Dance fans are always fascinated at what lurks behind the curtain, what goes into peeling away the onion layers of a performance. The Paul Taylor Dance Company may have uncorked two stellar performances at the Amphitheater during Week Seven at Chautauqua Institution, but it unlocked so many other mysteries through its recent five-day residency, that it begs a look back.
As it turned out, these dancers not only understood the choreography, they could also talk about their art. In fact, newly minted artistic director Michael Novak acted as if he had been doing this for years, even though he professed to be innately “shy.”
He was quite eloquent in sharing how he came to be in the group, how he quickly sensed that the company felt like “home,” in a talk for Chautauqua Dance Circle at Smith Wilkes Hall, and how Taylor personally chose him as a replacement, something that the dance great perhaps foresaw, because he passed away only months later. The passing of the proverbial baton took place at Taylor’s apartment, usually a location for personal corrections or, heaven forbid, a dismissal. The 35-year-old company member was momentarily at a loss for words. So Taylor responded, “You heard me.”
Novak was the face of the company in two mini-performances. The first took place at the Strohl Art Center, where he presented a video, then connected Taylor to a pair of major contemporary artists — Robert Rauschenberg’s iconic outfits for 3 Episodes, with the dancers covered from head to toe in dark gray unitards and hoods with circular mirrors that reflected off the walls, and Alex Katz’s color-blocked unitards for Journey — all in 45 minutes. In addition to being highly informative, it was remarkable to see the dancers performing with no restraints — full out, they say, as if they were dancing for the Queen of England.
While those two works were previews of what was to come at the Amphitheater (Episodes) and the company’s upcoming fall season at Lincoln Center (Journey), the other mini-performance at the Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios provided the reverse.
Most of the dance-specific audience — students, staff and fans — had seen the works from afar in the Amphitheater. But the tasty snippets of Aureole, Junction and Piazzolla Caldera (even though the dancers wore black rehearsal clothes) gave everyone a chance to see the emotional and physical layers of Taylor’s choreographic structure as if under a microscope. This was an arduous mini-program, performed at full tilt up to that point. But they capped it with a male quartet from Cloven Kingdom, a work where the men would wear tuxedos in performance, yet show an almost snarling, attack-like mode hidden behind the facade of upper-crust society. Audience members learned from Novak that it was one of the most difficult segments from the repertoire. He also revealed that the Taylor dancers fill movements to the utmost because they understand the purpose and meaning behind each of them.
The performance mode carried into the studios as well, because this company teaches full force even there. Former company member Connie Dinapoli taught an adult class that revealed a meaty understanding of Taylor, both man and artist. Floor warm-ups led to balletic tendus interwoven with a fall from Esplanade. There was an adagio, where the slow movements and balancing allowed for the gliding “Taylor walk.”
They ran “like heck” in the “Taylor run,” weighty and low slung, and gamely tackled the iconic baseball slide from Esplanade. It proved that the Taylor technique was a lot harder than it looked.
Dinapoli did it again with a class at the Girls’ Club, although attendance was limited because of a drenching rain. Then company member Heather McGinley led another group geared to the younger set, with fellow Taylor dancer Alex Clayton helping to demonstrate upcoming moves in last Saturday’s Amphitheater program — Concertiana, Dust and Promethean Fire.
Last Saturday’s pre-concert lecture was led by company manager Bridget Welty, who left the company to spread her wings, only to come back because Taylor missed her, and rehearsal assistant, Andy LeBeau, who never left at all, because, as Novak had noted, being a member of the Taylor company is a career, and a satisfying one at that.
For those who were keeping score, the Chautauqua/Taylor collaboration contained a dozen events. In what turned out to be a bonus, there were numerous quotes and memories that fed the backstory of this American choreographer. There was one that stood out, though: “Paul Taylor doesn’t hire dancers. He hires people.”
People who not only contribute to the company, but also to the choreography. It was something that readily became apparent — and so satisfying.
Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contributing writer. Her stories can also be read on the dance blog “Dance Currents” at dancecurrents.com. She is an assistant professor of dance at Point Park University.