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Jack Anderson

Dreaming Along With Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor Dance Company
New York City Center, 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
February 28-March 16, 2008 (closed)
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, March 17, 2008

Whatever bright publicist thought of calling the Paul Taylor Dance Company's City Center engagement "The Dream Season" deserves a bonus. The phrase sounds good in advertisements. Yet it's more than fancy talk, more than hot air. Taylor's two premieres this season concerned dreams, and the season as a whole provoked thoughts about the kinship between Taylor's dances and dreams.

But were there really two premieres? Or did Taylor give us one long dance in two parts that resembled a dream dreamed one night that returned to flow onward in a somewhat altered form when the sleeper's head hit the pillow on the next night?

Both "De Sueños (of dreams)" and "De Sueños que se Repiten (of recurring dreams)" were set to bits from "Nuevo," a recording by the Kronos Quartet that combines brief pieces by Mexican composers with occasional street sounds. Both had fantastic sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto that seemed inspired by Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. The program note for both included quotations about dreams by Jung: for "Sueños," a frank admission of how inscrutable dreams can be; for "Repiten," a statement affirming that recurrent dreams do indeed give the impression of being significant.

Some of the same figures wander through both choreographic dreams, principally a handsome youth (Michael Trusnovec) in an antlered costume recalling that of the traditional Mexican Deer Dance, a glowing golden Goddess (Laura Halzack), and, most ominously and impressively, a stern stone-faced man wearing dark glasses and a bowler hat who surely represents Death (Richard Chen See).

Among other recurrent characters are a sneezing flower girl apparently allergic to her own blossoms, a capering transvestite, and assorted revelers and mourners. Several knife attacks erupt in "Sueños," and "Repiten" has a human sacrificial ritual with Death as executioner. It also has several light-hearted flirtations, as well as a bitterly comic scene in which when an obviously pregnant woman gives birth, her horrified male companion vainly tries to stuff the baby back inside her, then kicks it offstage.

Much of "Sueños" proceeds at a trancelike pace. "Repiten," in contrast, has several changes in tone, and some passages of feverish throbbing. Of these two paired dances, "Repiten" may well make the stronger theatrical impression. But what does either work mean? Both surely depict struggles between Life and Death, yet beyond, beneath, or above that obvious symbolic level, what is Taylor getting at here? I have seen these works danced separately, and I attended the season's sole performance when they were shown together; for me, the circumstances of their presentation in no way contributed to their lucidity, which remained minimal. Yet they continued to cast a spell. Taylor's choreographic dreams resist interpretation even as they invite it.

Real dreams can do that, as well, which is one reason why we find them haunting. So, too, many of Taylor's dances (both some of his strongest and some of his weakest) are enigmatically dreamlike.

Certain dreams, when we awake from them, we remember only as messes: images and incidents that now strike us as incoherent jumbles, which may possibly disquiet us temporarily, but which we soon forget. A few Taylor dances are like that. A lot goes on in them, strange things at times, but they never seem to amount to much and, instead of pondering them, it is easy to put them out of mind. For me, two works in the current repertory were dances of this kind.

I have never known what to make of "Le Grand Puppetier," to a pianola version of Stravinsky's "Petrushka," in which the insistent piano rhythms force us to recall that Fokine's original ballet to this score concerned puppets and surely also prompted Taylor to fill his own work with puppetlike gestures. But the intrigues in Taylor's new story about a stern Emperor (again, an imposing Richard Chen See) and the intrigues in his court remain vague to me, although they presumably have something to do with the arbitrariness of power. So, too, beginning with the title's strange punctuation, I have no idea what "…Byzantium" is about, even though it immediately attracts attention with the way deliberately awkward lurching dancers who seem not quite human beings from some long-ago past or distant future are contrasted with arrogant personages (rulers or deities, surely) in gleaming robes. Nor can I fathom "Fiends Angelical," with its frantic dances presided over by some sort of priestess.

But just as certain dreams, though resolutely enigmatic, stick in our memory because of their imagery, so some of Taylor's dances, equally resistant to literal explication, are so vivid as to seize us emotionally, although we cannot say why. The rival creatures (insects, perhaps?) in "Counterswarm" command attention for the very reason that it is impossible to explain anything they do, and yet they remain intent on doing it, perhaps because of genetic or evolutionary programming. More impressive in choreographic terms, the fallings and risings in "Promethean Fire" have been interpreted as a response to the catastrophe of 9/11, but no explicit historical references are made, and these actions could be viewed as a response to any disaster. Thus lines of dancers threading their way forward while holding hands may suggest a venturing through ruins, while the lifting of a dancer may be not just an act of partnering, but an act of rescue.

Even more non-representational are the events in "Musical Offering," in which dancers resembling wooden or pottery statues come to life to the contrapuntally complex score by Bach that gives the piece its title. Often facing front with legs spread wide and with arms raised to shoulder height or held above the head with hands crossed at the wrists, they teeter through constantly restricted movements with such a great sense of constraint that the action eventually appears ready to suffocate us. Yet there is tremendous latent power in these steps. Taylor subtitles the piece "A Requiem," and it is certainly ceremonial, without revealing what its rites memorialize. But there is no doubt that they are compelling as well as solemn.

Other dances are memorable for the way they, like dreams, abound with images in constant metamorphosis between joy and inexplicable states of anxiety. "Esplanade," a celebrated work of this sort, begins and ends with people crossing a public plaza with virtuoso ease and dancelike exhilaration, yet without performing any conventional dance steps. Suddenly, amidst this tribute to sociability comes a strange scene for a pensive woman (Halzack) tentatively trying to establish contact with the people around her who, in turn, seem confused by her; significantly, she never returns for the finale's happy ending. An equally striking dreamlike character reversal occurs in "Cloven Kingdom," in which, without warning, well-dressed, affluent-looking men and women become nightmarishly ravening beasts, then return to their decorum, only to become savage again. You could easily wonder if Taylor is commenting here on the behavior of corporate boards, perhaps even the boards of some dance companies.

Then, blessedly, there are Taylor's great happy dances resembling those ecstatic dreams of flying in which we know not why we fly, yet on waking we know we have flown in bliss. Take "Arden Court," a choreographic Forest of Arden in which men leap with lyricism as well as with strength and women often cling to men's sides and climb men's bodies as if ascending trees. And, of course, there is the ever radiant "Aureole," in which bodies seemingly rooted to earth take to the air with abandon.

Taylor has an unruly imagination, and it is impossible to predict what may pour from it next, which is one reason why he is so choreographically dreamlike and amazing. The weakest of his dreams may be blurs on stage, but the strongest haunt us like visions.

So dream on, Paul Taylor.

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