Every fall the Bay Area Repertory Dance company, or BARD, is born anew from a fresh group of select university seniors, and each spring BARD ends the year in a performance that has all the earmarks of a professional event, from bandaged feet and despair to elation. Over the years since director of the dance program Marni Wood and her husband, professor emeritus David Wood, created the University Dance Theater and the smaller, preprofessional BARD, students have performed masterworks by Martha Graham, elegant studies by the Woods, and dances choreographed by department staff. This year the Woods ventured to Mills College, where former Paul Taylor dancer Mary Cochran is an assistant professor, and lured the sprightly redhead to the Berkeley campus to set Paul Taylor’s 1975 masterpiece Esplanade on BARD’s nine dancers.
“Mary, as a dancer, is an ideal choice to work with young, enthusiastic students,” Marni Wood said by phone from her office last week. “She’s so skilled at developing talent in young people, and when she explains movement to kids who haven’t been trained the same way, she has the ability to instill Taylor quality in them.” Taylor quality is an alchemical mix of brutally elemental dance forms, a plump athleticism that often incorporates pedestrian movement and unabashed dramatic moods. It appears natural, the way Mark Morris’ style does, but it isn’t, and it looks effortless, but could cause cardiac distress even among the fit. Esplanade, the story goes, was inspired by Taylor witnessing a woman run for a bus.
During a lighting tech in the theater earlier in the month, the dancers take their places onstage at Zellerbach Playhouse. They gather in the “family portrait” section, in which the dancers array themselves like a handsome clan. They shoot across the stage in the “running section,” where a missed beat by one dancer could lead to a human train wreck, or they fly backwards in what appears to be a hurricane.
Cochran sits mid-theater with the lighting designer, calling out from the darkness. “You should feel like quicksilver, like mercury,” Cochran urges. From their tired faces it’s clear that the brutal pace and ferocious simplicity of the dance–at 10 p.m. on a weeknight–is beginning to make them feel like lead. An esplanade is an open, level space for walking, and the dance, set to Bach’s Violin Concerto in D and two movements from the E Minor Concerto, is packed with insouciant strolls, bullet-fast runs, and sudden headlong falls to the floor. “Remember, it’s not frantic,” she reminds them. “It’s exhilaration. You’ve got to have a little more faith.” Somehow, Cochran makes it not only doable but necessary.
“Esplanade is so demanding that you have to rehearse the hell out of it,” Cochran explains. “You start right away with the idea of transferring your weight on the beat. Then you go about learning the whole form. But you can’t imitate someone else transferring her weight, so it has to be real, and real for 25 minutes–constantly! It makes the dancers a lot more sophisticated as performers. It also requires a lot of courage, because there are no triple pirouettes to hide behind or fancy footwork. You’re naked up there.”
The group returns to the wings and repeats the running section. There are still some pre-performance glitches, but the dancers meet Cochran’s challenge with an energy so thrilling that the viewer’s flesh tingles, which is the magic of Taylor’s best work–it hits you the way wind or water does. “When they have the touch of someone like Mary,” says Marni Wood, “they have the chance to rise above what they thought they could do. I feel very strongly that this is the kind of inspiration students should have.”