writers on dancing


Rite of Spring

"Klezmerbluegrass," "Syzygy," "Esplanade"
Paul Taylor Dance Company
New York City Center
March 1, 2005

by Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2005 by Nancy Dalva

Hot diggity dog! The Paul Taylor Dance Company is back in town and spring has arrived, the snow on the ground and the date on the calendar notwithstanding. This is how we celebrate the end of winter every year here, lucky us, slogging into the theater and skipping out, thinking "Wow, what a choreographer! What dances! What dancers!" And so it is this year, the 50th anniversary of the company, with three weeks plush with dances, and Taylor in the house.

Lucky us again! On opening night we got to thank him in person, though Taylor does not take the solo bows he used to take, when the curtain fell on the company and rose on him, so handsome in his blue suit, smiling from center stage. These days, he bows among his dancers, and as they move forward towards us, he stands back, applauding just as we are. This is a potent exchange, exactly duplicating what has just transpired. Taylor, looking at us. Us, looking at Taylor. With the choreography the medium, the mirror, the common ground between us. On this festive occasion, the choreographer was wearing black tie. So although the entire evening had been pleasurable—more about that in a moment—the bows were especially so. How grand to see Paul Taylor, looking for all the world like Clark Gable, so fabulous, so swoon-worthy. And yet so modest. What a dreamboat that man is, in every sense of the word you can conjure.

The program opened with a weird assignment the choreographer fulfilled with his usual wit and aplomb. "Klezmerbluegrass" was commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture to "celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in America, where Jews have long been part of the fabric of the nation's cultural life." There is a long list of additional supporters, to whom one is also grateful, while nonetheless wondering, What's next? (Are we going to be in for a spate of donor-dictated theme art in America? Oh well, I suppose it is no different from commissioning a portrait, or a tomb, or a chapel ceiling.)

Taylor is no Woody Allen—in fact he seems to be an incredibly unlikely choice for such an assignment, but he pulls it off—of course—by cleaving to the improbable score, itself a weird marriage of, say, Minsk and Appalachia. Margo Leverett (who arranges the music) and the Klezmer Mountain Boys were live in the pit for the evening. I've always found that a little Klezmer music goes a long way, and the novelty here might have worn thin were I not so intrigued by Taylor's response. Bluegrass is sometimes called "the classical music of folk," and it is that aspect of the music to which Taylor responded, with classical devices of his own—the structures of square dancing, strongly formal. On top he layered schmaltz, and some jokes, in episodes taking one from something like a Sephardic seraglio ("Lonesome Moonlight Waltz and Volich") to a farm scene—no, really, Michael Trusnovic mimed milking and Julie Tice did a chicken dance ("Leather Britches"). Taylor's company is multi-ethnic, involving a Hawaiian, an Asian Jamaican, a Portuguese, an Iranian raised in Texas, and an assorted bunch of mainlanders. The ethnic specifics of this dance are thus instantly Taylorized—like everything Taylor, it is larger than its facts.

Donald York was in the pit to conduct his score for "Syzygy," first performed in 1987, and one of Taylor's several dances that is a Rite of Spring—more so, even, that his actual "Rite of Spring," to the two-piano reduction of the Stravinsky score. York's plush orchestration much more closely mimics the effect on the audience of the pulsing full throated chords of the full "Rite, " which he quotes. The choreographer's other rites include "Diggity," a doggy spring; "Cloven Kingdom," a prom; and "Sunset," a spring evening in wartime, all wonderful. But this is such a dazzler—a spangly, jangling rite—the spring as the planets celebrate it, star-crossed and shimmering, the purest, coolest orgy ever.

To experience the dance with the composer in the pit is a pleasure one used to take for granted. Taylor has long compensated for the demise of live music as a given by selecting vintage recordings for his choreography that have unique identities—the Andrews Sisters, for instance, or Stowkoski conducting his own orchestral arrangement. It's a ploy that has worked well, but to have the Orchestra of St. Luke and Donald York—they stayed for the last number—in the pit is to realize what we've been missing.

The program concluded with "Esplanade," now thirty years old, and as fresh as next week. For those who know it, its many pleasures reside in seeing how it is danced. For those who are new, what happens—running, falling, leaps across the stage into stalwart arms!—is still marvelously surprising, or so I am told. My, how time flies! How many wonderful, wonderful dancers I have seen in "Esplanade," among them this fine cast of nine. By seniority in the company they were Patrick Corbin, winding down his career with fewer performances imbued with the finest stagecraft; Lisa Viola, that slapstick tragedienne; Heather Berest, so elegant; Michael Trusnovec, a dancer of astounding gifts and accomplishment, at the peak of his power...and so down the list. But all you others—the ones who have danced and gone—I saw you, too, all dancing at the same time.. Just as sitting in my seat, I was all the selves I've ever been, seeing "Esplanade." And in the moment, for the moment, in the here and now, I was happy, for a time, about life itself. Paul Taylor doesn't need a critic to clarify his work, to intensify his meanings, or to enlarge the pleasure one takes in seeing his dances. It's fun, but redundant. We don't have to try to understand Paul Taylor. Paul Taylor understands us.

Volume 3, No. 10
March 7, 2005

copyright ©2005 Nancy Dalva


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last updated on March 7, 2005