Arden Court: Paul Taylor’s Masterpiece Danced by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Arden Court: Paul Taylor’s Masterpiece Danced by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance

*To see a full performance video of Arden Court performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, visit our Dance Dialogues page. We invite you to join us for an interactive Dance Dialog on Paul Taylor via Zoom, Tuesday, September 15 at 3 PM, with guest facilitator Suzanne Carbonneau.*

Paul Taylor, one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, created Arden Court for his own company in 1981. The name of the ballet is a reference to Shakespeare’s As You Like It and its vision of pastoral bliss. This modern dance, set to the baroque music of William Boyce, was an instant success. The first sentence of Anna Kisselgoff’s review in The New York Times stated “Every so often the stunningly great performance rolls around.” She went on to proclaim:

In fact, any major ballet or modern dance company, no matter how excellent on its own terms, will have its work cut out this season to match the supreme level of dancing of the Taylor dancers in this work. It is the kind of dancing that rises above routine greatness, if one can use such a phrase. In other words, it soars above the predictability of the great dancing we know and anticipate, even demand, of superstars and even non-stars. That is a consistent level of greatness to which we have become too easily accustomed. 

“But this is not what Mr. Taylor is giving us. Obviously, his dancers could not be dancing so sensationally without something to dance, and "Arden Court" is above all, a dancer’s dream of a display piece, a continuum of nonstop movement. The brilliant paradox is that it looks both old and new. It is crammed full of the most familiar movements from the Taylor lexicon. Here is instant Taylor at a glance, impossible to be mistaken for anyone else’s work. 

So how is it that a work which is “Taylor made” for his own company – a work created on dancers trained specifically in his style and familiar with his vocabulary – can be transferred to another dance company? It may be the same choreography, but the interpretation will clearly be different based on the training and aesthetic of the company performing the piece.

When Arden Court entered the repertoire of the Joffrey Ballet in 1985, Lewis Segal of the Los Angeles Times referred to Taylor’s piece as “a showcase for the men in his modern dance ensemble” that “remains a state-of-the-art homage to a distinctly American kind of male energy and elegance.” He remarked on the “big-chested men” of the Taylor company giving Arden Court an “unmatched sense of weight and mass” which made their jumps seem miraculous or transcendent, as compared to the more slender form of the Joffrey’s male ballet dancers whom you fully expect to soar when they jump. Ballet dancers focus on weightlessness when they jump up and take flight; modern dancers focus on weightiness as they come down from a jump - a different aesthetic which comes with different expectations.

Arden Court was the first of several Taylor works to enter the repertoire of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011. Robert Battle, artistic director, AAADT, had a personal connection to the work, as he studied with two principal Taylor dancers while at The Juilliard School in New York. Further, Arden Court was the first Taylor piece he ever saw performed. Battle said (of Taylor) “it unlocked my understanding of him, and how he contrasts the dark and light in emotions…He has the language of a great poet in his dances.”

Susan Yung, writing about Ailey taking on Arden Court for NYC-ARTS, asks the question: must AAADT’s rendering look like the original company? The answer is a predictable no, as the dancers are trained in a different style, and bring their own aesthetic to the work. Yung describes Arden Court as “a challenging dance which plays with the very concept of time – a passage full of level changes is performed, and then done double time. There are also glacial promenades and precision interactions between partners. Where the Paul Taylor Dance Company makes it look breezy…Ailey powers through…” It is indeed a different interpretation.

While I have great respect for the original creation of a work, and a deep appreciation for a work performed by dancers that have spent years dancing a particular choreographer’s vocabulary and have that specific style embedded in their bodies from years of developing specific muscles and honing movements, I still enjoy the experience of seeing a different interpretation of a piece – whether it is a different cast, or a different company. Below is a link to Ailey’s performance of Arden Court.

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