The Setup: On October 12, the Society for the Performing Arts brought to the Jones Hall stage the work of a living legend. The Paul Taylor Dance Company performed three of its famed choreographer's most beloved works, including his 1975 masterpiece Esplanade.
The Execution: The concert opened with Airs, a gorgeous dance that is noteworthy for its striking composition. The choreography juxtaposes static shapes with moving ones as dancers on one side of the stage pause in graceful, statuesque poses while dancers on the opposite side turn and leap and lift. There is a stately quality to the dance, which is filled with classical lines in the form of handsome arabesques and exquisite port de bras. But there is also an underlying glorification of the ordinary, which is underscored by heel-toe strides and simple pivots. And Handel's music proves a powerful aid in transforming sun salutation arms into an image of gravitas. Airs proves beautiful without being austere.
Of course, the main attraction was Esplanade, Taylor's seminal work constructed of non-dance movement set to Bach. The company walks, runs, skips, jumps, and hurtles to the floor in a spree of unabashed exhilaration. The dancers do not dance with one another so much as they dance with gravity. In typical Paul Taylor fashion, arms and a leg shoot skyward, the weight of the body tilting on the supporting leg, and the potential energy generated from this shape is used to propel the body into the next phrase.
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Gaiety turns to somberness in the second movement. The bodies buckle over with an arm stationed across their midsections in a pose that turns them into grieving figures. It's startling how much emotion is evoked by the innate language of the human body; the mournful nature of the second movement is magnified when the company enters the stage from both wings on all fours, heads bowed, and knees dragging. They gravitate toward the center, creating a revolving vortex that is as moving as a dirge.
But the dance ends with levity as the company returns to its bounding frolic across the stage. The energy is infectious, and is powered by smiles bright enough to overpower the stage lighting. The final movement is a true frenzy, as the dancers are in a perpetual state of almost-collision, but it's one that evokes the tranquility and inner peace that comes from moving.
Many have described the movement of Esplanade as pedestrian, but I don't think that's a fitting word. The dance is hardly the stuff of banality. It's wholly human, and that's what makes it such an enduring work.
The Verdict: The most recent piece on the program dates back to 1983, but even 30 years after the fact, every minute step, every subtle gesture, every sweeping exit and surprising entrance feels as if it is dance of our time. The beauty of Taylor's choreography is that it is as thought-provoking as it is accessible. The standing ovation the company received is suggestive of the most important lesson Taylor teaches us: that everyone is a dancer, and everyone must dance.