Monday, May 01, 2017

Paul Taylor Dance Company

San Francisco Performances presents
Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade
Photo Paul B. Goode
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
April 30th, 2017

Sunday afternoon at YBCA Theater saw the final dance of San Francisco Performances’ 2016-2017 season. This honor was held by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, a frequent returnee to and favorite of the longtime Bay Area presenter. Program C was a throwback to Taylor’s choreography from decades past with a triple bill of Danbury Mix (1988), Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala (1986) and Esplanade (1975).

I really enjoy the classic American modern dance style, and with the exception of a few companies, you don’t see it that much anymore. There’s a purity and unfetteredness to the form that is still both creative and relevant today. Flexed hands, sculptural pictures and Graham temps leveé; emotionally charged themes - all so clear and defined. Choreographically, Program C’s opener, Danbury Mix, was very reflective of this genre’s clarity, though the piece’s narrative was less so. The cast, costumed in black, began in a cluster upstage left. Quickly a Miss Liberty character (beautifully danced by Laura Halzack) emerged through the group. Ominous and foreboding music framed the scene, the group moving along the diagonal and then to the center of the space. Over the work’s twenty-four minutes, you could tell that there was a strong narrative at play – maybe not a linear story, but certainly the dance was about something or reflecting something. The question was what? Mostly, I saw an examination of extremes, that between chaos and control. Carefully controlled attitudes and arabesques, stylized walking and relevé fouettés in parallel countered with frenetic pulsating and animalistic crawling. Purposeful onstage panic would abruptly give way to a sudden calm and tranquility. And then the energy would transform again, into jubilant, patriotic-inspired phrase material; sometimes things got even a little campy. It just seemed like there was more going on than just a statement on chaos and control in Danbury Mix’s narrative, but it didn’t read as clearly as did the choreographic form.

Speaking of camp, Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala brought a hearty dose to the stage – a hilarious ensemble work for twelve, six women and six men. Short white columns were arranged in the space. In mini white tunics, unitards with tufted hair, gold leaf headband crowns and fake beards, the men looked like satirical living statues as they posed dramatically around the stage. The women, in Isadora-inspired white tunics underwent a similar journey in this light, comical fare. Exaggerated and melodramatic movements shone, like the grand promenade and the acrobatic parallel sissones in plié. Tap, Charleston and tango vocabulary even made an appearance toward the end of the piece. A brilliant offering that was part sketch comedy, part physical theater and all modern dance, Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala was a delight and the audience absolutely loved it.

And then, it was time for the piece I had come specifically to see, the sole reason why I had chosen this program of the three mixed repertory bills that the company had brought this year to San Francisco Performances. A masterwork. An iconic dance. Esplanade. Accumulation is the star of the first chapter of this thirty-minute work. It opens with simple, everyday walking, and then moves to include directional shifts, grapevines and running. Straight lines pivot to become diagonal; speed and dynamics range from calm to full throttle. Single file similarly morphs into weaving and circular formations. All the while, an innocent, unpretentious joy of movement encompasses the stage. Esplanade’s second section holds a more serious tonal quality with the focus being on the gaze, the perspective and the line of view. The addition of the ninth cast member for only this segment is again curious, but perhaps it’s one of those striking puzzles better left unsolved. Ebullience returns in the final part of the dance – spinning, leaping, jumping, rolling, sliding and boureéing backwards in parallel as fast as humanly possible.  

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