Paul Taylor Dance Company
San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
March 2003-March 2007

Navarrete x Kajiyama Dance Theater
“La Venganza de Huitlacoche” (The Revenge of Huitlacoche)
ODC Theater, San Francisco
April 12, 2007

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2007 by Rita Felciano

Last month, San Francisco Performances, the city’s pre-eminent 22 year-old performing arts organization, ended a noble experiment. For the last five years, hoping to increase and broaden its subscriber basis without which no independent  presenter can survive, it annually presented the Paul Taylor Dance Company. On the schedule were  three different programs with two performances each. Sometimes a family matinee was included. While San Francisco Performances had presented the Taylor company periodically since 1990, this was an exceptional artistic and financial commitment to Taylor and his work. Included in the line-ups were some of Taylor’s most popular evergreens—“Arden Court”, “Aureole”-- at least one world premiere, “Dante Variations”, but also less familiar works from the 70’s like “Book of Beasts,” “Runes,”  “Images” and “Dust.” The earliest choreographies dated back to the 1962 “Piece Period” and “From Sea to Shiny Sea” from 1965. 

At 76, Taylor is rightly paying attention to personally pin down interpretative nuances while he still can. For Bay Area dance goers, this was a rare opportunity to become acquainted or re-acquainted with a substantial part of the oeuvre by one of the 20th century great dance makers. Audiences saw close to forty percent of what Taylor has created in his lifetime, starting in 1955.

While ticket sales have been respectable, and San Francisco Performances had begun to build a solid Taylor-support network, it was not enough to warrant the cost. Why not? No doubt, San Francisco Performances will, or has already made, its own assessment of the reason.

For my part, I noticed that whenever I would mention Taylor to dance-going friends or dance professionals, the information more often than not would be greeted with a slightly condescending acknowledgement. Ah yes, everyone agreed, Taylor was a very good choreographer. But, the implication ran, he was part of history. They knew what he was about so they were not really interested in what he was doing today.  His vocabulary was familiar, had not evolved and, therefore was no longer of particular interest. Furthermore, Taylor’s pieces revolved around the same subjects over and over. Yet one choreographer acknowledged that she had almost not gone to his “anti-war” piece, only to then admit that she was glad to have changed her mind.      

Was this unwillingness to go and see Taylor due to the fact many of these people remembered him from their dance history classes, and therefore, he was a known quantity? But wit, musicality and grace are not time-bound characteristics. Neither are the human foibles which Taylor often so savagely skewers. Was it a matter of limited time and financial resources that forced people to make difficult choices though I never sensed this as a major obstacle? Or was it an issue of sheer demographics that would indicate that the Bay Area dance public is just not large enough to sustain a season similar to the one in New York which draws from a much larger population basis? 

But this very precious opportunity at an in depth look at a major artist, who happens to have been working work for over fifty years, also got me thinking of whether our pre-occupation with the “new,” so ingrained in dance, and in Modern Dance in particular, does not put up blinders which prevent a wider appreciation of the art. The Bay Area is a supportive place for young artists to experiment and find their footing; it’s a difficult one to survive once they move onto that middle level where infrastructure and touring become necessities. Is that difficulty in part related to the fact that these artists at that point are no longer “new,” or is it simply a matter of funding? At my own paper — primarily concerned with local arts — I have found it difficult to get coverage for well-known masters like Taylor. But should I have pushed more? Or is it inevitable that the attention paid to Taylor’s art, which is well documented and not likely to disappear from the national consciousness very soon, is prone to take a back seat to that of younger people who don’t have a past but who may have a future?

What is certain is that the past five years have been unique in the intensity of its focus on a single, major artist whose repertoire encompasses half a century. It’s been a kind of mini golden age. The Paul Taylor Dance Company will not return next season but will do so in 2008/09 in a format yet to be determined.

José Navarrete’s five-part “La Venganza de Huitlacoche (The Revenge of Huitlacoche)” showed him as a politically committed artist who for the most part avoided simple-minded sloganeering. The huitlacoche is a black fungus which lives on corn. In Mexico it is a considered a delicacy; in the United States a pest which needs to be eradicated. For Navarrete, and his collaborating choreographers, the mushroom served as a metaphor for the fate of South American immigrants. Venganza turned out to be a smartly conceived and emotionally affecting full-evening work of thought-provoking dance that showed Navarrete as a skilled and agile dancer/choreographer.

Navarrete seems to have been aware that artists who create work on themselves benefit from an outside observer’s eye. Last year’s in progress-version looked so off-key and rambling that I didn’t think the piece would go anywhere. So the final version proved to be a much welcome surprise. For the five distinct sections, Navarrete let himself be directed by five very different choreographers. 

For the first episode, Sara Shelton Mann brought her long-time experience with shaping contact improv inspired moves into theatrical coherence. For ‘Fractured Land’ Navarrete had chosen excerpts of the impassioned 1964 speech that Che Guevara’s delivered to the United Nation in defense of Cuba and on behalf of the oppressed people’s of Latin America. Dressed in loose off-white pants, Navarrete’s loosely bounding, at times, quite athletic and strongly earthbound choreography flowed like an unstoppable stream through Guevara’s dramatic and pause-punctuated incantatory prose.

Calvin L. Jones’ water-based sound design set the background for the more theatrical ‘Aguas con el Agua,’ directed by theater artist Shakiri. Carrying a shrine — a blinking crucifix, both burden and offering — Navarrete appeared as a female figure using water for physical and spiritual survival. Washing clothes, gathering it in pails, cleansing herself, sticking out a parched tongue out were explicitly literal gestures but  ‘Aguas’ acquired its most potent moment with Navarrete, wrapped in a shawl, just sitting and waiting for those drops to fall.

‘ButterFLEE’—artistic consultant Joanna Haigood — was a cabaret act with some clever moments. But its Bush-bashing—both in a mannequin and in a piñata — and the use of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” was rather crude. Set against a video of Monarch butterflies — they migrate freely between Mexico and the U.S. — Navarrete donned some scintillating wings to flutter about. It was just a little simple-minded. As were some of the bi-lingual placards with translations such as “’desempleo/work” and “America/corruption.” But the political points were well taken and got the requisite painful laughs.

Amusing, highly stylized and subdued, ‘La Belleza del Otro,’ directed by June Watanabe, had Navarrete in a blotchy off-white outfit engage in an awkward stiff-legged, flat-backed gait. It was the evening’s most imaginative contribution because of the way it pursued a trajectory from abstraction to metaphore. Navarette seemed to be looking for his balance, and had difficulties getting up from a sitting circular trajectory. The sound veered between low moans, scratchy Fred Firth, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and a Spanish text that at first I didn’t catch. For a while the piece seemed located in no-man’s land but a video (by M.Mara-Ann), honing in on a giraffe, spelled out the connection between Navarrete’s and the animal’s movements. The difficult to understand Spanish text was Subommandante Marcos’ pointed “En (Auto) Defensa de las Jirafas”, the last line of which is translatable as “giraffes defend themselves by kicking.”

For Debby Kajiyma’s so-so finale, ‘Huitlacoche’ Navarrete returned as the Corn Spirit of the Prologue, assertive and mischievous, secretively dropping seeds, blowing them about and rattling his bag of “gifts.”  The piece deserved a stronger ending.

Photos of Navarrete are by Michael Osborn (the first one) and Kalian Nishomoto (the second one).

Volume 5, No. 17
April 30, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Rita Felciano

©2003-2007 DanceView