When designing sets for the choreographer Paul Taylor, the artist Alex Katz had a habit he called “killing the center.” Katz would stick obstacles in the middle of the stage — fake boulders, a bunch of mirrors, cutouts of dogs — to deny Taylor the easy power of that theatrical focal point. Taylor always rose to the creative challenge.
For “Drum Circle,” a new work that the Taylor company debuted at Lincoln Center on Friday, the choreographer Larry Keigwin has killed the center for himself. He’s stuck a large platform just off the middle of the stage, an island that William Catanzaro and two other percussionists inhabit along with an array of instruments, mostly percussive.
Keigwin, though, doesn’t rise to the challenge. Having the musicians take up so much prime real estate, playing Catanzaro’s lively score, does major damage to the space for dancing and the stage composition. And Keigwin has no Taylor-like imaginative response to the problem. The dancers are shunted to one side or awkwardly stuck behind the island. Mostly, they travel around the platform, again and again, making gestures with their hands as they, yes, circle the drums.
This spatial flaw is surprising, since traffic control is usually one of Keigwin’s strengths. His dances are often high-energy and fun, but this one doesn’t do much more than rely on the dancers’ ample stamina. Keigwin borrows some Taylor steps and throws in some hip rolls and brief couplings. One short solo for Devon Louis, set to clapping, manages to build up some speed and cool. But “Drum Circle” looks awfully thin, especially when sandwiched between two Taylor works — like the all-thrusters-firing “Mercuric Tidings” and the running-in-circles masterpiece “Esplanade.”
It’s easy to imagine what Keigwin was after: introducing the noise-making excitation of a percussive score and flaunting its liveness. For a better use of a percussive score, Taylor audiences can look this season to Ulysses Dove’s “Vespers,” which the company debuted on Saturday. Made for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in 1986 and long in the repertory of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, “Vespers” has the savvy sense of stage space and the no-let-up compositional tension that “Drum Circle” lacks. It’s one of Dove’s best works, balancing the pressurized release of strong emotion (in this case, grief) against a simple but strong formal structure.
It begins with a woman sitting on a cafe chair, and the way that Jada Pearman sits up straight speaks volumes. This is a breakout role for her. She points up and down and stands on the chair with rhythmically accurate precision and positions as clear as cut outs.
Escaping from and returning to a chair is the work’s main idea, multiplied in its second part, as Pearman is joined by five other women and two sets of chairs, one on each side of the stage. The motion between the sides is tidal and torrential, the dancers spinning out and back in trios and solos, sometimes rotating a karate chop into another’s midsection. Sitting on the chairs and toggling between resilience and collapse, in relay or alternation, they match the rhythmic force of the electronically layered drums in Mikel Rouse’s prerecorded score. The six Taylor women — especially Pearman and Madelyn Ho, who are having breakthrough seasons — become one fierce sisterhood.
Where “Vespers” shows how a percussive score can be effectively channeled, Lauren Lovette’s new “Echo” shows how sharing focus with live musicians can work. The string trio Time for Three rises from the pit on a platform to sing angelically and play with punk ferocity. But rather than impeding the dance, the visible musicians add energy, and, crucially, Lovette’s choreography matches the grand scale of Kevin Puts’s dramatic score, filled out by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
Live music has been a regular feature of recent Taylor seasons, yet it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Playing Puts or Bach or Piazzolla, the Orchestra is an extraordinary asset for the Taylor troupe. May the partnership continue. The Paul Taylor Dance Company is looking and sounding well.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Through Nov. 12 at the David H. Koch Theater; davidhkochtheater.com.