Glitter and Be…Paul Taylor

Dance Review: Paul Taylor Dance Company @ City Center

Paul Taylor opened his latest season Thursday night at City Center, a snappy sampler of two dances from the early eighties and one from last year. It was my first encounter with Taylor’s oeuvre, save a few photographs from a book I flipped through one evening at The Strand. I have largely mixed feelings about the work. A few promising moments stood out near the end of the program, when Taylor’s unadorned gift for movement and composition stood out strongest, but this, only after two works that failed on most accounts to be either meaningful or genuine.

“…Byzantium” (1984), a gold laden triptych from the age of modern primitivism, crept along, while the ghost of Martha Graham seemed to loom over the stage. Expressionist gestures alternated with quick modern steps. And although Taylor does break from Graham’s sculptural, mimetic postures here and there, the bulk of the movement concept, danced to three austere scores by Varese, keeps to a cold, flat perspective that while, on one hand, may reference the visual flatness of Byzantine artwork, may also have a lot to do with the spacial collapse inherent in Graham-style portrait dance.

The opening section is performed entirely in the foreground in front of a short wall marked with a grid of squares. James Samson, topless and in gold hot pants, opens the dance in a crouched pose. He is soon joined by others, some men in similar dress, some in just plain-looking sweat apparel, a girl in a red dress who pushes her hands between her thighs like she’s in heat. Varese’s “Integrales” is one of his more jazzy scores, and it lent the movement an almost showy quality.

The dance is immediately cryptic, yet you do get the sense that it may have substance, notwithstanding a pair of forcedly “naughty” orgies. Before the end, James Samson stiffly carries out a golden flag mounted to a cruciform, which echos a pose struck by another dancer earlier on.

The second movement was my favorite, if also a bit of a camp. A quartet of dancers in gaudy robes and glittery, golden sparkling caps appeared like the ancient, mystic decedents of The Coneheads (a sketch that actually predates this dance). They held hands, and solemnly stepped through threading movements, Grecian urn-style. The visual orientation was vertical; the entire dance took place on the center axis, backed by a square panel decorated with a mosaic of gold squares.

Finally, it all comes together when Taylor opens up the entire stage. David Gropman’s enormous backdrop recapitulates the grid of squares from the earlier set pieces. The entire ensemble joins the mysterious quartet, dancing around them. Now all the men are in hot pants. The women all wear gold outfits to match the men.

The action here is deeply hermetic, but at the same time, terribly unmeaningful. It seems like all the telltale signs of organizational (or choreographic) genius are there–like when Samson comes out again and instead of carrying a cruciform stick with the gold flag attached to it, he carries woman who is wearing the gold flag, arms out to her sides like she’s on the cross, and you realize that the “Cone Heads” were also wearing those flags–but the overall result feels somehow empty.

The following and newest piece, “De Suenos” (2007) embodies this emptiness more emphatically than anything else on the program. Meant to be a dreamy, Jungian foray into subconscious associations of imagery, the cast of characters Taylor summons are firmly grounded in stock and standard cliches of the dream world.

A stranger (Richard Chen See) in a bowler hat, black sunglasses and white face, potentially sinister and benevolent, presides over the events with a pink skull in-hand. Others include pastoral Latinas, a bulky drag queen with linebacker shoulders (Robert Kleinendorts), a golden half-man/half-buck (Michael Trusnovec), and the amazing Laura Halzack as a golden “Virgin of Guadalupe.”

And while these images may come from largely Spanish or Latin American origins–even the music was a selection from various Latino composers–the composition Taylor uses to design the movement through a series of vignettes is the exact same method of variation he uses to compose his other dances.

For instance, there is nothing significant about when the drag-queen suddenly reappears in the background in a line of Spanish country girls who are processing on their knees, because that drag queen, in any other piece, is simply a body unit that, for the sake of compositional variation, must appear in ever more variated contexts. So what you get in “De Suenos” does not have the substance of a dance that is sincerely dedicated to evoking states of dream through theater. Instead, it is merely one more skeleton over which Taylor can apply his talent for choreographic variation.

A talent that is supremely evident in the strongest work of the evening, “Arden Court” (1981), set to convincing excerpts of the symphonic repertory of little-known British composer, William Boyce.

Here, visual simplicity is the key to uncovering the complexity of Taylor at his best. The dance style is more balletic, more strictly movement-based with little to no drama except for the abstract narrative that unfolds through the logic of Taylor’s compositional development. There is a lot of air in this dance, upright postures, light steps, whisking sashes, and the ensemble finally gelled (there were some sloppy passages in the first two numbers).

The work is lovely, and the choreographic variations are interesting and often witty. But you get the sense that the wit, that the smartness of this work, is held back by a certain demure inhibition; a limitation that another choreographer, Mark Morris, seems able to transcend in his work, which shares compositional tactics similar to Taylor’s. The thought occurred to me that is must have been hard for Taylor to see a younger choreographer come along and do what he did so much better, with a more contemporary slant, and with more substantial outcomes. I wouldn’t think of Morris as an heir to Taylor, but rather an outsider who came in and surpassed the resident hero, expunging the unnecessary (campy dramatic narratives, literal gestures, overwrought concepts) and getting to a more crystalized sense of formalism that is free to address dance on its own terms. It isn’t that Taylor can’t do this. It’s that, from the little I’ve seen, he seems often not to.

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2 Comments

  1. right on! this “best living choreographer” mantle is such bullshit. hello, merce cunningham, trisha brown? and mark morris, whose work doesn’t always thrill me, could out-choreograph PT in his sleep.

    what’s this about graham’s spatial collapse, though? not sure i follow, or agree, on that front …

  2. Hey CC Fan-

    Thanks for the feedback. Maybe “spatial collapse” wasn’t the most accurate phrase I could have used. What I meant to say was that the stylization of Graham’s work is like, air tight, vacuum sealed. It doesn’t allow for aesthetic permeability. In that sense, it collapses aesthetic space, not necessarily the three-dimensional space on-stage.

    xoxoC.C.


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