The Paul Taylor Dance Company has gone through quite a bit of turmoil in recent years. The founder, a titan of modern dance, passed away in 2018. The following year, when Michael Novak took over as Artistic Director, there was a huge generational change on the roster. Then came the pandemic.
On Thursday, the troupe returned to New York City Center for the first New York season since the start of the pandemic, kicking off the multi-week City Center Dance Festival. With live music from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and two Taylor staples on the program, the show was a happy return to normalcy. Except there was another big change: a very first resident choreographer, Lauren Lovette, who premiered her first work for the company.
Creating this position for Lovette – principal dancer with New York City Ballet until last fall – was a surprise, as was Lovette’s bold decision to retire from City Ballet to focus on choreography. ‘Pentimento’, her debut piece in her new job, was less noticeable.
For music, Lovette has chosen ‘Variaciones Concertantes’ by the underused Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. It gives her many variations in tempo and mood to work with. Adept with a cast of 14, she strings the sections together with a compositional skill worthy of Taylor. The connecting thread is in fact visible, in the form of a red scarf that goes from dancer to dancer – thrown, caught, tied around the waist, held between the teeth.
The dance starts riveting, at daybreak (by the great Jennifer Tipton). Christina Lynch Markham introduces the scarf, holds it up to her face as a memento and tosses it with Argentine flair. And the scarf’s first handover, to Michael Apuzzo, is intriguingly foreboding: he and the dancers who join him resemble a sinister cleaning crew, applying some dark magic to the now-sleeping first group.
But nothing that follows is so interesting. It’s not boring. Lovette keeps the stage space swirling with incidents for groups and individuals, separating and merging. But the contrasts of emotion are too unmodulated: bright happiness, melodramatic fear. Sometimes, as she has in her work for City Ballet, Lovette includes same-sex partners (sometimes including the scarf). That’s contemporary and welcome, especially since it’s rare in the Taylor repertoire, which is almost as rigid in set gender roles as classical ballet. But for Lovette to “push the art form”, as Novak has said he expects from her, it isn’t enough on its own. She gets other opportunities.
The two Taylor works that flank ‘Pentimento’ – ‘Roses’, a breakneck romantic idyll for six couples, and ‘Brandenburgs’, one of Taylor’s adagio-allegro blockbusters for Bach – are at once masterly, cheerful and lovely, especially with the St. Luke’s rich play and eagerness of the young dancers. But those pieces don’t push the art form either, and performing them alongside “Pentimento” brings out a softness in all three. Out of this show and the others in the company’s City Center series, a new viewer to Taylor might not realize just how dark, perverted, and radical he could be.
Perhaps Novak thinks a pandemic-stressed audience doesn’t want to be challenged or challenged right now. Maybe he’s right. Luckily for everyone, the final program features ‘Esplanade’, which references all sides of Taylor’s art while simultaneously being one of the biggest exciting machines in dance.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Through March 31 in downtown New York; nycitycenter.org.