“I want to lift the audience to the miraculous in human nature. After all, we shouldn’t be here, with all the odds against us in nature. It’s kind of unusual and wonderful!”
These are the words of Paul Taylor, a dance icon who passed away in August of this year. His work, Company B, is showcased in the Washington Ballet’s presentation of “Contemporary Masters,” a triptych of modern dance that also includes the foundational work of Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris. The resulting program is miraculous indeed, a transcendent exploration of the movement that makes dance delightfully modern.
The show opens with Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, an ethereal, transitional piece that mixes classical technique and modern movement. The opening foray sees an empty stage, accompanied by the dissonant opening themes of Virgil Thomson’s 13 Etudes (wonderful piano accompaniment courtesy of Glenn Sales).
The dancing pair’s dramatic entrance, a man carrying his partner with her arms crossed in an X, heralds the innovations throughout the sequence. Classical ballet formations, with dancers on pointe and outfitted in flowing white (costumes by Santo Loquasto), are continually disrupted and reformed. Morris’s choreography gives the impression that the dancers are continually seeking something more daring and different.
… a transcendent exploration of the movement that makes dance delightfully modern.
These innovations become robust in Merce Cunningham’s Duets, an elemental and experimental work. As the title suggests, a series of couples take the stage, accompanied only by a percussive beat (designed by John Cage, performed by Peadar and Mel Mercier). The dancers’ lack of affect and intentional, sometimes stark movements provide a distinct contrast to Morris; here, the choreography seems to explore movement itself. Instead of following the hypnotic rhythm, dancers often seem independent of it, creating a sense of exciting improvisation.
Company B, Paul Taylor’s enchanting show closer, sees the return of narrative. Set in World War II, the sometimes playful, sometimes dark, choreography features swing dance and recognizable croony tunes from the 1940s. “Pick out your partner and join in the fun!” sing the Andrews Sisters in “Pennsylvania Polka.”
The bravado and joyfulness of the company’s swing dancing is wonderful to watch, even as the dance begins to explore the more complex themes of a wartime milieu. Marching figures and dropping bodies serve as a reminder of men at war. Andile Ndlovu’s exuberant solo captures the dark contrast between the relentless energy and optimism of youth and the grim realities of soldiering.
While this performance will thrill dance enthusiasts, it’s also sure to entertain anyone who enjoys seeing performers at their best. “Contemporary Masters” offers a superlative evening that underlines the evolution, and artistic promise, of dance.
“Contemporary Masters” runs through Sunday, Nov. 4 at the Harman Center. For tickets, or more information, click here.