A Survey of Modern Dance at Paul Taylor’s Lincoln Center Season

On Wednesday evening, I braved the most recent nor’easter to see Paul Taylor, American Modern Dance perform at Lincoln Center. The evening was a wonderful survey of modern dance, from the turn of the 20th century through today. The program featured three pieces, each markedly different from one another. The evening began with “Dances of Isadora,” staged and directed by Lori Belilove starring Sara Mearns, followed by “The Beauty in Gray” by Bryan Arias, and concluded with “Piazzolla Caldera” by the company’s founder, Paul Taylor.

Isadora Duncan is often viewed as the creator of modern dance, so it seems fitting that Paul Taylor, American Modern Dance, would present a suite of her work during their season. It was poignant that Sara Mearns, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, was chosen to dance these excerpts, as Duncan notoriously rejected ballet as an art form, and was vocal against its rigidity. Instead, Duncan created a groundbreaking style of dance that emphasized natural gestures and free-flowing movement. She was inspired by all facets of classical Greek art, including their folk and social dances, Grecian-style tunics, and the bas-relief figures on Greek vases. Her style was also influenced by American athleticism, which she incorporated through many phrases of skipping, running and jumping.

I imagine that this must have been particularly difficult for Ms. Mearns to master, as the style is completely counter to her traditional ballet training. However, you would never know based on her performance. Bright, commanding and awe-inspiring, the performance was a completely captivating interpretation from a bold force. My two favorite pieces were “Butterfly Etude” set to Chopin, where Ms. Mearns makes brilliant use of a scarf in the portrayal of winged movement, and the final suite “Rose Petals” set to Brahms, where Ms. Mearns not only seemed one with the piano music and her body, but with the delicately released petals that drifted from her hands as the performance ended.

The second performance of the evening, “The Beauty in Gray” choreographed by Brian Arias, emphasized the modern in modern dance. The music, by Nico Muhly and Olafur Arnalds, had a fresh, electronic sound and underscored the variety within modern dance, directly juxtaposed against Duncan’s style. The piece conveyed a range of emotions and makes great use of the full company, but I found myself drifting away in the middle of the work, less engaged than I would have liked.

The final piece of the evening, “Piazzolla Caldera”, is a brilliant work by Paul Taylor that explores Tango as both dance and musical form. Although the piece originally debuted in 1998, it still feels current and engaging, captivating in its complexity. Set to music by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky, the choreography was sensual, yet brusque, with some characters drifting loosely through movement and others slicing across the stage. Parisa Khodbeh, who danced the lead female role, commanded the stage from the first note to the final bow. Her ability to meld the aggressive undertones of tango with the looser, more romantic and emotional moments was dazzling. She executed with a seeming effortlessness that captivated me throughout, and will certainly keep me coming back to see Paul Taylor again and again.