Friday, July 7 & Saturday, July 8
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

Imagine a world-class visual artist having only four colored pencils and a small sheet of paper to work with, or a brilliant sculptor being forced to ration a six-inch cube of modeling clay. Some of our greatest choreographers routinely face such severe limitations. When a mind that could fill the Lincoln Center stage with interlocking dancers only has the resources to work with two to four, it can only hint at a larger vision: skeletons of structures, fragments of relationships, fractions of potential energy.

So last year, when modern dance icon Paul Taylor began commissioning new works for the first time in his company’s sixty-two-year history, it provided choreographers Larry Keigwin and Doug Elkins much more than a generous stipend. It gave them the chance to bring their talents to bear upon a larger group of expert dancers than usual. When American Dance Festival audiences saw these first commissions last weekend at DPAC, Keigwin had clearly unleashed something, in himself and in Taylor’s dancers, in Rush Hour. By comparison, The Weight of Smoke left us wondering if Elkins’s trademark modern, street, and hip-hop movement vocabulary was a bridge too far for Taylor’s classically trained performers.

In Fritz Masten’s dun-colored, form-fitting costumes, Taylor’s corps of sixteen dancers crisplysometimes ruthlesslynavigated the passages of a human maze in constant flux. Parts of it would instantly look familiar to all who’ve ever braved a subway platform at peak hours, but Clifton Taylor’s cold, innovative lighting also suggested worker drones in relentless transit in a futuristic dystopia. In Michelle Fleet’s solo, a character who had been brought to her knees transforms into an imperious demagogue with the power to swipe left and right on other women’s careers. The sheer velocity of relationships in the work edged intimacy into violence, including an affecting duet for company veteran Parisa Khobdeh and Francisco Graciano.

By comparison, Smoke seemed like a suit that never truly fit Taylor’s dancers, a faux-louche stroll through an urban landscape that segues into a polysexual dance party set to a phantasmagoric audio montage of Handel operas, subway sounds, and drum-and-bass. There’s a moment of unease when an alienated loner (Robert Kleinendorst) is surrounded by women dancing into his personal space, but matters are resolved long before three humorous dyads manage to maintain lip locks through extensive physical maneuvers.

But is it really a party when no one ever truly loosens up? Sad to say, Smoke was still too weighty at its end.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Taylor Made”