An outpouring of love swept the intimate audience of Reynolds Industrial Theatre on Thursday night. The American Dance Festival‘s season, rife, per usual, with epic premieres and returning favorites, dedicated this summer to the work of the late Paul Taylor who passed away in 2018. According to Jodee Nimerichter‘s pre-show remarks, the evening marked the 50th time Paul Taylor’s company has performed at ADF. She was joined on the stage by ADF director emeritus Charles Reinhart, who shared a candid story about the time when Taylor was a scholarship student at the festival.

The evening served as a tribute to the master himself and those who he influenced, from the dancers on stage and the visiting board members from the PT Company in the audience to the recipient of ADF’s 2019 Balasaraswat/Joy Anne Dewey Beineke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching, the company’s longtime rehearsal director Bettie De Jong, who was present for both tribute and honoring following the first intermission.

Legacy is what an artist strives to leave behind, in the memories of those who’ve worked with and watched them grow and those who’ve believed in them. This performance was the first of three, of two programs. Program “A” consisted of two early pieces by Taylor, including one choreographed for De Jong, and ended with one of the company’s latest commissions. All three works were commissions by ADF throughout the years (1962, 1963, and 2002); they summed up and teased Taylor’s profound artistry very well.

In the opening “Aureole,” the music of Handel accompanied a Baroque dance-inspired romp of multiple lovers teasing and vying for one another’s attention.

The second, “Scudorama.” showcased Taylor’s ability to morph abstract ideas, often inspired by literature or theatre – in this case the work of Dante – into a grotesque danse macabre. Although its abstract narrative about a futuristic purgatory, complete with eye-popping costumes by Alex Katz, fits Clarence Jackson’s tonal nightmare composition, the end result of “Scudorama” leaves more questions than answers. The piece is not challenging, as Taylor’s colleague Lucinda Childs was challenging audiences around the time of its premiere, but is instead mildly humorous and wicked. It never disturbs or pushes its grim subject matter to its limit. Nevertheless, it was a notable performance to watch, thanks to the pre-performance video, wherein De Jong described Taylor choreographing the piece for her, due to her ability to configure her body in angular, grotesque ways. Archival footage showed the premiere, in which Taylor and De Jong performed the final pas de deux with intensity and grace.

It was the final piece of the evening, though, “Promethean Fire,” that showed an artist matured. Taylor’s early works showcased a mad scientist auteur, trying new things and always to an extent succeeding – and never failing outright to bring a vision forward. Taylor understood that dancers needed not only to move side to side across the stage but also opened up possibilities in other dimensions: up/down, diagonal, or crawling on the floor, slowly making ones way across stage, only to disappear for 10 minutes….

The music of J.S. Bach, orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski,* perfectly complemented the thrilling ensemble piece that was “Fire.” The company, dressed in black velvet with silver trim patterns, wove themselves past each other so rapidly, it felt as though Taylor were tricking you into looking at one person when you should have been looking somewhere else. His choreography in manipulating the ensemble was masterful, evoking a spiritual transformation of dancers and audience as the piece explored the notion of life, death, afterlife, and – one assumes by the final tableau – reincarnation.

It often feels sad and sometimes even unfair that a master is appreciated only after he has left the living world. Paul Taylor was appreciated during his lifetime and remains so since he’s passed. The American Dance Festival honors masters at all stages in their careers, giving companies opportunities and choreographers chances to experiment while ensuring that audiences continue to experience moments they will never forget. Paul Taylor was a master then, now, and forever. Bravo to the American Dance Festival for its tribute!

This program repeats Saturday, June 29. See our sidebar for details. Program B, consisiting of Airs (1978), Dust (1977), and Company B (1991), was performed on Friday evening, June 28.

During her remarks, executive director Jodee Nimrichter announced the establishment of the Paul Taylor Dance Scholarship which would provide tuition assistance for a dancer to attend ADF’s conservatory programs. Contributions to this fund can be made here.

*Back in the news recently in connection with the death of Gloria Vanderbilt, whose second husband he was.