There is very probably nothing original left to be said about Paul Taylor’s enduring classic, Esplanade, which closed the program at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater on Friday night. It's one of those rare touchstones of modern dance; as fresh today as when it was created, forty years ago. Esplanade celebrates the joy of dance. There is very little movement in the choreography that resembles a formal dance phrase and yet it is one of the most buoyant dance pieces extant. We in the audience can well believe – for a while – that we could be part of it if we just got up out of our seats and ran up on stage and Taylor’s dancers convey the impression that they would welcome us. We could join them and run in circles and leap into the air with the certainty that there would be someone there to catch us. Taylor’s musicality makes it seem like the greatest fun in the world just to walk across the stage and change direction whenever we feel the pull of Bach’s life-affirming counterpoint. It is a common thread throughout Taylor’s work and a big part of why he has been so successful. He lets us access our inner child and experience play as an element of dancing. There is plenty of seriousness as well, moments of loneliness and despair, but at its core his work is celebratory.

M. Novak,E. Bugge,J. Samson and H. McGingley in <i>Esplanade</i> © Paul B Goode
M. Novak,E. Bugge,J. Samson and H. McGingley in Esplanade
© Paul B Goode

On this night, Michelle Fleet and Parisa Khobdeh in particular had that vital spirit of play and took us with them as they sailed through their flying leaps and threw themselves to the floor with such happy and reckless conviction that it was only with some effort that I was able to stay in my seat and not jump up to join them. The whole company was also fully with them in this piece that so perfectly embodies the pleasures of dancing together. Violin soloists Krista Bennion Feeney and Naoko Tanaka played beautifully – as did all the musicians.

The program opened with Beloved Renegade, set to Francis Poulenc’s masterful Gloria. Soprano Devon Guthrie’s was, in my opinion, the star of the show and she was well backed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the St. George’s Choral Society. Guthrie’s rendering of the third movement’s Domine Deus brought the work an urgency that it didn’t quite have in the first two movements. But for such dramatic music, the choreography seemed to be somewhat ponderous as was the slow tempo in the opening Gloria. When Guthrie entered in the third, the entire piece took off and began to soar.

The dance layers the Gloria’s Latin text that is sung with accompanying quotes from Walt Whitman in the program which are then combined with a dance that is an extended elegy. It is deep and complex but it doesn’t always work. In the fourth movement, when Taylor places Whitman’s “Come children, come my boys and girls” with the Latin text being sung, “Domine fili unigenite” (Only begotten son) and has the dancers pretending to be children at play, it fails. Asking adults to pretend to be children is generally even less successful than asking children to pretend to be adults. It takes genius to do that. Yet there are many moments of beauty, especially the pas de deux of the second movement with Parisa Khobdeh and Robert Kleinendorst and the recurring role of the muse delivered with poetic feeling by Laura Halzack. The work is powerful, but not without flaws.

Laura Halzack, Michael Trusnovec and company in <i>Beloved Regenade</i> © Paul B Goode
Laura Halzack, Michael Trusnovec and company in Beloved Regenade
© Paul B Goode

Death and the Damsel, Taylor’s new work, gave Jamie Rae Walker the chance to shine in a dark dreamscape. The piece, set to Bohuslav Martinů’s Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, was nicely played by Myron Lutzke and Margaret Kampmeier respectively. Walker’s Damsel wakes from sleep and bounds out of bed with such effervescent cheerfulness that you just know it isn’t going to end well. She dances around in her pink nightie with such perky joy that you’re almost glad when Death rears its ugly head in the form of Michael Trusnovec, decked out in Fifty Shades of Black pleather fetish wear. He is joined by a cadre of black clad glampires and you just know there’s going to be trouble. Walker’s expression when Death steps out of her psyche and into her dreamscape is so wide-eyed in innocent terror that you almost miss the frisson of excitement as she anticipates the trampling of her innocence. It’s a rich comedic moment that Walker indelibly brings to life. She’s alternately funny, fearful and fierce as she confronts her inner demons. In the second movement she’s been transported to her nightmare place of torment which is, of course, a dance club. What could be more perilous than a louche nightclub when you’re a putatively innocent girl? She gets dragged around and abused as she sinks deeper into her nightmare of victimhood. It gets ugly in a way that is dismaying. It’s a dark dream that has spun out of control. In the third movement she takes on Death’s female partner, Laura Halzack, and they fight in slow motion. The Damsel discovers that she’s tougher than she thought and begins fighting in earnest. It’s a pitched battle that ends with all of her abusers beaten down and then she’s free to wake up, back safe in her room. Walker uses her expressive face to let us know that she’s safe and sound... but she has a lot on her mind.

Performing at Lincoln Center, and to live music was a good move, as the audience's enthusiasm clearly showed. At 84, Paul Taylor is still creating high calibre work. He’s the last of a generation of modern dance pioneers, and I recommend seeing this company while its guiding light is still with us.