Review: The Paul Taylor Company returns with a new voice

The Paul Taylor Dance Company has seen quite a bit of change in recent years. Its founder, a modern dance titan, died in 2018. The following year, when Michael Novak took over as artistic director, there was a huge generational turnover in the roster. Then came the pandemic.

On Thursday, the company returned to New York City Center for its first New York season since the pandemic began, kicking off the weeks-long City Center Dance Festival. With live music by Orchestra of St. Luke’s and two Taylor favorites on the program, the show was a happy return to business as usual. Except there was another big change: a first-ever resident choreographer, Lauren Lovette, created her first work for the company.

The creation of this position for Lovette – until last fall, principal dancer with New York City Ballet – was a surprise decision, as was Lovette’s bold decision to retire from City Ballet to focus on choreography. “Pentimento”, his first track in his new work, made less noise.

For the music, Lovette chose “Variaciones Concertantes,” by underutilized Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. This gives him many variations of rhythm and mood to work with. Deftly assembling a cast of 14, she strings together sections with Taylor-esque songwriting skill. The common thread, indeed, is visible, in the form of a red scarf which passes from dancer to dancer – thrown, caught, tied around a waist, held between the teeth.

The dance begins absorbingly, in daybreak lighting (by the great Jennifer Tipton). Christina Lynch Markham presents the scarf, holding it to her face as a keepsake and throwing it with an Argentinian touch. And the Scarf’s first transfer, to Michael Apuzzo, is surprisingly eerie: he and the dancers who join him look like a sinister cleaning crew, working dark magic on the now sleeping first group.

Yet none of what 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 demodulated: dazzling happiness, melodramatic anguish. Sometimes, as she did in her work for the City Ballet, Lovette includes same-sex partnership (sometimes incorporating the headscarf). It’s contemporary and welcome, especially since it’s rare in Taylor’s repertoire, which is almost as rigid in fixed gender roles as classical ballet. But for Lovette, “pushing the art form,” as Novak said he expects her to do, isn’t enough on its own. She will have other chances.

Taylor’s two works that accompany “Pentimento” – “Roses”, a wild romantic idyll for six couples, and “Brandenburgs”, one of Taylor’s adagio-allegro blockbusters to Bach – are at once masterful, dynamic and charming. , in particular with the rich playing of Saint-Luc and the eagerness of the young dancers. But those pieces don’t push the art form either, and staging them alongside “Pentimento” brings out a blandness in all three. Based on this program and others in the company’s City Center series, a viewer new to Taylor might not realize just how dark, evil, and radical he might be.

Maybe Novak thinks pandemic-stressed audiences don’t want to be challenged or provoked right now. Maybe he’s right. Luckily for everyone, the final program includes “Esplanade,” which alludes to all aspects of Taylor’s artistry while being one of the great dance-exalting machines.

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Through March 31 at New York City Center; nycitycenter.org.

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