A performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company is a terrific way to start the fall. I can’t think of a better one, in fact. The Taylor company has everything you want in a beginning: youth, vitality, good cheer and a sense of adventure. The dancers have this clean-cut, prep-school look, and watching them Saturday night at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center brought the new dance season, back-to-school and summer’s end all together into an energizing moment of promise.
Taylor is a choreographer of astounding range. He’s perhaps best known for his exuberant works, but he is even more impressively skilled in putting form to nameless shades of uncertainty, nostalgia and spiritual ache. Some of his works can make your skin crawl with their images of horror, cruelty and the disintegration of the nobility his sunnier works depict. But we didn’t see much of the darker tones in Saturday’s program, which seemed designed to keep our spirits high.
Indeed, you were sent up into the stratosphere with “Aureole,” one of Taylor’s most popular works, created in 1962 with music by Handel. I’ve seen this piece dozens of times, but for some reason on this night, in that intimate space and in an overall climate of anticipation, it felt more than ever like an ode to the everyday hero. Here were those angels on Earth who keep their chins up no matter what, who sweep us into their embrace. The dancers are dressed in white, and the motif throughout the piece of outstretched arms, reaching from broad shoulders, swinging upward as the dancers run, equated thrillingly to wings.
Taylor’s offbeat view of death and mourning was ushered in with a wink — literally — in “3 Epitaphs.” Created in 1956, this is his earliest work still in active repertory, though it feels evergreen. It looks modern and fresh, too, with costumes by the painter Robert Rauschenberg. True to his more-famous canvases and combines, Rauschenberg gave the dancers a simple background — they were encased in gray nylon, covering even their hands and faces — and just a few elements that popped, namely little round mirrors that wreathed their heads and were attached to their palms. As the curtain parted on the odd, droopy group of five, the lights caught the mirrored bits, giving the dark figures a carnivalesque twinkle.
It was fitting, for as we quickly discovered, this piece was the opposite of gloomy, despite Jennifer Tipton’s shadowy lighting and the slow, funereal early-jazz tunes. Taylor’s witty touch was in the postures and timing. In the perfectly delivered twitch of one dancer or the semi-collapse of another, Taylor coaxed us to connect emotionally with his faceless performers the way a skilled puppeteer would.
Strangely, however, it is his unmatched ability to do this — to evoke authentic feeling in the briefest of ways — that made the newest piece on the program, “The Uncommitted,” created last year, feel like a letdown. I simply didn’t buy it. The emotional states were all in quotes: Here was the “complicated relationship,” the “breakup,” and, oh, I don’t know, the “bad day.” Dancers looked up to the lighting grid and clenched their fists — and not even Taylor can keep that from looking corny. One woman covered her face with her hands and ran into the wings, fully obeying every convention of the distressed lover. It made me long for the understated and surprising Taylor of 1956.
What the piece delivered, though, was what connects “Aureole,” “3 Epitaphs” and the luminous closer, “Brandenburgs” and most Taylor works you’ll see: structure. While “The Uncommitted” lost my heart, it kept my eye, for the choreography was sound. You wanted to linger over the intertwining rows of dancers, the way one line would progress ever so slowly and another would wind in and around it, like bees dancing through sunflowers. The characters didn’t deliver, but the steps did.