Saturday, November 9, 2013

Flying high with Paul Taylor

Francisco Graciano in Perpetual Dawn

We haven't seen the Paul Taylor Dance Company in these parts for some time, so their recent appearance at Celebrity Series last weekend was more than merely welcome; it counted as a treat.  It was likewise exciting to see that Mr. Taylor, one of the few surviving members of the "second wave" of American choreographers who came of age in the 50's and 60's, is still going strong at 83 years young; indeed, as if to emphasize that he's still a vital force, the program included a brand-new work, Perpetual Dawn, as well as an audience favorite, Black Tuesday (2001) and a curiosity from over a generation ago (and seeming eons in cultural mood), 1969's Private Domain.

Such a grand temporal span inevitably puts a critic in the mood to survey, perhaps even sum up, an artist's oeuvre. Mr. Taylor, however, is somewhat slippery artistically; it's hard to put your finger precisely on his choreographic signature - even if, oddly enough, much of his movement vocabulary is by now familiar.  And perhaps, I sometimes feel, he likes it that way; once a bad boy, then a survivor, now an elder statesman, Taylor has alternately bucked and/or aligned himself with a variety of artistic stances over the decades.  He began with Martha Graham, and now clearly has been watching Mark Morris - there's an artistic chasm between those two, into which a dozen choreographic trends have vanished. So inevitably what comes through in a program like this one is not so much a grand vision as an individual stance, an attitude. Sexy, smart, skeptical, with a gay, gimlet eye (I think he claims to be bi, so whatever), Taylor has adapted to fashion and the passage of time, but always in his own way.

What he has always been, of course, is virtuosic - and he has always demanded virtuosity in his dancers, particularly his men, who have tended to be bigger and hunkier than you find in other companies, and who often make the biggest splash in his pieces. In Perpetual Dawn, however, the focus was clearly on the egalitarian - and on Mark Morris, from whom Taylor borrowed many of the details of this pastoral frolic, even while eliding his patented sense of communal ensemble.

Indeed, sometimes Perpetual Dawn feels almost like a sly parody of a Morris dance.  A program note from Emily Dickinson lets us know the piece is "fastened at dawn," i.e. devoted to an endlessly extended blush of first love that will never be complicated by the shadow of lived experience.  And so the dance opens (and opens and re-opens) with delighted romantic encounters between various duos - courtship rituals, in effect, full of smitten leaps and lifts in rustic skirts and pantaloons (at left), all before a backdrop of warm watercolor, and set to baroque ear candy by the long-forgotten Johann David Heinichen.  There are a few clouds on the horizon, though, if you look carefully - the numbers of boys and girls don't quite add up, so somebody will eventually be left out of the dating game. (The lovers are largely undifferentiated, but Heather McGinley and Michael Trusnovec carved out something like individual characterizations.) And as the dance progressed, a sense of avoidance began to sneak into it - embraces were evaded, kisses dodged; the whole point for these lovers was to never advance beyond square one, to remain frozen in the moment just before contact.

The dark side of that contact came clear, however, in Private Domain (1969), a jagged meditation on a group of unhappy orgiasts (at right).  Here the dance space was partly occluded by black panels of fabric, so we saw only fragments of the action (and sometimes only fragments of body parts).  And a key participant - perhaps the leading figure (the dazzling Robert Kleinendorst) - was hidden until late in the dance, when he suddenly emerged in a sinuously alienated solo. The score, by the then-trendy Iannis Xenakis, is all atonal spikes and sudden tone-row showers, so you know nothing is ever going to connect with anything else; but Taylor proves quite virtuosic in creating seeming "scenes" of choral movement that play out in parallel to Xenakis's barks and squeaks.

But to be honest, in some ways Domain feels dated and self-serious - indeed, its grimness nearly flirts with being funny; but it simultaneously conveys a harrowing sense of the loneliness and pain that haunt sexual modernity (which no doubt felt new and raw in 1969).  And the performers - particularly Kleinendorst and, again, McGinley, who emerged as something like his muse - danced the piece to the hilt and beyond.

To wrap up the evening, Taylor turned his eye to yet another mood (and era) with his crowd-pleasing Black Tuesday, from 2001 - a series of vignettes set to songs of the Depression, and no doubt choreographed in response to the dot-com collapse of the millennium. It also, perhaps not coincidentally, shows off a side of Taylor's talent that both Dawn and Domain obscure - his skill as a choreographic raconteur.  For Tuesday is rife with hard luck stories, often essayed with a defiant laugh in the face of pain - as evinced by Ms. McGinley, Eran Bugge, and Aileen Roehl as working girls poignantly tangling with their charismatically callous pimp, Mr. Kleinendorst. Elsewhere the dashing Michael Apuzzo - who had lost his trousers but not his smile, at  left - lit up "Underneath the Arches" with Michael Novak, and Jami Rae Walker delighted as a streetwise urchin whom hard knocks just couldn't keep down.

But one last bouquet must go again to Michael Trusnovec, who found the broken heart (and broken dream) in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"  It was a rare moment of uninflected tragedy from this chameleonic choreographer.  Whom we hope to see again in the Hub sometime very soon.

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