“One cannot be forever innovating,” Coco Chanel has been quoted as saying. “I want to create classics.”
And so she did, and so we remember them, and her.
I thought about the difference between classics and novelty as I watched the Paul Taylor Dance Company in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Wednesday night. This program, the first of two, was a showcase of vintage Taylor: “Mercuric Tidings,” from 1982; “Polaris,” created in 1976, and Taylor’s best-known work, “Esplanade,” a hit since its unveiling in 1975.
Each work was a marvel of craftsmanship, in the seamless ease with which the dancers enter and exit, for example, and in the way Taylor’s patterns of movement fit the music, so that his choreography looks spontaneous and polished at the same time.
All three works gave rise to prolonged delight, but also moments of unease, just as Taylor intended. And in each one, I found myself thinking, now this — this — is dancing.
That is because Taylor creates classics. He doesn’t waste time on inelegant complications. His art, like the greatest arts, is a series of simplicities. On this program, there was not a moment out of place or unneeded.
Much credit is due the dancers for that, for they are uniformly excellent: strong without making a big deal about it, fully committed without over-dramatizing. They’re not cold technicians. They each have dozens of quirky little qualities, mostly indefinable, that engage our sympathies. The looks that pass between them, the teasing smile, a glimmer of patience, and so on — all these marks of individuality are part of the Taylor aesthetic.
How badly we rain-soaked Washingtonians have longed for warm weather to arrive. These works seemed to understand that, or maybe that’s just the way classics work, delivering pleasure far more reliably than the seasons. As the curtain opened on “Mercuric Tidings,” with the women in pink-tinged bathing suits, all curves and softness, it felt like summer at the seaside.
Here, as throughout the evening, I was drawn to Taylor’s mastery of emphasis. In this work, the energy of the biggest steps — the leaps, jumps and turns — was subtly sucked in. Leaps went high, but not far. The dancers cupped their torsos a bit; there was an interesting tension between upward and inward forces. They didn’t gobble up space, even as they bounced and soared to excerpts from Schubert’s Symphonies No. 1 and 2.
Emphasis was the outright theme in “Polaris.” The choreography is performed twice, but each time with different dancers, different music (composed by Donald York) and with a completely different force and attitude. Where the first go-round had a retro-Hollywood bubbliness, with cheery smiles and a bit of Betty Grable-style preening, the second version was dark and ominous.
The tone changed, ever so slightly, as soon as the dancers of Part II strolled onstage, one by one, to replace those of Part I. It was as though robotic replicants were sending a bunch of innocents off to an uncertain fate, and your heart went with them.
Taylor is acutely aware of the polarities in human nature. He works that into many of his dances, nowhere more distinctly than in “Esplanade,” where unalloyed joy is interrupted by images of isolation and a poignant, fruitless quest for connection.
Live music enhanced the immersion in “Esplanade’s” changeable world: The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by York, performed Bach’s Violin Concerto in E and Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, with violin soloists Oleg Rylatko and Najin Kim.
In the end, joy prevails — this is Bach, after all. Dance is a perfect medium for expressing joy, and I’ve seen it take shape in many deeply moving ways. But watching the finale of “Esplanade,” a work I have seen countless times, I wondered: Is there any more timeless, classic expression of joy than this one, with those swooping, liberated, trusting dancers, buoyed by Taylor’s understanding?
The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Saturday. kennedy-center.org.