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Paul Taylor Dance Company: Variety and vitality

Last night, during a reception for members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Roseville native and Taylor dancer Robert Kleinendorst talked of his delight in being able to perform — at last — with the premier modern-dance company on the home stage, Northrop. This evening, the iconic dance company, which the legendary choreographer began in the 1950s, will perform two canonical works from its repertory, as well as Taylor’s newest piece. Now 80, the last living member of the pantheon that created America’s indigenous art form, modern dance, shows no sign of slowing down.

One of Taylor’s signatures is the tremendous variety — in tone, subject matter and style — of his works. Tonight’s program is no exception. The audacious “Cloven Kingdom” (1976) examines the primal underpinnings of our most sophisticated personas. To music by Arcangelo Corelli, Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller, the dancers (men in tuxes, women in ball gowns) gradually dispense with their outward trappings of civility to reveal the animalistic urges lurking beneath.

In “Brief Encounters” (2009), Taylor wittily costumes his dancers in black underwear to emphasize the sensuality and sexuality of the performers’ intermittent interactions. As if commenting on our 21st-century information overload, our decreasing attention spans, and transient lack of commitment to place and people, Taylor choreographs his dancers in ever-shifting patterns of interaction against the ephemeral music of Claude Debussy.

At long last, “Esplanade” (1975) comes to the Northrop stage. A work of tremendous beauty and grace (with a centerpiece exploring the dark heart of such lyricism), “Esplanade” contains virtually no “dance” movements; rather, as the story goes, Taylor was inspired by everyday movement, particularly after watching a young woman running to catch a bus. Set to music  by Johann Sebastian Bach, the piece continuously and exuberantly flows with leaps and catches, runs and skips, turns and reaches in choreography underpinned with breathtaking athleticism.

It’s a piece in which to bask, in which to let oneself go as the dancers offer up the best and brightest of their abilities. “Taylor only asks that you bring your spirit to the work,” Kleinendorst said. The company, he added, “is a great place to be an artist.”

For more insights into Taylor’s work, visit my students’ blog posts, which they’ve written in conjunction with the class I’m teaching at the University of Minnesota, “Covering the Arts: New Media, New Paradigms from Criticism to Communications.”

Paul Taylor Dance Company. 7:30 tonight. Northrop, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Tickets $35-$58. 612-624-2345. At 6:45 tonight there will be a free pre-performance talk with Bettie de Jong and Andy LeBeau — former Taylor dancers and current rehearsal directors — in Room 4 at Northrop. 

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