GREAT BARRINGTON — When the Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center this weekend for its ninth consecutive summer season there, the group will offer for the first time a performance from its Taylor Company Commissions, which brings in outside choreographers to choreograph work for the company.
For this effort, choreographer Doug Elkins has one eye clearly focused on the Taylor Company's past, with the intention to not swim in it but flow alongside it.
Elkins is a two-time Bessie Award winner, who has helmed his dance company since 1988. Renowned for his use of hip-hop and martial arts in his choreographic work, resulting in a very physical dance form, Elkins began his career as a dancer touring in break dance groups.
Elkins created "The Weight of Smoke" for the Paul Taylor Company, set to an original score by Justin Levine and Matt Stine, part of the new initiative, Taylor Company Commissions. The title references a scene in the film "Smoke," that features William Hurt telling a story about Sir Walter Raleigh claiming that he can decipher how much smoke weighs. This fable about measuring the intangible had stuck with Elkins.
"In a way it's a beautiful metaphor for me looking at the Taylor company," Elkins said. "What is history? What is making something? It's also about the nature of dance. You make something but it carries the weight of smoke. It's very present and it disappears in front of you, and yet it has this history."
That history was crucial to Elkins as he set about devising work for the Taylor company, both the company's history and Elkins' own with Taylor's work.
"To not acknowledge the history of the company would be to miss the elephant in the room, at least for me," Elkins said.
"It was also personal for me because one of the first contemporary works I ever saw was actually on 'Dance in America' on PBS, and it was Paul's masterwork, 'Esplanade,' so as a 13-year-old boy watching that, a dance made of running, sliding, jumping, leaping in mid air and being caught, it totally made sense to me. I was fascinated by the structure and athleticism of it, and later, in retrospect, by the idea that something could be so deceivingly simple and yet be like a really beautiful puzzle."
Elkins likens his approach to the work as similar to the way the Internet presents reality, a sampling a layer of ideas that reflects his personal approach to just about everything, and presents a non-linear structure that allows him express more freely.
"So I'm sampling and overlaying dance and musical contexts," he said. "I'm kind of making Paul a mix tape, for want of a better description. I'm looking at it like a Venn diagram. What do we both like doing? We both like very physical, athletic movement that attacks and flows. And where are our differences and noting those?"
In regard to his own work, Elkins considers the old story, "Stone Soup," which tells the tale of a stranger who tricks people into sharing their food as ingredients for his concoction, which he then offers to everyone.
"I like to make work like that," said Elkins. "I'm really into borrowing and sampling and collaborating with the dancers of the Taylor company and riffing on their corporeal history. The mainstay of their corporeal history is with that man, and all the other trappings of it."
Elkins says that if you know nothing about Paul Taylor's history, "The Weight of Smoke" will stand on its own, but you will miss some subtle references that he's put into the work. That means there are special gifts that Elkins has put in for the diehard Taylor fan, and he saw it as his duty to do so. It was also a great source of game-like joy.
"I like leaving strange little Easter eggs," he said. "It's more than just making work for a standard repertory company. "
Elkins likes to joke that the work might be likened to the online phenomenon of fan fiction, which sees fans of various properties write their own adventures of their favorite literary and television heroes, though he also hopes it's better than that. And despite positioning himself as a fan of Taylor and his company, Elkins has found a deeper relationship through the collaboration.
"Not only the fan-boy outside admiration of the body of Paul's work, it becomes something else," Elkins said. "And it's not to say that Paul and I go out fishing. That's not going to happen. The gift that I have been given is not to become Paul's buddy, but the thing he has bestowed upon me is the most intimate thing he does — letting me work with his company. That's his artistic family. That's where the real joy of that is, the treat of the people who he has the shared responsibility of building his body of work, the repertory and the new work."
But if choreography is the work of building connections between movements, it can also do the same with people. Elkins has made personal inroads to the Taylor company and through "The Weight of Smoke" built something even larger than art.
"They've been wonderful collaborators," said Elkins. "I'd love to say it's an honor, but I have some really good friends now who I get to make this delicious meal with, hopefully.
"It gets to that point beyond where there's something better than the honor of it, when they become drinking buddies and partners in crime to make something."