DanceView Times, New York edition
Three Classics and a New Dance: The Paul Taylor Dance Company Opens Its New York Season
Epitaphs/Le Grand Puppetier/Promethean Fire
Expectations are not the best baggage to bring into a theater. Ideally, one would come to Paul Taylor's newest work, Le Grand Puppetier, without them, and look at the dance solely for what it is. But there's a tempting trap of expectation—several layers of it—in this case. As with any new Taylor work, one brings the knowledge that this is one of the great contemporary choreographic masters, one who has given us an amazingly rich, diverse and enduring body of work. With each premiere, one wonders: will this be another one of those that surprise and amaze? He certainly did that with his 2002 masterpiece Promethean Fire (more on that shortly), but he has also produced recent works that are slight and unmemorable, such as Dreamgirls (2003). When his inspiration is operating at full tilt, he produces dances that grow in stature with repeated viewings and provide fascinating challenges to new interpreters. Others, particularly the jokey ones, are at best cute but ultimately thin, revealing no new or hidden depths with subsequent performances.
Another source of great expectations for Le Grand Puppetier is the fact that Taylor has taken a revered Stravinsky score associated with a landmark ballet introduced by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with the quirky twist of using a reduced version of the orchestral music. Sound familiar? It's exactly what he did in 1980 with Le Sacre du Printemps, and the result was one of his most original, unusual, clever and profound works. One could not resist wondering: would lightning strike twice?
Adding another layer of expectations was the concept of Taylor adopting, or adapting, the Petrouchka story, perhaps interpreting it anew for our times. As much as he is the master of purely musical, abstract works, he has also been adept at producing irreverent, sometimes twisted works that incorporate character and narrative.
When the curtain rises on Le Grand Puppetier, on a small ensemble in riotously brightly-colored shiny costumes, the overall look is as far removed as possible from the black, white and gray design for Taylor's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). And as the 25-minute dance, set to a pianola version of Petrouchka arranged by Stravinsky himself, proceeds, it becomes clear that Taylor has not mined this Stravinsky opus with the same brilliance that he applied to Sacre. He has retained the idea of a controlling, possibly diabolical figure who manipulates a puppet, but the outline of his (presumably cautionary) tale are not always clear.
The title—and certain men's costumes—suggests a French milieu, with the Emperor (Richard Chen See) presented as a pasty-faced Napoleon figure. The women's dresses have empire waists but evoke a Russian flavor, making them resemble the Nursemaids in the original Fokine ballet's ensemble scenes. They also wear bonnets and pantaloons. The Puppet (Patrick Corbin) is a lost soul in a loose white Pierrot outfit and snug cap.
Before any of the individually identified characters appear, the ensemble of the Emperor's subjects and Guardsmen cavort happily against a pale yellow backdrop, as though life is good—or else they are too oblivious to know otherwise. Their bouncy, playful circling dances, with couples occasionally breaking off, the men partnering the women by holding their waists are generic Taylor lite. When the Emperor enters, he brings along his willful daughter (Lisa Viola, her hair done in Shirley Temple curls) and an overly foppish Courtier (Robert Kleinendorst) whose costume (including a titled hat) is purple and who waves a large white hanky. The entourage also includes the Puppet, a pitiful creature pilled in on his side by a rope around his neck.
With a wave of the Emperor's sword, the Puppet is commanded into action. His shuddering, floppy, loose-limbed movement is apparently meant to amuse the subjects. The Courtier views him with particularly haughty disdain. The daughter takes advantage of everyone's attention being elsewhere to flirt with the Red Guardsman (Michael Trusnovec), whom she clearly prefer to the Courtier whom the Emperor inexplicably intends for her to wed.
A black drop descends to obscure most of the cyclorama for the two sections of the music that in the original take place in the private quarters of the puppets. Corbin, who had been cruelly tossed to the ground and abandoned by everyone else at the end of the first section, watches with innocent awe and longing as Viola and Trusnovec dance together. When he dares to beg for some attention, she callously pushes him aside. The Emperor appears, trying to push the Courtier and the daughter together, and in a flash of light uses his sword to transform his subjects into puppets. They move in jerky unison, helplessly under his power, until Corbin seizes the sword to release them, at the same time turning the Emperor into a puppet.
Chen See flails grotesquely and gymnastically as he struggles with his powerlessness, and the ensemble cavorts again happily, rejoicing at their renewed freedom. Orion Duckstein, on whose back the Emperor had callously stood, turns the tables and stands on the fallen Emperor's back, gesturing mockingly at him. The black backdrop rises and the stage seems set for a happy ending. Viola dons a veil and is lifted along with Trusnovec in a wedding ceremony, and the subjects celebrate with heel-and-toe folksiness. The foppish courtier finds happiness with he Pink Guardsman, with whom he clearly belongs.
Their celebrations turn out to be premature. Having let their guard down, they don't realize the Emperor has returned. He finds and seizes his sword, Corbin is again seized by the Guardsmen, and the Emperor reasserts his power.
The Emperor, as the one figuratively pulls the strings and oppresses the Puppet, seems to fill the role of the Charlatan in the Fokine scenario. The Red Guardsman fills some of the dramatic role of the Moor but is not as dominant or distinctive a figure.The daughter's role in the piece exemplifies the unfocused quality of the piece. She is apparently analogous to the ballerina doll in Fokine's Petrouchka—heartless, toying with people. She does at one point inspire in Corbin he kind of sad, pathetic longing that Fokine's puppet expressed towards the Ballerina. But there, Petrouchka's longing for her, his envy of his rival, were at the core of the story. Viola's role in Taylor's piece is more analogous to that of Kitri's in Don Quixote—frustrating her father's desire to match her up with a clearly inappropriate, utterly foolish man. It is never clear why the Emperor would envision the cartoonish Courtier as an ideal match—presumably it would be some kind of advantageous political alliance.
Corbin offers a riveting, poignant portrayal, but his character is too often lost in the shuffle, not central enough to the action. In general there seem to be a lot of standing around and watching during the piece. The stage picture often could have een more dynamic and focused. As for what Taylor is saying about abuse of power, it did not read clearly on this first viewing. Clearly, he is not expressing a hopeful view of how a society responds to, or rids itself, of an abusive tyrant. At least in the Fokine, with its striking and haunting final moment, Petrouchka, for all his suffering and humiliations, got the last laugh.
As has become a tradition, Taylor's opening night featured two works being given for the only time this season. Both were very early Taylor, and both received strong performances form the current generation of dancers. Three Epitaphs, from 1956, with its delightful faceless creatures who seem to have risen from a swamp, remains a quirky, witty miniature. As they clomp and stumble along with adorable racelessness, the five creatures manage to suggest self-consciousness, adoration, insecurity and pomposity.
Bookending the program were two of Taylor's most ravishing creations to Baroque music, created 40 years apart. They could not be more different, but they are ideally complementary. The lyrical lightness and sweet simplicity of Aureole (1962), set to several Handel excerpts, with its gentle jokes and follow-the-leader games, evokes youthful optimism. Its more tender moments—the courtly reverence of the fourth movement's duet, the cradling lifts that punctuate the piece—create the template for later works such as Esplanade and Airs. Making a New York debut in Taylor's original role, Michael Trusnovec unfurled into its languid, arching shapes and balances with a beautifully calm focus, as though he were thinking the movements up on the spot.
Promethean Fire matches the potentially bombastic power of Stokowski's orchestrations of Bach with a grandeur and nobility. The stage seems to teem with bodies as Taylor's remarkable swirling and criss-crossing patterns surge through the space. With each new viewing, this work inspires awe and deference, revealing greater depth. Taylor summons up scenes of turbulence and destruction, images of rescue and comfort, the surging emotions. It all seems to flow so inevitably form the music. What a miraculous, inspired work. The dark velvety unisex costuming by Santo Loquasto is perfect in its somber elegance and universality. And here, as in every Taylor work, Jennifer Tipton's lighting shades the proceedings with subtlety and sensitivity, without ever straining for effect.
Read other reviews of the Paul Taylor City Center season:
Paul Taylor Dance Company in The Grand Puppetier. Photo: Paul