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Jack Anderson

Paul Taylor's Many Worlds

Paul Taylor Dance Company Season
February 28-March 19, 2006
Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., $80, $70, $55, $15
City Center, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets: (212) 581-1212
Reviewed by Jack Anderson March 18, 2006

Paul Taylor's dances are often seductive. But just as theatergoers are ready to succumb to them, Taylor can provide a choreographic sock to the jaw. His works both caressed and attacked viewers' sensibilities in a City Center season notable for its generous repertory. Two premieres demonstrated how Taylor can create distinct choreographic worlds, some of them contradictory.

"Spring Rounds," to Richard Strauss's lush "Divertimento, Op. 86 (after Couperin)," was gorgeous. Santo Loquasto's light green costumes perfectly matched Taylor's vernal choreography, which made human bodies delicate treasures. Lisa Viola and Sean Mahoney touched each other with the utmost care, and wheeling ensembles evoked the pleasures of life.

Taylor is known for productions of this sort. It's no wonder he is such a popular choreographer. But he also provided glimpses into other worlds, including the horrific one of "Banquet of Vultures," the second premiere, set to the oboe wailings and instrumental rumblings of Morton Feldman's "Oboe and Orchestra." A tyrannical figure, portrayed with icy intensity by Michael Trusnovec, dominated floundering masses of people who proceeded to attack and slaughter one another. A woman with a candle (Julie Tice) tried to defy the dictator, but to no great avail, for although he eventually disappeared he was replaced by yet another domineering tyrant (Robert Kleinendorst). As the John Davidson poem quoted in the program declared, "war breeds war again."

It's easy to compare "Banquet of Vultures" with another celebrated anti-war ballet, Kurt Jooss's "Green Table." If Taylor never quite equaled Jooss's eloquence, that may be because, even though Jooss's characters are archetypes, they are still individualized enough to be recognizable people. Taylor's victims are anonymous masses: even their faces are obscured by coverings. Yet one fascinating thing about "Banquet" is the way sequences of off-balance staggers made both tyrants appear to be battling private demons. Taylor may be pointing out that even seemingly implacable dictators may endure emotional storms. "Banquet of Vultures" is truly a dark work. It may even be too dark in a literal sense for, like surprisingly many lighting designers these days, the usually inventive Jennifer Tipton appeared to be obsessed with on-stage murk.

Whereas the premieres concern extremes of communal organization and behavior, communities in some of Taylor's most fascinating creations are neither totally admirable nor absolutely despicable. In "Spindrift," a young man (Trusnovec) appears to be washed ashore into a community whose members regard him ambiguously, sometimes stepping over him, sometimes facing him with hostility, yet near the end seeming to accept him. But is this odd community worth joining? In any case, whatever its values and the protagonist's wishes may be, he is ultimately left alone. The music derives from Handel, whose scores Taylor has used in several choreographically harmonious works. But this Handel has been recomposed by Schoenberg and studded with sudden dissonances.

The community in "Dust" has its own peculiarities. Its inhabitants crouch, hop, hobble, and throb. Some fumble as if blind. One woman's hand looks paralyzed. This appears to be a society of the maimed. But its people stay lively and just keep dancing. All flesh may be dust and will return to dust. But before that happens, Taylor implies, people can kick up a ruckus.

Although the societies in "Spindrift" and "Dust" are presumably symbolic, other dances examine our own American society. Familiar images are tarnished in "From Sea to Shining Sea." Thus Mighty Mouse is a murderer, the Statue of Liberty moves wearily, and when people in Ku Klux Klan robes enter, one is the same dancer cast as Lady Liberty. I remember such imagery shocking people at the work’s premiere in 1965. But American symbols have been so battered since then that I can’t imagine such uproars today.

But "Oh, You Kid!," of 1999, might still disconcert, in part because it initially seems an innocuous tribute to the ragtime era in which dancers parade, waltz, and romp in evocations of parties, picnics, vaudeville shows, and silent films. Then comes a frolic for people once again in Klan robes. The contrast between their apparently innocent cavorting and what we know of Klan violence proves startling. It's also historically accurate, for early in the 20th century the Klan was considered a perfectly respectable civic organization in some communities. Taylor reminds us that Klansmen can be solid citizens who like having fun. There is evil in the ordinary things of this world.

There also is good. The goodness of the ordinary is spectacularly affirmed in
“Esplanade,” a tribute to urban living in which such pedestrian activities as walking and skipping, as well as running, jumping, and standing still are glorified to extraordinary degrees. True, there is a melancholy sequence when a tall woman (Heather Berest in the current cast) never quite manages to fit in with other people. But no tragedy results. “Esplanade” looked especially ebullient on March 9 when Lisa Viola hopped through one of the solo roles with the utmost glee and the ensemble skidded and hurtled about with devil-may-care abandon. These people obviously knew how to move. Indeed, they gave the impression of knowing how to live.

But "Esplanade" shared March 9 with "Speaking in Tongues." I have never fathomed all its complex plot details, but this bleak piece obviously depicts an intolerant and religiously fanatic community with no room for love, mercy, or joy. So here, in "Esplanade" and "Speaking in Tongues," were two worlds linked by one intermission. And Taylor made us ask ourselves, in which world do we live now?

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