Paul Taylor American Modern Dance is currently in the middle of their season at Lincoln Center. The performance I saw included three works. First was Danbury Mix, a 1988 piece to music by Charles Ives. It was followed by a new work, Ports of Call. The program ended with one of Taylor’s better known pieces, Black Tuesday.
Danbury Mix is a very odd but very American piece. It’s quite ballet influenced (which makes sense, given that it was originally produced by NYCB) but still feels closer to modern dance than much contemporary ballet. It is at various points dark, tense, joyful, and funny. There are lots of moods and lots of movement styles to go with those moods. Often there were layers of discord in the music, and those came out in the change of style in the dancing. In the first section of the piece, Taylor made use of some really interesting groupings of people, having dancers split off and join groups in mesmerizing ways. There were other cases of visually interesting geometry throughout the work.
I was particularly impressed by the two men who led the middle section (not identified in the program). One did an incredible sequence of leaps and turning leaps, and the other did an impressive variation on Italian fouettes. Laura Halzack also performed well as Miss Liberty, having to embody the many different moods of the piece. She seemed to die at the end of the first section, made frantic, anxious movements in another section, and was also funny, triumphant, proud, or confused at other moments.
I’m disappointed that anyone thought Ports of Call was a good idea; it was a mess of racist and sexist stereotypes (along with some I’m not sure how to classify). I’d be surprised except that I read YA Book Twitter, so I see the call-outs of harmful books and how much work goes into efforts like #ownvoices and We Need Diverse Books. The diversity conversation in dance isn’t anywhere near the level of that in the YA community yet, and there are even fewer barriers to problematic works reaching the stage, particularly for an established choreographer working with their own company.
The program stated that the scenes were set in Africa, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Midwestern US. The lack of specificity within Africa was a sign that this wasn’t going to be good. It seemed to show men doing a traditional dance or ritual involving fighting/wrestling, but one man died in the process and is only mourned by the woman who loved him. The implications of brutally and lack of civilization there were not a good look, to say the least. The portrayals of indigenous people in the Hawaii and Alaska sections were also deeply problematic. In the first, the women danced a Western conception of hula, and then the men came out wearing bright Hawaiian shirts. The Alaska scene mostly focused on people huddling/dancing by a fire (though the choreography paid no attention to people needing to not sit/dance in the fire) and on two dancing polar bears. These two scenes relied on appropriation, stereotyping, and lack of respect for marginalized communities. The last scene is the one I’m not sure how to classify. It was set in a farming community, and all characters were implied to be unintelligent. The scene took place at a church and involved two weddings, one between a reluctant man and a very pregnant woman, and the other between a man and the woman he drags after him by a rope. (Consent/lack thereof ended up being a little confusing based on some of her later behavior, but either way, the portrayal was awful.) All of this except the Africa scene was, I believe, intended to be humorous. It was really, really not.
Black Tuesday was definitely the best of the bunch. It’s more transparent and perhaps less interesting than Danbury Mix, but it’s cohesive, emotional, and voicey. The characters come through really strongly, and all the characters are treated with respect by the work. It uses songs from the Great Depression that portray a variety of emotions; this is not a one-note or wallowing piece. The style of dancing in this work is best categorized as musical theater, drawing strong influences from all of tap, ballet, jazz, and social dances. I particularly enjoyed “I Went Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf was Dead,” led by Jamie Rae Walker, and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” led by Michael Trusnovec. The former was lively and one of the more light-hearted pieces; the latter was poignant and beautifully danced.