Arts Review

Uptown Moves

The world has changed since Paul Taylor started his dance company in 1954. In the beginning he was considered a rebel, but in a different way from Merce Cunningham, with whom he danced for a couple of years after a period with Martha Graham. Cunningham rejected Graham’s aesthetic wholesale and established a set of new ideas about what a dance could be. Taylor spent his first few independent years making outrageous gestures. But after that he worked within the framework of modern dance, creating theatrical dances with expressive meaning to recognizable music, and eventually attaining a comfortable niche in the modern dance mainstream. Unlike Cunningham he couldn’t be dismissed as belonging to some other category, though there was always a tinge of subversion in his work. Nearly 60 years later, his repertory has accumulated to scores of memorable pieces. With all the modern dance pioneers gone, he’s inherited the title of Old Master, and with it, the scorn of some hip young critics.

In mounting a three-week spring season of repertory at the David H. Koch Theater, Taylor was installing the company in prime cultural real estate. For many years he’d anchored the company’s touring calendar with a spring season at New York City Center, and I wondered why he made the move. There’s a subtle uptick in prestige in the public’s mind, I guess, between these two dance houses ten blocks apart, and then, the Koch has symbolic value, aside from its Lincoln Center address. Built in 1964 as the New York State Theater, it was George Balanchine’s house, and of course it’s still the domain of the New York City Ballet. The Martha Graham Dance Company has appeared there and possibly other modern dance groups, but none, I think, has tried three full weeks with a repertory of 22 dances. Mark Morris is the only modern dancer whose work makes regular Lincoln Center appearances. It seems bizarre to think Paul Taylor would be engaging in some kind of popularity contest at this stage of his distinguished career. Maybe one of his mischievous alter egos convinced him to take the step. Maybe he had nothing to do with the switch, and it was solely a front-office calculation.

City Center is much more intimate and less pretentious than the Koch. Officially, City Center has 200 more seats, but it compresses its seating capacity upward into several vertiginous tiers, allowing for a small orchestra floor that brings the audience close to the stage. In both theaters, balconies can be closed off when the anticipated audience might not fill them. I have no idea how many seats were withheld from sale in either theater, or if the ticket prices were comparable. Perhaps the Koch management offered Taylor some advantage in order to keep the theater from going dark during a season usually reserved for the departed New York City Opera. In other words, we really don’t know how financially risky the change of venue was for Taylor. All five performances I saw during the last week seemed very well attended.

The only reason to speculate about all this is that the Koch Theater seems out of scale for Taylor’s repertory. The stage is bigger than City Center’s and the audience feels much farther away from the dancers. Some of the repertory, the big company pieces of recent years, looked fine at the Koch. Some of the smaller ones, especially those of older, snarkier vintage, seemed unmoored, adrift in that big space and reticent about their satiric intentions. Overall, without changing very much, the company looked a little bit less grounded, less personal. The Taylor company comprises a modest seventeen dancers, but Taylor has always worked as if he were leading a big repertory ensemble. He makes two or three dances a season, balancing serious pieces with light ones. They sometimes look as if he cranked them out to satisfy the need for novelty, but he can still produce eye openers. His dances share many of the same themes, choreographic patterns, archetypal characters. This doesn’t mean Taylor is repeating himself, but that, like Balanchine, he’s a classicist. Formats and structure interest him, and figuring out ways to twist his language into new designs and apply it to new meanings.

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The best of the three new dances of the season, The Uncommitted, contains nothing we haven’t seen Taylor do before. But I was fascinated by the way he reframed familiar devices. Set to four somber pieces by Arvo Pärt, the dance begins with an extended sleight of hand. Taylor is a devotee of American popular culture—parades, penny arcades, magic. He’s often used the trick of switching characters in plain sight. Runes (1975) began with a dancer lying on the floor and others hovering near, making cryptic gestures over the body. At some point, the group moves past the body, and while your attention is on the mass in motion, the switch is made. Another dancer is on the floor when the space clears. The same thing happens ten times in The Uncommitted. Each time, a group of people approaches a solitary person in a different way. There’s a confrontation, a quick accommodation, a sideswipe, and then the group moves off, leaving a different loner behind. Each incident has its own implications; we’re not given enough time to ponder them. After the group exits, each person left alone dances a brief, expressive solo.

This introduction is followed by encounters of different temperaments, all demonstrating how relationships don’t last. The Uncommitted can seem schematic. Nothing holds it together except the idea that ephemerality takes many forms. Taylor has made other dances in which the only point is to show the different ways you can rig the same structure or express the same idea. Roses (1985) was no more than a string of duets. In fact, Taylor listed the twelve-member cast for it in hyphenated pairs. By inserting choral sections that reinforce this basic theme-and-variations scheme, he’s made some of his most popular works, including the faux-tango Piazzolla Caldera (1997) and Company B (1991) to the Andrews Sisters’ songs. Appearing deceptively simplistic, he loves jogging a predictable progression off center. The Piazzolla features male couples as well as heterosexual ones. In Company B, a panorama of war scenes rolls across the background, telegraphing irony into the peppy pop songs being danced downstage.

With a looser structure in House of Cards (1981), Taylor suggests an era of excess and depletion, maybe in the past, maybe the present. Nine dancers party to the saxophone jazz tunes of Darius Milhaud’s Création du monde. As period-identified a score as the songs of the Andrews Sisters, it was written for an avant-garde ballet in the 1920s and represented the composer’s quest for modern rhythms in Harlem and South America. A woman dressed in a long, shapeless silvery garment and what might be a turban seems to rule the actions of the others. Without doing much more than standing still, she periodically allows herself to be lifted above them, sometimes to form an archway through which they tumble one by one. As a large painted panel to one side of the stage (by Mimi Gross) very slowly scrolls upward, you recognize pieces of furniture, an old wooden radio set. Finally the backdrop reveals a sort of silvery-drapery Christmas tree, and then, within it, a faceted shape that might be the top of the Chrysler Building (circa 1930).

The silver goddess here is one of many Taylor mother-master figures, often choreographed on Bettie de Jong, who’s now ballet mistress of the company. In House of Cards she could be cousin to de Jong’s Statue of Liberty in From Sea to Shining Sea, a withering 1965 satire on American icons. In House of Cards, played by Heather McGinley, she presides impassively over revels and collapse. Taylor seems to be referring to the feverish optimism of the Roaring Twenties and its doomed aftermath. And perhaps to the material American Dream that still lures immigrants to our shores.

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Taylor’s less tightly structured pieces withhold immediate gratification. Obliquely, he plants provocative references and images, veers off the course you thought he was taking. The dance can hold up without this interpreting even if you see nothing more in it than odd movement. His purely musical essays can contain disturbing undercurrents. You’re not encouraged to dwell on the kinks stitched into the compositional perfection of Aureole (1962), Cloven Kingdom (1976), and the under-appreciated Brandenburgs (1988), all of which were given delightful performances. But sometimes kinkiness is irresistible. Last season’s revivals of Junction (1961) and 3 Epitaphs (1956) showed a kind of primal Taylor, rooting around for possible sources and configurations. He’s beginning to develop a movement vocabulary and ways of bringing people together in choreographed units. His sense of the absurd hasn’t yet moderated into comedy or sympathetic expression.

I was a little taken aback by Junction at first. It seemed slightly expanded in personnel but diminished, its minimal movements and stillnesses decaying as they dinged off into the Koch stage’s far corners. Though it’s performed rarely, I know the dance very well by now from a priceless film made in 1965 by Rudy Burckhardt. Shot in somebody’s loft, the film compresses the dance tightly in both actual and cinematic space. Seeing it spread out had a strange effect. So did the technical ease of the cast, in contrast to the solid and impassive quality of the ’60s dancers. In some ways, because the Taylor dancers now can do it like any other dance in the repertory, they make Junction even more mysterious. What are these people doing squatting on each other’s backs, solemnly walking single file and pivoting into new directions with no apparent design, jumping with a contracted torso and flapping forearms, transferring a bundled-up woman from the arms of one man to another? And what might all of this have to do with the assorted Bach suites for unaccompanied cello that are playing?

In fact, all of Junction is choreographed to the music, even though it contradicts the music stylistically. Never one to take music literally, Taylor has junked the Baroque assurance and fluency of the Bach, but he keeps most of its metric underpinning until he gets to the end, when the dancers crawl and roll, sinking and rising, linking arms and cushioning each other’s falls, as they progress in a freeform chain across the stage. In steppier solo and duet sections, the dancers jump and gesture to the musical beat, sometimes even separating it into counterpoint phrases. They illustrate Bach’s decorative runs and roulades with whipping, circular arms. There are long pauses and times when the music and dance tempi are in direct opposition.

Junction now bears a program note: “of tranquility and fervor.” This apparently is a reduction of a note Taylor appended for the dance’s second year of performances: “Pedestrians cross at the intersection of Tranquil Street and Turmoil Boulevard.” Here, at the outset, is the working theme of contradiction, which has continued to serve Taylor’s creative process for his entire career. Put together two clashing things and let them battle it out in movement terms. One of the forces may achieve total victory, as in the danse macabre Big Bertha (1970). Or the tension may resolve in an exhausted reconciliation—the lifesaving human chain at the end of Junction, the horrific pileup of desperate bodies in Last Look (1985) or the communal death in Speaking in Tongues (1988).

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3 Epitaphs instituted another of Taylor’s great choreographic tactics: displacing ordinary human behavior and behaviorisms onto creatures from alien species. The five figures who shuffle in and out wear flat-black body suits with hoods that completely cover their heads. Mirrors are embedded in their gloved palms and fastened to their hoods. Hunched over, with chins stuck out and arms dangling, they seem to follow cues they can’t see, like the odor of the person they’re following or the warmth of a shaft of light. The music, archival New Orleans street-band funeral stomps and laments played by amateurs, heaves itself along the same way the dancers do.

At first we don’t know what to make of these apparitions, but they quickly effect a series of one-liners. The last in a row of three fails to heed the sudden halt of its companions and bumps into the one in front. Two figures seem to hold a conversation by twirling their forearms in opposite directions. The smaller of the two figures changes its mind and scuffs off with another group. The biggest of the figures adjusts itself to the best advantage in a spotlight, then slogs away. These grotesques may look marginally human, but Taylor treats them with great sympathy. They could be related to the perennial, well-meaning, hard-working but often hapless performing types who inhabit From Sea to Shining Sea, Public Domain (1968), Book of Beasts (1971), or The Rite of Spring (1980). They could prefigure the zany acrobat-cavaliers in Cloven Kingdom or Arden Court (1981). In all of these pieces the jokes are gentle, the situations implausible, the creatures could be us.

Taylor’s new Gossamer Gallants revisits a colony of these translated civilians. He’s made bug ballets before, and this is no less amusing or more consequential than the others. I often think Taylor favors the gymnastic and histrionic talents of his male dancers and showcases forceful women only if they’re menacing or outright bad, like the commanding, untouchable idols of House of Cards and Big Bertha. Lately, he’s brought out the comic abilities of the company women. I’m thinking especially of the transformation of dancerly Lisa Viola, who created the goofy heroine in Troilus and Cressida (reduced) (2006). In Gallants, an army of demure but predatory lady bugs pursues and eventually vanquishes an overconfident bunch of jocks with dragonflies’ wings. The lady bugs know how to entice with coy postures and affected withdrawals, but when they go on the attack, they leap and assail the cowering males, chasing them to presumably well-prepared love nests.

Big Bertha is a far more imposing and dangerous female. A mechanical doll who presides over a nineteenth-century band machine, she entices then corrupts a clean-cut American family. Big Bertha is the most misogynistic of all Taylor’s dances. Last spring it seemed toned down a few notches, a little less harsh. The father gradually morphs from farm boy to lecher to monster in Michael Trusnovec’s devastating portrayal. But Mrs. B (Michelle Fleet) and Miss B (Eran Brugge) transformed on a dime into, respectively, exhibitionist and victim. Amy Young as Big Bertha flicked them off as mere crimps in her plan of capturing Mr. B for a spouse.

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Big Bertha is one of the few Taylor dances that depend on a conventional story line and characters. More often, he lets the music lay out a throughline, or gives us archetypal characters in contention with others, like the Man of the Cloth and his various Followers in Speaking in Tongues. I think character study was the template for Taylor’s new House of Joy, where the 12 dancers are designated Procurers, Clients, and Shady Ladies. The piece doesn’t hint at what, beyond the obvious, might hold these types together, and they remain two-dimensional. The dancers looked uncomfortable trying to make them credible, and Taylor hadn’t provided any dancing to nudge the types out of the realm of caricature.

Another collection of character types inhabits the 2008 Beloved Renegade, which I either hadn’t seen before or had dismissed because of its confusing, overdetermined musical and literary accoutrements. Seeing it at the Koch, I was moved by it in spite of its well-worn Man’s Journey Through Life theme. Taylor based the dance on not one but two texts, conflicting in the extreme: Francis Poulenc’s Gloria and excerpts from Walt Whitman’s poetry. Moving serenely between the composer’s urbane devotions and the poet’s earthy nonconformism, the dance might be just as affecting without the words and music. Michael Trusnovec is the traveler who embraces life, remembers, suffers, reflects on youth and friendship, and finally takes his leave. He’s guided through this by a benevolent angel (Laura Halzack), who first leaps with him in exclamations of praise and then gently prepares him for death. Although he belongs to the community, he bonds ever more closely with the angel in images of mirrored movement and mutual support. The cycle unfolds against scenes of formal affirmation danced by a community of thirteen.

Beloved Renegade could be Taylor’s meditation on his own role as the aging leader of his company, or on any poet-mystic’s way of communing with the ordinary world. But I’m also struck by the images of compassion and reconciliation that stem from a benign alpha woman, a personage appearing in Taylor’s work for almost the first time. Halzack’s angel of death is a figure of infinite kindness who poses no sexual threat. In merging his identity with hers, Trusnovec’s hero seems to embrace the noble aspects of himself. Taylor attributed a similar female alter ego to the conflicted Man of the Cloth in Speaking in Tongues.

Among the many precedents for Beloved Renegade, Doris Humphrey’s elegiac Day on Earth (1947) comes to mind. But there’s also a possible analogy to the dance-dramas of Martha Graham as she passed middle age and could no longer match the young dancers of her company. Re-interpreting several Greek tragedies, Graham allowed herself to remain center stage as a flawed, doomed heroine who in memory watched the others dance the events of her life. Take away the blood and thunder, the Greek pomposities, and you have this commanding figure who belongs to the community but stands outside of it and has to sacrifice herself for it. As a member of the Graham company during those turbulent years, Paul Taylor appeared in a 1958 film of Night Journey as Tiresias, the prophet who tries to prevent the tragedy of Oedipus and Jocasta and who ultimately slashes open the secret of their incestuous relationship and secures their fate.

I thought of Halzack’s angel of death in Beloved Renegade as Taylor’s coming to terms at last with his revered mentor and antagonist, Graham, the prototype for so many domineering females in his dances. Here it seemed Taylor forgave Graham, and through Halzack’s majestic preceptor, he was able to look at his own work without irony and without regret.