BECKET — This week's performances at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival mark the first time the Paul Taylor Dance Company has visited the Berkshires since its founder's death last summer, at age 88. There is an extra dimension of wistfulness as we've learned that six veteran Taylorites — a third of the company — have either recently given their last performances with the company, or will during this visit or within the next few months.
Three about to retire — Michelle Fleet, Sean Mahoney, and Jamie Rae Walker — are dancing on this week's "legacy tour" triple bill composed of all Taylor works. On the other end of the spectrum are seven dancers who've joined the company in the last two years. In between are another eight who've been with the group for anywhere between four to 19 years. The deep artistry and, if you will, "institutional knowledge" of older dancers is priceless; the good news is that the remaining veterans are already seasoned Taylorites, and the newbies? From the looks of things, they'll be just fine.
The magnificent trio on this week's program, selected from the 147 that Taylor choreographed over his lifetime, share in common a "pure dance" quality. No props, narrative, or characters, just music and dance. The oldest, "Aureole," is from 1962, and the newest, "Concertiana," was choreographed in 2018 — the last dance that Taylor made. "Promethean Fire," meanwhile, premiered in 2002.
As if to assure us of the company's stability, it's a measured, mature program. Many of Taylor's pieces were quite funny, and sometimes manic in their energy, but here the pleasures are tempered. Crucially, they're performed with serene calm rather than stolidity. This balance particularly matters in "Aureole," set to stately Baroque extracts by George Frideric Handel. Though rife with playfully skimming runs and generous, s-curved arms, there's also a good deal of difficult choreography — slow turns on one leg that often end not with a weight-shifting release but with a continued balance on that same supporting leg, or arduous series of jumps that may be devilish in their quicksilver exactitude or taxing in their purposely weighted quality. Yes, these are familiar Taylorisms, but in "Aureole" the dancers' upper bodies are held with particular firmness, while the accompanying port de bras is often austere, arms held — held, not flung in helpful opposition, say, or raised with well-timed momentum — in low curves or in raised U-shapes.
The cast of five, in George Tacet's simple, formal all-white costumes, must find a balance between floating away from the surface and pressing down into it. Fleet, a secret but big smile often playing about her face, embodies that lightness, sashaying her hips side to side or sailing through a series of pas de chat/swivels. Mahoney's long limbs, like a tree, connect him to both earth and sky; now his body is an X, his legs in a wide second position, while his arms mirror them, but upside down, in a V. His is the most mysterious role of them all, tender in his duet with Christina Lynch Markham, sober and rock-solid in his solo. Robert Kleinendorst (now the company's longest-serving veteran) likewise achieves a near-miracle of steadiness and stamina in his taxing phrases.
What a sweet relief that "Concertiana," the work which turned out to be the master's swan song, turned out so damn well. Set to Eric Ewazen's ebullient concerto for violin and strings, and costumed by William Ivey Long in attractive black- and deep blue/green-waved unitards, the 11 dancers are hybrids, creature/humans who walk, fly (well, seemingly, in their frequent, flitting exits and entrances), crawl, and creep. This is a work that will reward multiple viewings; I'm thrilled to see Heather McGinley again in her enigmatic solo, both earthy and fey, as well as Michael Novak in his, highlighted by that penetrating, hypnotizing walk downstage toward us. (Novak, performing double-duty as the company's director, was hand-picked by Taylor for the position.) Alex Clayton nearly steals the show with his hovering balances and lightning-cracked leaps off stage. But a big part of "Concertiana's" wonder is in the ensemble's marked presence, whether whooshing with ineffable fluidity about the stage or traversing the far upstage line with eerie reserve.
If in "Concertiana" the dancers are hybrids, and in "Aureole" they are humans but in a far-off plane, in "Promethean Fire" their universal humanity is palpable. Because of its rising-from-the-ashes title and imagery, as well as its overall starkness, the dance is often assumed to be Taylor's response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It's one of his harrowing works, to be sure — he made plenty of those too — at once plaintive and huge. In the opening section, he dared to match the bigness of J.S. Bach's familiar, ominous/glorious Toccata and Fugue in D minor with his own near-ostentatious staging, the fifteen dancers lunging or raising their arms with weighted meaning or hurling their bodies into dramatic canons of falls to the floor. Novak and Eran Bugge share a poignant duet that invokes both collapse and support; it, and the ensemble's endlessly inventive looping and braiding patterns are breathtaking. Meanwhile, the continued sense of dignity in the face of calamity, though hopeful, is also heartbreaking.
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com