The curtain rises. A small group of people are gathered in an area that seems vague, undefined, yet undeniably happy. A park? A picnic? They start to dance. Sometimes alone, sometimes paired, sometimes as a group. The audience becomes more and more absorbed in this community until the curtain falls on them still dancing. We’ve seen but a snapshot of their lives.

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in Dances at a Gathering, New York City Ballet
© Paul Kolnik

This description could be used to describe two American dance masterpieces: Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. On the surface these works have little in common. Paul Taylor was considered a giant of modern dance, while Jerome Robbins found equal success on Broadway and at New York City Ballet. They used very different music – Esplanade used two Bach violin concertos while Dances used various piano pieces by Chopin. And the mood in these pieces is different – Esplanade usually has the audience bursting with joy, while Dances is quieter and more contemplative.

Yet these two works are bound by a very American sense of community that today seems utopian and nostalgic. The dancers are all dressed similarly – in Dances the women and men are differentiated by the color of their clothing. Thus it has become common to refer to roles by their color. “The boy in brown”. “The girl in green”. In Esplanade the girls are in brightly colored shift dresses and the men in T-shirts and corduroy pants. The color palette is warm – pinks, yellows and oranges dominate. The bond in both these communities is strong and uninterrupted by violence or romantic angst. Everyone trusts one another, and that trust is implicit and part of the works' eternal charm. When the curtain falls the audience doesn’t worry about these groups – we have confidence that they’ll keep on dancing in their happy little communities.

Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns, and Brittany Pollack in Dances at a Gathering
© Paul Kolnik

Dances at a Gathering is the older work – it was made in 1969 and marked Jerome Robbins’ return to the ballet world after years of acclaim as a Broadway choreographer. Dances was an immediate success and quickly wanted by ballet companies around the world. Yet it is an extremely fragile work – for one, that sense of community means the dancers cannot do anything construed as “audience-facing”. The ten dancers have to at all times seem as if they are there only for each other. A lack of concentration, of chemistry, one dancer being a little disconnected from the overall group, and the spell is broken.

Another very American aspect of Dances is that the dancers have to be the boys and girls next door. There are difficult ballet steps, but the dancing has to seem totally natural and simple. There can be no series of pirouettes à la seconde punctuated by an ending in perfect fifth position and a smile to the audience as if to say, “I did it! Clap now”. Even in the one section of Dances that always generates applause – the famous sextet when three girls are passed to three boys, and thrown from partner to partner in an increasingly buoyant, gravity-defying way – the dancers cannot ever stop and look at the audience for validation. They have to give a sense that they are only there for each other.

One of the most famous moments of Dances exemplifies this “boy and girl next door dancing”. The Pink Girl (created by Patricia McBride, and probably the most valued female role in the ballet) sits down on the floor. She is sitting with her knees curled under her, as she might on a picnic blanket. The Boy in Mauve joins her. Each takes the other’s hand. Then they stand up together, and stretch out their arms and draw an arc in the air. This moment is often called “drawing a rainbow in the sky”. But there’s nothing that explicitly says they are looking at a rainbow. They are looking at something together, and the quiet, intimate melody of Chopin’s Scherzo no. 1 in B minor suggests that they are both entranced.

Dances is full of these moments where the audience is eavesdropping on this community. When the curtain falls we still feel we are eavesdropping – all ten dancers are now in a circle. The Brown Boy touches the stage. A homage to the experience the dancers just shared? They bow to each other before pairing off and walking offstage together. There is politeness, there is courtesy, but there is none of the courtliness that infuses even the most neoclassical Balanchine works and links those works to Imperial Russia. Fifty years later Dances at a Gathering is still the quintessential American ballet.

If Dances at a Gathering exemplifies how American a work can be while still observing the language of classical ballet, Paul Taylor’s Esplanade (made in 1975) is a dance that at times barely seems like dancing. Part of the joy of Esplanade is watching the curtain go up and the dancers immediately start to skip, hop, run, and chase each other, as if they were children having a fun romp in a playground. It could be a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Paul Taylor’s dancers are regular American kids having fun.

Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade
© Paul Taylor Dance Company | Paul P. Goode

Yet Esplanade mixes a dark American commentary in a way that Robbins’ Dances does not. The most memorable role in Esplanade is a role first danced by Carolyn Adams, a lithe, petite African American dancer. Adams’ role is often called the “running girl” as she chases the rest of the group throughout the dance. In the final movement the girls throw themselves in the air and then slide across the floor. In this section the “running girl” is just a shade faster than everyone else. The fearless slides of the final section of Esplanade always bring about spontaneous applause. It’s one of the most exhilarating moments Taylor ever created. But as the dance winds down the rest of the group goes offstage the “running” girl is left to face the audience alone. But after an entire 30 minutes of being part of the group, a complete equal, why is she suddenly alone? Taylor doesn’t answer this question, but it’s an ambiguous moment in an otherwise joyous piece.

Michelle Fleet as the Running Girl in Esplanade
© Paul Taylor Dance Company | Paul B. Goode

There’s another dark section in Esplanade that penetrates the sunshine. About eight minutes into the choreography, after the jaunty opening, the stage goes dark. A woman (wearing pants) and a man are standing and another woman (dressed like a girl) is seated. The woman in pants reaches out to both people, but does not ever touch them. Another girl joins them. We are watching a nuclear family – a mom, dad, and their two kids. During this entire section the dancers do not touch each other. They shadow each others’ movements, they reach out for one another, but human connection is missing. As the section progresses, a larger and larger group huddles around the nuclear family. They are finally bunched together, finding safety in numbers if not in human contact.

This too is very American. Immigrants often comment on how the American nuclear family is distant and formal compared to the family structures of their native countries. In no other country is there an expectation for mom, dad, and their 2.5 kids to live independently from extended family members. Taylor does not comment on this nuclear family, but presents it as is, a haunting moment in an otherwise happy work.

It’s not a surprise then that immediately after this section of Esplanade we are back to skipping, hopping, jumping. The next Adagio section is one of the most tender in Taylor’s canon. Couples cradle each other. The circle of friends supports each other. This too is an American idea – that friends are the family we choose. If family can’t give us the nourishment and support we want, then we find a circle of friends who become family.

Dances at a Gathering is 50 years old, Esplanade 44 years old. They are as popular as ever. Paul Taylor passed away in 2018 and his canon will likely undergo a pruning as often happens when a choreographic giant is no longer there to control the frequency with which his works are performed. (To use Robbins as an example, some of his prestige projects like Watermill today come across as tiresome curiosities.) But I think it’s safe to say that the future of Esplanade is secure.

These two works are American in the best way. When you watch them you see joy, you see love, you see community, you see happiness, you see freedom. You see America as it wants to be.

New York City Ballet is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Dances at a Gathering with four performances this May. Click here for details.

Editor's note: a previous version of this article referred to the role of the running girl having "almost always been danced by an African American". Paul Taylor Dance Company have pointed out to us that a number of non-African American dancers have danced the role over the years; we have modified the article accordingly.