It’s difficult to imagine a better way to return to in-person dance performances at the Kennedy Center than with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The group performed two of Taylor’s most uplifting works on Thursday night — “Company B” and “Esplanade” — and as the dancers whirled and swooped across the Eisenhower Theater stage, they delivered a bright, refreshing tonic for the long period of dance deprivation we’ve endured.
But the exhilaration of watching athletic exuberance matched with fine control wouldn’t mean nearly as much without the emotional depth that is Taylor’s hallmark. The profoundly influential choreographer, who died in 2018, was a masterful creator of taut, piercing short stories in dance. Both of these works displayed his storyteller’s ability to look deeply into the human heart at the residues of tragedy and triumph and uncover compassion and optimism.
In fact, what feels so immediately inviting about “Company B,” which kicked off the evening, is that we’re clearly in the world of a story. It’s a collection of interconnected scenes set during World War II, with songs by the Andrews Sisters and sweet young people jitterbugging in soft skirts, wide khakis and buttondowns, their hair slicked or ponytailed. We could be watching a musical, something akin to “On the Town” or “South Pacific.” The dancers flirt, canoodle, throw themselves into friendly pileups like kids in heaven’s schoolyard.
But Taylor’s theatrical sense, with its deceptive simplicity, is cunning and complicated. He created “Company B” in 1991, thanks to the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Commissioning Project, which brought together leading choreographers and the nation’s top ballet companies. Taylor made this work simultaneously for his enterprise and for the Houston Ballet. Perhaps that year’s recession contributed to his perspective of doomed joy, for while his amiable cast of innocents are hooking up, they are also mysteriously breaking down.
The vignettes take a dark turn: A lover falls to the ground, leaving his partner bereft. Another slips out of his beloved’s grasp and slowly joins a ghostly parade of marching men behind him, falling seamlessly into step and out of view. The marching is stylized, of course; this is not playacting. But with the soldiers’ action honed into a controlled dance move, knees sweeping high and fingers splayed, there’s a sense of transformation into something beyond the familiar, something eerily extraordinary, not quite human.
Transformation is a theme of this work. By the end, the dancers have gradually spiraled into a new awareness. Their world doesn’t look much different (same clothes, same songs), but it feels oceans apart from the eager bounce of the earlier scenes. The characters have grown distanced from their former selves, changed by death and loss. This effect socked me in the gut when I saw the work’s premiere 30 years ago, and it still hurts now, in mightily different circumstances. This is Taylor’s genius, the ability to conjure a transformed state of being right before our eyes.
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Taylor understood the cycles of humanity, the constant return to war, disaster and death, but also emergence. The hope of his works is that we emerge changed, that perhaps we learn something. I see “Company B” as leaving this question open-ended, while “Esplanade” feels more solidly optimistic, even though its dark side (Taylor, the realist, always includes a dark side) is emphatically disturbing. Sandwiched between views of great joy — dancers leaping into one another’s arms and skidding to the stage like mud-surfing children — there’s a fractured family that never touches, and its smallest member is shunned. There are so many imaginative connections to be made here, among them Taylor’s painful past as a child of divorce.
The point is, darkness can be overcome. This evening reminded us of this in many aspects, not the least of which was the dancers themselves. Under the direction of former company member Michael Novak, they appear to be carrying on handsomely.
Paul Taylor Dance Company Through Saturday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.