Moods and Movement
“Arden Court,” “Big Bertha,’ “Syzygy,”
“Aureole,” “3 Epitaphs,” “Dante Variations,”
“Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)”
When Paul Taylor first started his career he was a revolutionary. In 1957 he presented the infamous “Seven New Dances” that earned him Louis Horst’s blank review in Dance Observer. Taylor had become friends with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and the three took on the arts establishment with a vengeance. In one of the dances Taylor, dressed in a business suit, performed everyday movement to the telephone voice announcing the time twenty-four hours a day. But quite soon after his initial forays into the avant-garde, Taylor chose a different track, the traditional one for modern dancers. He formed a company and created a repertory that was appropriate for touring. Nor did Taylor invent a new vocabulary or processes for making dances as did Cunningham and Nikolais and the choreographers of the 1960s. Taylor’s achievement doesn’t lie in radicalism at all, but in his inventive use of a traditional modern dance vocabulary while adding a new, irreverent note to what was in the 1950s the serious and seriously self-absorbed modern dance.
Taylor’s contribution to dance is being celebrated at City Center in a three-week retrospective of his work that is part of his company’s fiftieth anniversary. It offers a great opportunity to see a comprehensive cross-section of his dances. Only the experimental pieces of the 1950s are missing, but Taylor never put those dances into his company’s repertory; they were done, then abandoned for good. Performances that were presented this past Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon are typical examples of the variety of works audiences can expect to see at City Center before the season closes on March 20. The earliest dance was “3 Epitaphs” from 1956 and the latest “Dante Variations” which was made last year. Both of these were seen at the Saturday matinee along with the now classic “Aureole” (1962), and the perennial favorite from 1980 “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal).” Wednesday’s performance offered two other of Taylor’s most popular pieces, “Arden Court (1981) and “Big Bertha” (1970), along with “Syzygy” (1987).
“3 Epitaphs,” set to early New Orleans funeral jazz, shows that Taylor’s impudent sense of humor was there from the beginning. Five sad-sack characters completely covered in gray body stockings with only small mirrored disks to relieve the morose effect, go through a series of limp dances. There are all sorts of humorous touches that make themselves felt solely through the figures’ bodily movement and relationship to each other. Many of these moments flash by quickly, including one in which a large figure picks up and drops a smaller one instead of setting the little guy down in proper duet style.
“Aureole” was Taylor’s first dance set to Baroque music (Handel in this case) and in the joyous mood he would find again in “Esplanade” in 1975 and “Arden Court” in 1981. ”Aureole” is set for only five dancers but with them Taylor makes unusually imaginative use of pattern and space. I was especially struck by the varied entrances and exits he created and his extensive use of the edges of the stage, neither of which are elements he generally emphasizes. For example, three dancers might enter in a line, move part of the way toward the center then back to the wings where one dancer disappears then reappears slightly downstage to rejoin the group. Patrick Corbin danced the solo Taylor created for himself. It combines ballet adagio movements of an academic strictness with moments that let go in freer modern dance movement. The solo is a killer, slow and very exposed, and Corbin danced it well, although he doesn’t have the deep, soft plié that Taylor was able to bring to the dance. Corbin was joined by Lisa Viola in the famous duet in which he cradles her in his arms. “Aureole” is one of those ballets in which everything comes together in harmony. It all works and it’s a jewel, much finer, in my opinion than “Arden Court,” which is a very nice work and larger, but less inventive and surprising in its effects.
If “Aureole” and others works of its type offer the innocent side of Taylor’s dance personality, “Big Bertha” is a study of its opposite, the violent and cruel. This is the element that separated Taylor from the modern dancers that came before him and it remains an important aspect of his work. Often this tendency is just a tickle, a brief off-beat move or gesture that can read as funny, like the dropping of the dancer in “3 Epitaphs” (it’s only a very small drop). “Big Bertha” represents the macabre extreme of Taylor’s dark side. Here a behemoth of a female funhouse figure works her evil magic on a visiting family, transforming the man from a loving husband and father into a sex-crazed maniac who rapes his daughter and beats his wife. Finally the evil mechanical doll takes her male victim for her own. Sexual violence is also apparent in “Syzygy” and “Dante Variations,” although neither have the Grand Guignol theme of “Big Bertha.” “Syzygy” with music by Donald York and “Dante Variations” with a Ligeti score are both what one might call semi-representational. That is, they don’t have stories but do have themes. Both works concern communities in which sexual disharmony and tension is paramount. In the central duet of “Dante Variations” a man, Michael Trusnovec, stalks a woman, Lisa Viola, and attacks her. Many of the figures in the work are physically bound throughout their dances, and one is blindfolded and unable to make contact with anyone else. All the dancers exit soon after her blindfolding, leaving her onstage to struggle alone. “Syzygy” is a more concentrated battle of the sexes than “Dante Variations.” Like it, though, it includes a central duet in which the girl fights off an attacker and loses. The movement consists of squirms and wiggles and gestures that lash out suddenly. Viola is at the center of the piece, appearing as an unsuspecting initiate to whom the women offer encouragement before her ordeal. She survives and is last seen turning in slow circles at stage center as the curtain falls.
“Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)” was a hit when it was premiered in 1980 and it has weathered the years very well indeed. The flattened two-dimensional movement , which makes reference to Vaslav Nijinsky the original choreographer of “Le Sacre,” is complex and interesting. The plot is a bizarre mix of silent movie detective story in farcical mode bracketed by a dance company rehearsal. Although a bit puzzling in places, the story manages to hang together. Much of the action is amusing, but there is also some of Taylor’s penchant for darkness here, especially in the strange figure of the Rehearsal Mistress, dressed as a Cossack, who hovers ominously over the dance and appears to control much of the proceedings. The versatile but overused Viola is once again the central figure, here a mother whose baby is stolen by a gangster’s moll. The mother hires a detective who, like everyone else in the cast except the mother, ends up dead. “Le Sacre” shows all Taylor’s sides; it is amusing, violent, and ominous, as well as complex in movement and sophisticated in historical dance references. After all these years, “Le Sacre” can still be counted as a hit.
There is one other element that nearly all Taylor’s dances exhibit, and may be one of the secrets of his continuing success; that is a love of moving, the sheer exhilaration of it. It shows most clearly in joyous works like “Aureole,” but it’s to be seen in many of the dark ones as well, turned into a highly charged negative energy as in the ferocious men’s dance of “Cloven Kingdom” and in the squirming groups of “Dante Variations.” In this devotion to movement Taylor’s work is quintessentially American, and as such he remains one of the exemplars of American modern dance.