Taylorisms new and old in a weekend of dance at the Mahaiwe

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Which is harder to navigate, the two-sided coin that comes with being a living legend in one's field — as is the modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor — or the one that comes with being asked by that legend to make a dance?

Recently Taylor changed up the "rules" with his 60-plus year-old company, allowing works of other choreographic legends to be performed on programs alongside his own pieces. With this important tip of the hat to legacy came a generous nod to the current generation in the way of commissions to living dancemakers, including Doug Elkins. "The Weight of Smoke," Elkins' proffering, was presented at Saturday night's concluding performance of the Paul Taylor Dance Company's ninth annual visit to the Mahaiwe. (The program noted that it was a world premiere, but "Weight" actually debuted in New York City earlier this year.)

The alternate title to the piece might be "The Weight of Paul Taylor Asking You to Make a Dance." Elkins didn't exactly choke on the task, but his work does take a long time clearing its throat, a symptom perhaps of the daunting assignment. He told the Berkshire Eagle's John Seven that because he couldn't ignore what he called "the elephant in the room" — Taylor and his company's formidable and prolific contributions to the field of dance — he wanted to honor it by peppering his own dance with Taylorisms. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing new about it: artists always "borrow" from the best. Indeed, Taylor's own style includes hallmarks of Martha Graham's, imprints made on him from when he danced with her company.

In "Weight," homage comes most obviously in the beginning's easygoing pedestrianism — Taylor's "Esplanade" is surely conjured, for example, in the casual walks and slides to the floor, the loose lifts here and there — while the bits of music by George Frideric Handel used later are reminders of his "Aureole." But the many out-of-context fragments fail to cohere. The score is even more of an unsatisfying jumble, the Handel tumbled in with upbeat techno music by Justin Levine and Matt Stine — a clumsy joke that trips over its own goofiness.

Elkins is an inventive and often humorous choreographer with his own pleasing stylistic mix that includes both modern and hip-hop dance, so the hodge-podge here is at least entertaining, if meandering.

It's sweet and respectful of Elkins to want to honor Taylor. I hope he gets another commission and that next time he respects his own chops and gives Taylor what he likely really wants: an Elkins dance, not a Taylor medley.

Taylor's own new "Dilly Dilly" is also silly (silly), but it's such a tightly constructed romp that to miss out on the fun would be pointless. And hey: even masters don't make actual masterpieces all the time.

Choreographed to seven clever, old-timey songs sung by Burl Ives (who croons the title's twins in the first song, "Lavender Blue"), and set against Santo Loquasto's vibrantly-hued, geometric backdrop, 11 dancers in cheekily stylized western wear (also by Loquasto) perform a series of mini dance/mime skit/dramas. The broad humor is innocuous, enormously charming — and there's hope for us all if the octogenarian Taylor still has such an irreverent wit with the subject of death. Along with the outlandish mock horse-riding and frog-leaping are the demises, some by natural causes and some by cheerfully murderous ones. The body count rises — the master in "Blue Tail Fly," the maid in "Foggy Foggy Dew," and Johnny in "Frankie and Johnny" — but the dance and the dancers, good sports all, shrug it off and carry on.

Sometimes especially good things come to those who wait, and we were accordingly rewarded with one of Taylor's masterworks, the 2008 "Beloved Renegade." Inspired by Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," this formal, unabashedly dramatic dance is a paean to death — but also to humanity. As the poet looking backward on his life while moving toward his grave, longtime Taylor dancer Michael Trusnovec balanced his scintillating technique with a dignified reserve. As his spirit guide, Laura Halzack was stately, rock-solid in her vocabulary of exposed promenades and développés.

Although the Mahaiwe isn't quite the right setting for "Renegade" — this expansive dance requires a vaster stage, a greater distance from the audience, and, if it cannot be performed live, the theatrical grandeur of Francis Poulenc's "Gloria" needs to thunder, not whimper, through the speakers — the ensemble's wholehearted performances triumphed. And thus, once again, did Mr. Taylor.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com


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