writers on dancing


Somber Serenity and Sublime Silliness

“Musical Offering"/"Funny Papers"/"Piazzolla Caldera"
Paul Taylor Dance Company
New York City Center
New York, New York
March 8, 2005

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter

Until Paul Taylor made "Musical Offering" in 1986, most of his works set to Baroque music resembled members of a related family. Certainly "Aureole" (1962), "Airs (1978)" and "Arden Court" (1981)—beautiful and distinctive as they are—shared certain motifs and required the dancers to perform with a similar courtly innocence and plush lyricism. "Esplanade" (1975) is certainly very much a dance like no other, yet it does not stand completely apart from those Baroque dances, and the tender way men cradle women in its fourth movement is an image that resonates back to "Aureole" and forward to "Arden Court." (In 1988 Taylor made "Brandenburgs," rarely seen since then, which could also be seen as belonging to his "family" of Baroque works.)

Then came "Musical Offering," in which the dancers' moves reflect struggle and limitation rather than openness and ease. Much of the time, their palms are cupped so that their hands appear flattened and stunted, and they seem to push their way effortfully through space rather than serenely glide through it. They bob and bounce, and much the time their movement feels tightly restricted. Taylor was said to have been inspired by primitive New Guinea statues, and he found an inspired way to transfer that kind of blunt beauty to live bodies.

Subtitled "A Requiem" and set to orchestrations by Anton Webern and Michael Beyer of Bach, it is a rich, fascinating and different Taylor work, not the first one in which he casts the dancers as a tribe of indeterminate period. Their strong sense of community and connectedness is reinforced by the costume design, leather loincloths and bare torsos (men) or flesh-colored leotards (women) that summon up a primal feeling and neutralize much of their individuality. With its haunting fervor and ritualistic intensity, "Musical Offering" is certainly more dark than light, but it is unlike Taylor's other ventures into darkness and depravity, in which chaos is barely held at bay and bodies thrash and lurch furiously. A somber serenity guides the piece, and its mournful eloquence is all the greater for the masterly craftsmanship with which it is shaped.

Lisa Viola was performing Kate Johnson's original role for the first time—the lone figure who opens the work with an extended, remarkable solo that served as the template for the rest of the work. It also sets the mood of deeply expressive simplicity and spareness; this is Taylor's luminous demonstration of how less can be more. The solo is intensely controlled, establishing the tension that is built into the entire work. It also resonates with timeless power; you sense that she is in touch with the earth's most powerful secrets. When the others begin to enter, first one by one and later in small clusters, it seems that she has summoned them or conjured from some mysterious place.

Viola, who by now is not only Taylor's senior female dancer but a complete embodiment of his movement style—from the most intense to the utterly whimsical—shaped the solo beautifully, and can certainly hold the stage with the required dynamism. What I missed was the vulnerability Johnson brought to it, the way her every move radiated a poignancy and implied the potential for loss, or death. Viola's efficiency, and her tendency to attack the abrupt movement in a way that at times gave it a robotic quality, was admirable but less heart-wrenching.

While one could still miss others from the original cast, and the distinct profile of the company in the 1980s that was so magnificently captured in this dance, this performance gave this stunning work new life and progressed with its own air of somber inevitability. Taylor composes so masterfully throughout, creating vivid friezes, snaking chains, and configurations where a group's movement reverberate with that of a soloist. The architecture of "Musical Offering" is lofty yet completely unpretentious. Taylor's is such a unique, yet persuasive excursion into the Bach music. Within its aching grandeur he locates a timeless lament, a powerful surge of both hopefulness and loss. It is particularly interesting to see this work again now that he has created "Promethean Fire," also a large-scale dance to Bach that has its own, very different communal pull and somber power.

"Piazzolla Caldera," also receiving its first performance of the season, lasts barely half as long as "Musical Offering," and it always leaves one wanting more. Within movement that is recognizably his own, Taylor has injected a wonderful sensuousness. The dancers seem to seethe with lust and anger, but nothing is exaggerated or done mockingly.

Dancing her daring, fiercely aggressive duet with Robert Kleinendorst rather than Patrick Corbin, Viola was a shade less abandoned than in previous seasons. The deliciously decadent double duet of the third section remains a knockout, with Richard Chen See and Andy LeBeau's sly, had-too-much-to-drink, losing-our-inhibitions male duet giving way to the confident sensuality of Sylvia Nevjinsky and Michael Trusnovec, until all four bodies wind up entwined on the floor. Annmaria Mazzini is amazingly fierce as the isolated woman who seems to both want all the men and despise them as the same time. Her fury and barely contained desire help drive the work to its devastating, glorious finale.

With these two intense works opening and closing the program, the audience could certainly use some innocent laughs, and "Funny Papers," set to a series of memorably ridiculous "novelty tunes," provided the appropriately giddy centerpiece. I used to find this an entertaining but thin piece and didn't expect it to hold up on repeated viewings, but the company attacks it with such vigor and delight, and the movement is so juicy and captivating, that I gave in completely to its idiosyncratic glee. Who could resist the rollicking, robust grand finale to the cockney-flavored rendition of "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight)"? Taylor's sublime silliness, and the dancer's no-holds-barred willingness to embody his sense of fun, defy you not to smile with delight.

Volume 3, No. 11
March 14, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter


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last updated on March 14, 2005