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Jack Anderson

Paul Taylor: Smiles and Sighs


Paul Taylor Dance Company
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
March 2-18, 2007, $125, $85, $70, $55, $35, $15
Tickets: (212) 581-1212 or www@nycitycenter.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, March 16, 2007

The Paul Taylor Dance Company opened its season with a triple-bill all smiles and sighs, smiles prompted by "Company B," sighs by "Roses" and the new "Lines of Loss." Yet, despite the smiles, the choice of programming tinged the entire evening with melancholy.

Scene in ''Lines of Loss''. Photo by Lisa Michael.

Much of "Lines of Loss," to music spanning several centuries by Guillaume de Machaut, Christopher Tye, Jack Body, John Cage, Arvo Pärt, and Alfred Schnittke, resembled a ritual. But this ritual kept breaking out of ceremony into unruly emotional territories. Its dancers entered solemnly in simple white costumes by Santo Loquasto, who also designed the evocative set in which wavy lines suggested ripples of water at a beach on a chilly gray day.

As people knelt around her, Lisa Viola made backbends symbols of lamentation. Robert Kleinendorst, standing at the center of a circle, gestured forcefully. But, conceivably, this solo may have signified more than deep grief: Kleinendorst also portrays the second dictatorial figure in "Banquet of Vultures," Taylor's major work from last season, and in both the elegiac "Lines" and the grim "Banquet" he stamped fiercely. Yet, unlike "Banquet," in "Lines" he was finally overcome by other men. Michael Trusnovec, the first dictator in "Banquet," had a solo in "Lines" in which he looked feeble and bewildered while floundering as if lost. It's hard to tell if Taylor wished us to connect these men and these works, and each work can be admired entirely on its own. Nevertheless, "Lines" had images suggesting fallen power.

The ritual of "Lines" continued to give way to overt dramatic action. Two men in a group turned belligerent. Annmaria Mazzini emerged from another group, flinging her arms while dancers sought to comfort her. Viola and Trusnovec tried to embrace, yet kept drawing away until they wandered off. "Lines of Loss" ended as red-robed dancers entered and sank to the ground. This ritual never really brought solace.

"Roses" inspired sighs of another sort: sighs of joy at the sight of, first, five couples, and then a sixth gliding smoothly in lusciously curving choreography to music of Wagner and Heinrich Baermann. The people Taylor presents here have respect for one another, and there is a sense of equality about them: for instance, when couples are placed side by side, one person in each pair is standing while a partner is on the floor, yet the standing figure in one couple may be a man while the next standing person is a woman. When they touch, it's with such tenderness that the sighs the piece elicits are not only for its beauty, but also for the way the choreography suggests how fragile human beings can be. Repeated watching of "Roses" has led me to realize that many of its steps resemble tumbling movements. Yet they are performed with such lyrical ease that they never hint at acrobatic trickery.

Despite its joys, "Roses" is suffused with a faint sadness. So, too, the perky "Company B," to Andrews Sisters recordings, has its own melancholy subtexts. While people downstage cavort with almost strenuous merriment, men in shadowy light at the back of the stage occasionally plod along, then appear to struggle and fall in battle; in one scene, two men shyly approach as if daring to express clandestine gay affection, and in the otherwise bright finale, women downstage pose pensively, as if worried about their husbands or boy friends on the battlefield. During war, Taylor implies, the home front inflicts its own wounds.

Dance after dance by Taylor is rich in ambiguity. Just what, for instance, can be made of "Polaris," a major revival this season? Both sections of the two-part work for three woman and two men are choreographically identical, and both are danced within and around a large white cube designed by Alex Katz. But they have different casts, different scores by Donald York, and different lighting designs by Jennifer Tipton. The first episode is musically lyrical and its lighting and choreography tend to be even-toned; the second features intense contrasts in music and lighting, and the dancers seem more tense. Audiences do see the same actions twice, but they see them in different ways in altered contexts. Taylor thereby reminds us that, just as changes in vocal tone and volume may make the same sentence assume different meanings whenever it is uttered, so emphasis and nuance do much to determine choreographic significance.

In "Profiles," another revival, four people move stiffly in profile and with deliberate awkwardness to music by Jan Radzynski, their poses occasionally recalling Nijinsky's Faune or some of the drawings of Keith Haring. Although tension remains constant, there are no dangerous violent eruptions, which suggests there may be times when tension is a sign of order maintained, rather than a portent of imminent disruption.

Taylor doesn't always pose knotty interpretative problems. Part of his choreographic personality delights in silliness for its own sake. At least three works this season were unabashedly silly, two of them revivals set to tuneful bits of classical music, including some pieces generations of piano students have practiced. The humor in "Piece Period" derives from the incongruities between the sense of decorum the dancers attempt to preserve and the ridiculous steps they have to perform. "Book of Beasts" is less sharply pointed choreographically and much of its theatrical effectiveness depends on John Rawlings's fantastic costumes for a multitude of mythic creatures, including the Deity (an imperious Orion Duckstein). Yet it was fun to watch Kleinendorst as a Demon with tantrums and Trusnovec as a swooping Phoenix, and there was a bit of social commentary on class warfare in an episode in which some dancers portray dog walkers while others are their not entirely servile pets.

"Troilus and Cressida." Photo by Lisa Michael.

Since "Troilus and Cressida" is one of Shakespeare's most cynical plays, one might suspect that Taylor's new "Troilus and Cressida (reduced)" would be a cynical, possibly grimace-provoking, comic dance. It turned out to be a frothy choreographic operetta, very much "reduced," both in length (the accompaniment is Ponchielli's ten-minute "Dance of the Hours") and in cast of characters. Instead of the Shakespearean array of people (many of them disreputable) one might expect, there were only eight and, though foolish, they were essentially harmless.

Viola's Cressida seemed just a giddy young thing. Kleinendorst's Troilus was a dim-witted but amiable bumbler whose pants kept falling down. In a Baroque-looking setting by Santo Loquasto, complete with statues of posturing gods, an enormous seashell, and fleecy clouds, they encountered three meddling Cupids and three drunken Greeks who carried off Cressida. But when Troilus pursued the invaders, he and Cressida soon returned reunited, a happy ending that celebrated the triumph of silliness.

Perhaps Taylor has buried serious meanings here. But before I determine if repeated viewings will uncover them, I remain happy just to sit and giggle.

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