Paul Taylor, a foundational figure in modern dance, built a body of work that stretched over six decades. Since founding the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1954 until his death this past August, the choreographer created 147 pieces that fill his namesake’s repertoire.
Six of these dances were set to J.S. Bach — a musician whose wit and depth matches Taylor’s swings between playful and incinerating choreography. And this month, for the first time in the company’s history, all six works are collated under the banner of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Bach Festival, running through June 23. Stitched together and performed at the Manhattan School of Music, the works represent four decades of Taylor’s output and demonstrate the choreographer’s emotional and physical range.
The program is bookended by the oldest piece in the group, “Junction” (1961), and the raging “Promethean Fire” (2002), with Taylor’s masterworks “Esplanade” (1975), “Musical Offering” (1986), “Brandenburgs” (1988) and “Cascade” (1999) filling out the intervening decades.
“He has a special relationship with Bach,” veteran Taylor dancer Michelle Fleet told ALL ARTS during a tech rehearsal for the festival. “All of the pieces are very different and invoke different feelings, and you get to see that all together, which is rare. I think it’s a beautiful celebration of the music and the work.”
As a dancer who has performed in every piece represented on the Bach slate (and more), Fleet speaks intimately about Taylor’s creations, likening the grandeur of “Cascade” to seeing “kings and queens dance on stage” and the relentless motion of “Promethean Fire” to “watching a painting.”
“You can’t help but love these pieces and watch them over and over again — because you will see something new each time,” she said.
Taylor hand-selected Fleet during an audition and her tenure with the company clocks in at 20 years — three with Taylor 2, where she landed straight out of college, and 17 with the main company. With versatile musicality, strength and a giving stage presence, Fleet embodies the technical and spiritual scope of Taylor’s oeuvre and remains a linear connection to the physical passing down of movement throughout generations.
She is also among one of six long-term dancers set to retire, with her departure scheduled for this November. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s Bach Festival marks the last performance with the company for long-term Taylor dancer Michael Trusnovec, who kicks off the deluge of forthcoming retirements from Fleet, Laura Halzack, Parisa Khobdeh, Sean Mahoney and Jamie Rae Walker.
Though the company still faces an ongoing transition, the future of Taylor Dance stands steadfast — both in the continued legacy of the dancers (veterans and next generation alike) and in the company’s expansion of its repertoire to pieces commissioned from outside choreographers.
“Of course you’re sad that he’s gone. At the same time, he’s still here,” Fleet said. “He’s very much alive in all the pieces. And alive through the dancers that have came through the company, who still come back to coach us. He’s alive when I see the younger dancers coming in to learn the style, to understand the humanity in the work.”
In addition to bringing together the six Bach pieces for the first time, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Bach Festival also features commissions from Margie Gillis and the prolific Pam Tanowitz — both of which are (of course) set to Bach and interspersed with the Taylor originals. The inclusion of the pieces suggest a hypothesis of what future performances from Taylor Dance might resemble.
Tanowitz in particular, whose piece “all at once” premiered during the first program of the festival, choreographs works imbued with gestural humor, playfulness and unexpected moments similar to those found in some of Taylor’s pieces.
“She has a lot of structure, and then she flips it on its head, which I feel Paul had done in a lot of his other pieces, too,” Fleet said about the overlap of Tanowitz and Taylor. “You can have all of these rules, but it’s fun when they start to break those rules and allow things to happen and go against the grain. So, it’s not so unfamiliar.”
As for if the Taylor company and audiences will continue to see the current cast of veterans after they retire, Fleet — who still plans to mentor dancers — remains steadfast in that, too.
“I’ll always be part of it,” Fleet said with a smile. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”
Top Image: Paul Taylor Dance Company in Margie Gillis's "Rewilding." Photo: Whitney Browne.