Paul Taylor at Jacob’s Pillow

Paul Taylor Dance Company presented three iconic works at Jacob’s Pillow last week. The company is a new experience for me as I’ve concentrated my attention on classical ballet companies for decades. Saturday evening was a revelation for me after viewing these great works. Maybe there is more to dance than sylphs, willis, fairies, and seeing Giselle over 100 times. The company is not new to Jacob’s Pillow, an annual dance festival in the Berkshires. Taylor first danced there in 1954. His company debuted at Pillow in 1964 and has since made 17 appearances.

Jacob’s Pillow is a great place to learn about dance as the festival focuses on dance education. A Pillow Talk Saturday led by Director of Preservation Norton Owen presented clips from Taylor’s many Pillow appearances for a great background on his work and artistic motivations. The talk was followed by a pre-performance discussion by dance writer Suzanne Carbonneau on the three works presented that evening: Airs (1978), Syzygy (1987), Esplanade (1975). Carbonneau, who is working on a biography of Taylor, did a great job of summarizing his work and the three classics. Much of my comments are influenced by her discussion.

Airs is set to a beautiful Handel Baroque score. According to Carbonneau, the strict Baroque structure spoke to Taylor’s need for order (he had a quilt of eagle in his office with the words “In Order We Trust”). The movements in Airs are so well-timed to the music, it seems as if the score was made for Airs rather than the other way around. The work features a tall woman, Laura Halzack, as the central figure, an omnipotent spirit representing goodwill and friendship. She invites the three couples to dance, filled with courtly gestures. Dancers bow to each other in respect and reverence. She touches the three men as if to transmit energy. Structure is key throughout as dancers progress in an ordered manner to the radiant Handel score. Shirtless men were clad in blue tights while the women wore flowing skirts designed by Gene Moore, who was a designer and window dresser for Tiffany’s.

Near the end of the piece was my favorite part as the entire work came together, joyous movements by the seven dancers moving in various patterns to the up tempo and uplifting music. At the end, to more subdued music, Laura lifted her arms overhead like a majestic oak tree as the three couples slowly walked on stage, striking a dramatic pose as the curtain fell.

I had a great time taking in this magnificent and joyous work. My words don’t do the work justice; take a look at American Ballet Theatre performing it in San Francisco in 1985.

In Taylor’s work, Syzygy refers to the astronomy term defined as the nearly straight line configuration of three celestial bodies. The work consists of 13 dancers representing celestial bodies moving frantically in a world turned upside down, set to a modern commissioned score by Donald York. The quirky work is action filled; it is multilayered with a feel of randomness, with numerous segments filled with complicated patterns. At times it is hard to keep track of the patterns as dancers move on and off the stage in various combinations.

Six men and six women were led by the diminutive Madelyn Ho (in the photo at the top of this article), who acted as a sort of master of ceremonies watching over the festivities. Madelyn is remarkable as she thrives in two disparate and difficult fields. In addition to her work at Paul Taylor, the Harvard graduate with majors in Chemical and Physical Biology, attended Harvard Medical School after dancing at Taylor 2. Her dancing was filled with energy with high-flying leaps and jetés. Also noteworthy was Michael Trusnovec, a long-standing Taylor dancer since 1998.

The classic Esplanade wrapped up the evening. Taylor’s signature 1975 work is inspired by the sight of a woman running to catch a bus on Houston street in New York City. Esplanade is one of his most celebrated works, based on pedestrian movements. As noted on Taylor website, “if contemporaries Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg could use ordinary “found objects” like Coke bottles and American flags in their art, Taylor would use such “found movements” as standing, walking, running, sliding and falling.” Like Airs, Esplanade is set to beautiful Baroque music, two Bach violin concertos.

The work reminds me of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, filled with miracles of everyday movements. Dancers walk briskly across the stage in non-ballet movements. Rather than ballet technique as the main mode of expression, Esplanade relies on phrasing and rhythm. Community is the guiding principle in the first part as the nine dancers touch hands in a circle, seemingly creating energy. In one unique partnering section, women dance on top of a prone male partner, possibly representing manipulative relationships. The work has some acrobatic segments, particularly when the women jump recklessly into the arms of their male partners.

Paul Taylor will perform at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Friday, July 28. The great program will consist of Airs and Company B (live collaboration with Duchess). ABT has performed Company B many times, a great Americana work set in the 1940s to Andrews Sisters hit songs. It should be a great evening of free entertainment. Get there early as the line should be long.