roles as well, with Kleinendorst as the unfortunate victim of a “Blue Tail Fly,” Heather McGinley as the maiden taken by the “Foggy Foggy Dew,” Halzack and Michael Trusnovec as the doomed “Frankie and Johnny,” and Michael Novak as “Mr. Froggie,” who “Went A-Courtin’,” to name a few.
While the overall western, horse ridin’, gun totin’ style is not exactly my thing, the choreography and performance of Dilly Dilly was amazing and impressive. It was as though this second dance was created and performed by a completely different company. The nuance and saturation of Taylor’s choreography is unparalleled in my experience—through gestures, poses, and phrases that utilize every part of the dancers’ bodies, from their toes to their noses and their foreheads to their ankles, Taylor creates an entire world.
For the dancers, the transformation was complete. Every movement they made, whether a flip of the hand or a full body explosive extension, exuded and almost bled the characteristics of the Wild West. This was one of those dances whose joyous presentation belied the intensity of the choreography and the genius of the dancers.
The third and final dance of the evening was Mercuric Tidings, first performed in 1982, using music from Symphonies number One and Two, by Franz Schubert. Of the three dances performed, this was the least theatrical and most interpretive. There was really no set or even noticeable backdrop, as the dancers themselves seemed to create the stage on which the dancing lived. Taylor’s choreography translates and illustrates the moments and movements of Schubert’s music by embodying the emotions he hears in it and temporarily turning the dancers’ bodies into musical instruments.
Rather than portray full characters with their bodies, as they had done previously, in this piece, the dancers performed feelings, senses, and forces. For example, Michelle Fleet, at times during this dance, moved about, around and in front of other couples dancing. It was as if without any actual story, characters, or conflict, she was simply dancing the way desire and curiosity might move if they had human bodies. The dancers were less human beings, less people, more visual metaphors and spatial configurations of emotion and energy. At times, there was as much happening on stage, in terms of the number of dancers, the layering and crossing of lines of movements and waves of extension, as there was in the symphonies coming out of the speakers. Mercuric Tidings pulses and vibrates with the primordial chaos out of which life emerges—this was the energy on the stage.
Before February 20, I was aware that Paul Taylor was a professional choreographer with a dance company. I have since then, however, quickly become a convert and a fan, both of the work of Paul Taylor, and of the dancers in his company. So far, there have been two documentary movies made about Paul Taylor, Dancemaker, which follows Taylor and his company in 1997 over a number of months, and Paul Taylor: Creative Domain, which was just released last year, and reveals more of the process Taylor goes through in creating a dance than he has ever shared before. I cannot be enthusiastic enough about Taylor and his dancers. If you ever have the opportunity to watch them perform, jump at it.
Soma Feldmar: Soma Feldmar received her MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School, and is now working on her PhD in English from SUNY Buffalo, with a focus on poetics. Other, her first book of poetry, was published in 2009 from Capilano University Editions (CUE Books). Soma’s work has also appeared in various online and print journals. Her doctoral dissertation is on poet Robin Blaser and how his work brings the poetic and the ethical together, remaining open to the other and the unknown. Originally from Vancouver, BC, Soma recently relocated to Denver, CO, after five and half years in Buffalo, NY. Overjoyed to be back in Colorado, she has started her own business, Seamoon Editing Services and joined the writing team of Presenting Denver. As a former ballet, jazz, and modern dance student, Soma looks forward to more opportunities to combine her love of dance and her love of writing.