The New York-based Paul Taylor Dance Company visited the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater from October 7-9 with two of the dancemaker’s masterworks: “Company B” and “Esplanade.” The two pieces are very different, yet share the youthful, emotive style Taylor is known for. They reveal the heart of Taylor’s work; the connection and camaraderie of the company’s dancers; and above all, were equally captivating performances. The grace and passion of dance is always a joy to watch, but it was particularly meaningful to see dancers so physically close and intimate, lifting, holding and bouncing off one another, in the wake of Covid-19.
The two pieces are an interesting contrast according to dancer Devon Louis, who hails from D.C. and attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
“With ‘Company B,’ we’re wearing jazz shoes and it’s a little more free,” Louis says. “‘Esplanade’ is also free, but you’re more of a pedestrian rather than trying to become a character. The way they come together is the fact of how human they are.”
“Company B,” now 30 years old, artfully takes the sounds and images of World War II era propaganda and turns them on their head. Dark themes lurk underneath the sunny exterior of many of the dances, set to songs by the Andrews Sisters.
Dancers fly across the stage before jerking and falling to the ground in a haunting pantomime of gunfire; men leave the embrace of a lover to march away in lock step; returned soldiers are estranged from their loved ones and from society. The flirtatious, funny tone of many of these pieces heighten the jarring quality of these darker moments.
“There Will Never Be Another You,” a beautiful duet between Louis and dancer Maria Ambrose, is a moving highlight. Other standouts include “Rum and Coca-Cola,” danced by Lisa Borres and the men of the company, and “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” danced by Christina Lynch Markham.
“Esplanade” takes pedestrian activities like running, walking, turning and dodging crowds and turns them into exuberant bursts of movement. Apparently inspired by the sight of a woman running to catch a bus, this piece is less narrative than “Company B” and many of Taylor’s other works; instead, it mesmerizes the audiences with repetition and cascading motion. Dancers create tumbling, pulsing shapes onstage together, and much of the performance is about physical touch: they come together in duets and groups, pick each other up, get swung around, and even stand on each other.
But the overarching sense one gets from the performance is tenderness — and that it’s intended to show audiences how even the simplest movements can transcend to art. Taylor, who also grew up in and around Washington before moving to New York, is known as one of the most creative and boundary-pushing artists in modern dance. He created pieces that comment on — and criticize — society, covering themes as controversial as religious hypocrisy, American imperialism and spousal abuse. He died in 2018, just before Louis joined the company.
Louis says the company is different from others in that it’s very family-oriented.
“You have the ability to dance with people you thoroughly enjoy and bring yourself to the choreography, rather than fit the mold of someone else.”
This is the first tour the company has taken during the pandemic, and watching live dance now has a special, slightly reverent feel to it. It’s no longer a guarantee that on a given Thursday we can all gather in one place and experience art. Louis says he didn’t fear the future as the pandemic shut down Broadway and countless other performance venues and institutions in New York.
“I knew this company was resilient,” he says.
The collective confidence and strength of the Paul Taylor Dance Company shone through in their brilliant performance.