When it comes to modern dance, the art form can serve as a medium to inspire, entertain or illuminate subject matter with heavy-hitting effect. New York’s Paul Taylor Dance Company (PTDC) plans to do the latter in honor of military veterans by blending two iconic dance ensembles into one for the first time. They’ll debut “American Spirit” at the Wilson Center this week. “In this performance, we aren’t here to show you art but [impart] a message,” says Sean Mahoney, a dance member with PTDC.
Mahoney, 42, has danced with the world-renowned PTDC since early adulthood. In “American Spirit,” the performance art will focus on war and how it affects military families. The company has partnered with Folded Flag Foundation, a federally recognized nonprofit organization, that helps continued education via scholarships and grants for families of military service members or government personnel who have died in combat.
Both dances in the performance were choreographed by dance-company founder Paul Taylor, who has been a stalwart in the business since 1954. “American Spirit” makes up two dances: “Promethean Fire” is a testament to the resilience of the modern American spirit after the 9/11 tragedy, while “Company B” portrays the societal reactions to World War II. Though completely independent works, the two time periods generate distinct contrasts about how Americans have handled war throughout history.
Mahoney, who is performing in “American Spirit,” says the audience will not have the message spelled out for them but will need to uncover the meaning in accord to their own perspectives.
“That’s the magic of Paul’s choreography,” he says. “The audience is forced to analyze and uncover what the performance means. Paul is very poetic and tells poetry with movement.”
Taylor, whose work includes visual and musical elements, choreographed the pieces to function independently in the company’s tours. “Company B” is a series of 4- to 5-minute vignettes, in total running 20 minutes. It is set to the Andrew Sisters, best known for their 1941 hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and who entertained troupes worldwide during World War II. Each scene in “Company B” is told via abstract movement.
“In the opening duet, there is a couple doing a maniacal polka dance in front of the silhouettes of men being shot and killed,” Mahoney says. “It shows a juxtaposition of what happens during war time; there are people doing their best to stay positive during hard times.”
Mahoney admits some of the scenes are challenging for him—because his character is merely a memory. It’s a role which requires him to remain emotionally distant from his partner who is distraught. In the final duet, Mahoney must ignore his partner’s sorrowful gazes, and fight his natural inclination to offer a supportive shoulder.
“I have to look past her the whole time, as if she’s not there,” Mahoney notes. “I want to be able to engage, but I have to fight the urge to do [so]. It’s very difficult to act, like I’m not there when I must be a 100 percent present.”
Mahoney’s career in dance began as a young boy. Having suffered from severe asthma and allergies, his parents couldn’t find a good fit for his extracurricular activities.
“They put me in violin lessons, but I was allergic to the rosin on the bow,” he notes. “They put me in baseball but I was allergic to the grass. I tried swim lessons but the humidity in the room was too much for my lungs to handle. My parents didn’t have anything left to put me in except dance.”
In the ‘80s a negative stigma still existed around boys taking up dance. However, his parents were supportive, regardless. His father enrolled in adult ballet to encourage Mahoney’s lessons. His mother worked at the front desk of the dance school to help with tuition costs.
“During the summer she gave us projects each week that involved researching a country from an encyclopedia,” Mahoney remembers. “We had to prepare a meal, find music, discover a local dance for that country, and then present it to the family. This was her way of keeping us open-minded and cultured.”
In 1993 Mahoney was offered an opportunity to audition for PTDC’s smaller group, Taylor 2. Around 300 dancers auditioned, which dwindled to only 10 over the course of a few days.
Mahoney recalls Taylor calling out his name and asking him to be one of the founding members of Taylor 2 group. The opportunity has led to a lasting career and friendship with the dance icon.
Now 87 years young, Taylor only visits the dance studio on occasion to make sure the moves are executed as he intended. It’s not uncommon for him to choreograph a new piece during his six-week visit.
“When Paul comes in to work with the dancers, he already has music counted out and patterns of what he might want,” Mahoney said. “The story is always there, but he uses the dancers to help create the context. For example, he already had an idea of what he was going to do with ‘Promethean Fire,’ but 9/11 certainly made a mark on how the dance would turn out.”
While Taylor plans to continue inserting his creative voice, he has chosen Michael Novak as new artistic director and successor. Novak, a dancer himself, will work in his new position for the upcoming performance at the Wilson Center.
“Paul is still very active and will still create works,” Mahoney clarifies, “but he is thinking ahead so he has enough time to work with Novak. He wants to make sure Novak knows the ropes before passing on the torch.”
The “American Spirit” performance is scheduled to show at the Wilson Center on May 24 at 7:30 p.m.
“Don’t come to see us and don’t come for the sake of art,” Mahoney imparts. “The Folded Flag Foundation organized this event as a tribute to veterans, military members and their families. We are not here to show you art but a message of what this art represents. Folded Flag asked us to perform for this event, and I think it is a wonderful way to use our art for a special cause.”
Tickets to “American Spirit” are $20 online at either capefearstage.com or wilsoncentertickets.com, and in-person or by phone at 910-362-7999. Discounts are available for military, students (K-12, CFCC, and UNCW), CFCC faculty/staff, and groups (15 or more).