Paul Taylor Dance Company
New York City Center
New York, New York
March 4 and 5, 2011
Amy Young and former Taylor dance Orion Duckstein in Taylor's Arden Court, photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company
Paul Taylor comes to New York every February or March it seems, directly after NYCB's winter season, and astonishes us with the quality of his company and strength of its repertory. That dance needs to succeed on the stage to realize its dramatic potential - that when it's successful theater it's more than just dance, is good to be reminded of. I'd completely forgotten this in fact during three performances of Peter Martins' Mirage the week before I saw Taylor; but from the very first minute of the very first piece, in the very first Taylor show I saw (Speaking in Tongues was the work - and it was the final weekend of Taylor's two weeks at City Center), I realized in an instant what had been missing. Beautifully lit, and costumed and decorated, by Jennifer Tipton and Santo Loquasto respectively, the work made me think and experience visually and intellectually; told me something about dance, myself, and American culture; and finally sent me out of the theater refreshed. Thank you once again Paul Taylor. At more than eighty years old, he is the acknowledged master of his craft.
Speaking in Tongues was made in 1988 and clearly shows Taylor's formal roots in Martha Graham's dramaturgy. But, as it evokes the south of Taylor's youth (and particularly the hypocrisy, sexual repression, and lust for power underneath the sunny exterior of the white, evangelical, southern church), it couldn't be further from the idealistic nationalism of Graham's Appalachian Spring. It runs for about an hour and, as in Appalachian Spring, there's a preacher - but here he's savagely repressed, dominating his congregation, and first abuses, then rejects a young girl whom the program calls an unwanted daughter, punishing her in fact for provoking his own uncontrolled desire. (In Appalachian Spring the preacher may originally I believe have been Merce Cunningham's role - and if I'm right about that, what Taylor may subversively mean in his characterization of that persona here is anybody's guess). The other leading characters are the preacher's wife; a dancer who plays the preacher in his youth and whom we see sexually abuse the unwanted daughter; the girl herself as both a young woman and a grown-up (like the preacher she's played by two dancers, one for each stage of her life); and the daughter's adult husband. There's also a party girl, an odd man out and some townsfolk or parishioners.
The action takes place in a barn-like hall with moveable chairs and biblical verses written on the walls like slogans from the Book of Daniel that run into each other in chalk. The music starts with a send up of the saccharine values of Christian rock as the congregation dances an optimistic 1960's dance in a round pattern, a modern analogue of the sort of Copeland folk tune that Graham utilized: healthy and happy boys and girls determined to be innocent. The atmosphere rapidly becomes pressurized, however, as a Richard Nixon-like voice in transistor radio static intrudes and we are transported to the anxiety laden world of the cold war. In a series of scenes the action then presents: the preacher's lust for and abuse of the unwanted girl; his wife's determined admiration for him and willful inability to see what is going on; the girl's initial attempts to experience joy (she had a chance before the incident) and then sad deterioration into a despair only arrested by an impossible effort of will; then her deeply wounded effort constructively to love her husband as an adult; and finally the complete inability of the community to resolve any of this because it can't even acknowledge that it has happened. Even grief remains below the surface at the conclusion when the music and dance once again resolve into cotton candy platitudes of Christian rock that have now acquired morally obscene overtones on account of what they conceal.
The score by Matthew Patton is glued together from the rock and roll pieces mentioned, as well as droning tectonics, bits of pure percussion and snatches of traditional melody, all interrupted by the transistor radio passages mentioned above. Taylor's choreography for its part is extraordinarily adept in how he pushes the action forward (on the analogy of ballet pas d'action) but at the same time characterizes the protagonists' emotions. In the leading roles Michael Trusnovec as the preacher; James Samson as his younger self; Laura Halzack as the preacher's wife; and especially the duo of Jamie Rae Walker as the young unwanted girl, and Annmaria Mazzini as the girl grown up and in torment, were brilliant. Taylor has an amazing company right now and the dancers are carefully schooled in his very individual expressive vocabulary.
As with his use of Christian rock here, Taylor is a master - when utilizing American pop music and social dance from this and bygone eras (which he frequently does to very strong effect) - at creating dances that are on the one hand compelling on their face and perfectly suited to the gist of their music, but at the same time undermine, parody and comment on their genres by introducing crucial measures of social and historical irony. A good example is Company B, where dances like "Rum and Coca Cola" are unforgettably expressive in their own right, but where the work as a whole stands the sentimental optimism of the Andrews Sisters music and the era it stands for on its head. Even in an outright vaudeville and parody like Also Playing - a send up of classical dance also performed at City Center last month - Taylor merely accomplishes in broad brush what he more pointedly does elsewhere. Dramatic irony is his medium and the very air he breathes.
The shows I saw on March 4 and 5 also included Taylor's acknowledged masterpieces Arden Court and Esplanade, as well as one of the New York season premieres, Three Dubious Memories. Consistent with what I've just said about Taylor's dramatic method, Arden uses a Baroque score by William Boyce to combine infectious dance appeal with updated historical comment. The palate of free dance sequences - exuberant diagonals of dancers impelled by the thrust of the music - perfectly expresses Boyce's sensibilities: we do really feel like we are in Arden forest on Midsummer's eve. The historic irony, however, this time positive, the arresting thing; and what leavens the work is how you can't help wondering what Boyce would have made of seeing such a proudly gay and powerfully beautiful succession of men, bare chested and in dappled leotards, erupting across the stage to his music. It's utterly compelling, aesthetically bold and contemporary, and transcends its type. The synergy between the highly contemporary and inventive realization and the traditional music drives the meaning of this classic - elements that are present but to a lesser degree in Esplanade, which uses some of the same music as Balanchine's Concerto Barocco.
The new work that followed, Three Dubious Memories, was a moody surrealist narrative that presented three competing versions of a love triangle (violent at times) from the point of view of each of the participants - a woman in red and two men (in blue and green), with the central event remembered from the self righteous point of view of each dancer in succession as the aggressor. Thus, in the first section, the man in blue took the girl away from the man in green (the couple were tenderly embracing until then); in the second the men's roles were reversed; while in the third the woman kicked both of their asses. (Taylor's humor is often unsubtle). Intermixed with these sequences were a series of entrances by a mysterious corps of eight dancers in grey who suggested shades of the dead but whom the program styled the Choristers and Choirmaster, or in other words a chorus and its leader as in Greek drama. Their status as shades was reinforced by the fact that their concluding dance was called a Threnody - which the woman in the seat next to me, after checking her blackberry, obligingly reported is an elegiac poem or ode for the dead.
Like Speaking in Tongues, the piece had a highly innovative contemporary score that largely contributed to its effect, a work called Five Enigmas by Peter Elyakim Taussig that evoked the surreal, dreamy, metaphysical world of memory. Like nearly everything else on the programs, its success as theater - returning to my original premise - underscored Taylor's current status as the supreme man of the stage in contemporary dance. As dramatist, director, institution founder, and pater familias of his company and dancers, he is without a peer in the dance world today. And as the still recent death of his near contemporary and competitor Merce Cunningham continues to remind us, get Taylor's theater while you can. We are incredibly lucky to have him and will not soon see his like again.
Paul Taylor Dance Company will perform in San Francisco at the Novellus Theater in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from March 30 to April 3, 2011 with a gala Dance with the Dancers event programmed for April 2, 2011. For more information check out: Dance with the Dancers