In the beginning, the men listen. The orchestra pit starts to glow, and the musicians rise up, singing out into the darkness, calling forth the dance. They come from the audience, the men, and climb onto the sides of the stage. They watch as the orchestra lowers and the curtains spread to reveal a single dancer, spinning.
This is the opening of Echo, Resident Choreographer Lauren Lovette’s newest work for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which had its World Premiere on November 2 as part of the Company’s 2023 New York Season at Lincoln Center.
Paul Taylor (1930-2018) was one of the 20th Century’s master choreographers, and PTDC is one of the foremost modern dance companies in the world, but the Company’s first-ever Resident Choreographer is a ballerina. Lovette is other things, too—a human-shaped sunbeam and most importantly, an accomplished choreographer—but her scholarship is strictly classical ballet. She trained at The School of American Ballet and is a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet. After joining the corps de ballet in 2010, she was quickly promoted to soloist in 2013 and then principal dancer in 2015. She has choreographed works for NYCB, American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and the Vail International Dance Festival. In October 2021, she left NYCB to pursue more performance and choreographic opportunities—like this one.
Lovette never trained in modern or contemporary dance but always wanted to. During our interview, she told me, “I was one of those kids looking in the windows with wonder in their eyes, hoping someday I could move to the fun music and do the cool moves and go on the ground.” Well, now she can, and does, and loves it. “It’s not just about the shape that you make on the outside,” she explained with the dewy glow of someone newly in love. “It’s about what you’re trying to say, why you’re dancing, the emotion behind it.”
New love has its challenges, of course. The most obvious learning curve Lovette has faced while working with modern dancers has to do with communication. Modern dance borrows from ballet vocabulary, but it also breaks all the rules to create new, nameless movements. “How do I tell you what I’m asking for,” she asked, “without being like ‘arabesque, but different’?” She’s learning to rely on imagery and impulse rather than ballet terms and, 1.5 years into her 5-year residence, her growing familiarity with the Company’s dancers. “There’s something so wonderful about not having to explain how you work or what you mean…you can get to what you’re looking for sooner. You can listen to that voice sooner because there’s less self-consciousness in the room, and there’s more focus on what we’re all trying to say.”
‘That voice’ that Lovette mentions is one of the most interesting aspects of her creative process. She describes choreographing as an act of channeling, of “uncovering the secret voice in the space”, of listening. Sometimes what comes to mind feels crazy, or like something she would feel shy saying aloud, but she’s been practicing trying it out anyway. “And I’m usually very grateful that I did because that’s the stuff that sticks, that feels the most true. And so, it’s hard to take credit for that sometimes, because it feels so much like I’m just in the middle of it.”
But never has Lovette felt this third-party voice, this alignment of things outside of her control, more clearly than in her creation of Echo. When PTDC’s Artistic Director Michael Novak asked Lovette if she would be interested in creating a piece for the Company’s men, she’d already been thinking about it— dreaming about it, really. (“A man in a desert, making a sound. It wasn’t a song. It was a force. A sound.”). At the same time, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, who would be playing live for the Lincoln Center performances, sent Novak a piece of new music that they thought would be great for dance: “Contact” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts. Lovette thought the score was extraordinary. She also found a second piece of music by the all-male string trio Time for Three that opened with a vocalization that reminded her of her desert dream. It was all coming together perfectly.
“I’m a big feminist,” Lovette assured me, woman to woman. “I believe in equality, and I want all of the equal rights for everything. Yes! And that being said, what’s going on with the men?” We talked about the statistics—how rates of incarceration, addiction and suicide for men are all staggeringly high right now—and agreed it was terrifying. “There’s this huge question mark inside me that’s like ‘What does it mean to be a man? Is there a difference?’ I know chemically there is, but what does that actually mean?”
These were the questions Lovette brought into the studio with her, but she didn’t ask the seven Taylor men for answers. Not verbally, at least. “They played off of each other,” she said, “and I watched.” The focus of the piece changed over the month that she made it. It’s become more about breaking stigmas and showing softness. “It’s about accepting one another, and letting one another be, and the healing that I’m hoping takes place for them.”
In the middle of Echo, Lee Duveneck contracts into a protective pose, arms blocking face like folded wings. Kenny Corrigan comes and lifts him up, lets him fall and pulls him back up before spinning off stage where he waits, watching.
The title refers not only to the dance echoing the music but also to what we can echo forth in each other. One man’s healing is another man’s healing is another man’s healing.
In many ways, Duveneck is the heart and Shawn Lesniak—the single spinning dancer in the opening—is the soul of the dance. They are both given strong solos throughout and are set to have standout performances.
Along with the male dancers and composers, all of Lovette’s other collaborators for Echo are men. The lighting is designed by James F. Ingalls and the stunningly draped black costumes by renowned fashion designer Zac Posen. When I asked how it felt to be the only woman in a creative team of men, she brushed off the question, shrugging, “No different. It felt the same.”
But when I asked if her thoughts on the current state of men have changed since working on Echo, she grew quiet before answering, “I don’t know if we’ve defined anything at all. I just know that the question mark itself, and the question itself, has brought together all these collaborators into this space that made something that I almost don’t want to share because I love it so much. I almost just want to hold onto it. But, that being said, I’m excited to share it, let it go free and take its course in the world. It’s been such a joy working on this one. I can honestly say it’s my favorite thing I’ve made.”
At the end, the men line up at the front of the stage. They get low, bracing for a race, before they turn around and run—lights out—into the darkness.
Paul Taylor Dance Company’s 2023 New York Season runs through November 12 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center with the final performance of Echo on November 9.