writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Paul Taylor's Sunset

Sunset/Dream Girls/Promethean Fire
Paul Taylor Dance Company
City Center
New York, NY
March 5, 2004

by Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva
published March 7, 2004

The artist Alex Katz has designed the decor for some fifteen of Paul Taylor's dances, among them Sunset, the elegiac wartime dance first performed in 1983, and currently in revival at City Center. These particular designs are more like a Katz painting than most of them—the flat sky of the background, in subtle gradations of pale aqua, dappled with aqua leaves and marked with the suggestion of tree branches is like the ground of one of his paintings, in which there is no real distance, and everything exists in painterly equilibrium. The dancers, too, appear large in scale, and plain in outline. The men's costumes are an amalgam of the Basque and the American: chinos, tan shirts, sleek brown shoes, and red berets. On their sleeves are round patches in green and yellow. These colors, and a pretty blue, are echoed in markings on the dresses for the women, which also involve an expansion of scale: the white summer frocks are marked with big, infrequent dashes, or "x"es, or dots, one color to a dress, as if to differentiate them, but not too much. The backdrop consists of two pieces, set at an angle, so that space is broadly triangular. Along the left side runs a simple iron fence.

That this design exactly echoes in form, but not in content, the set for Fancy Free—there is even a barred fence where the bar is—Jerome Robbins's very different dance about men in uniform, is one of those interesting coincidences that occur sometimes in the theater. Another parallel is the three bounding servicemen who first dance on in the Taylor, although they are quickly joined by three more. But that's about it.

If you're in the mood, and don't get carried away wondering about the Freudian symbolism of the red handbag snatched by one of the sailors, Fancy Free can make you laugh. No matter what your mood, Sunset will make you cry because the plentitude of its relationships—among the band of brothers, and among the men and women, who are both girls and angels—suggests impending loss. The piece is one of sustained lyricism, perfectly matched to its music, Edward Elgar's Serenade for Strings and Elegy for Strings. (The plangent quasi-programmatic suggestion of the scores is very much like that of his Enigma Variations, which drew from Frederick Ashton the great ballet of the same name.) But then, too, there are the loons.

Part way though the piece, after the soldiers meet, gambol with the girls, play games, enter and exit and re-enter and re-exit in various combinations, darkness begins to fall. The Elgar stops, and nature takes over, and the sounds of dusk. One man lies prone, soon to crawl towards a central grouping. It's possible that this is a break into reality. We may be seeing the future—perhaps the battlefield. We may be in the future. Or, we may have relocated, and the scene that follows may be yet a third place: heaven. It doesn't really matter how you interpret it. I've thought a lot of different things over the times I've seen it, when I've thought at all, because the feeling is so clear that it isn't really necessary to think, and the feeling is always the same. As Taylor said ruefully in a conversation before the performance, a war dance never goes out of style.

The performance I saw at City Center was the first for the current cast, and it was particularly plain spoken and clean. For example, a marvelous duet for two men, when danced formerly by old Taylor hands Patrick Corbin and Andrew Asnes, had an interesting element of soft shoe, swift and graceful. The current performers, Robert Kleinendorst and Andy LeBeau, are less Fred Astaire and Gene Kellyish, and more like, say, guys from a gas station engaged in a fast, clear, light-footed drill. Both ways of performing the piece work, but it was perhaps the very lack of personality in the current incarnation of Sunset that made its structure so clear and interesting.

For within that Alex Katz flat world with its close-up vanishing point, Taylor exercises a whole different three-point perspective–a moveable one, as if the dance is a series of paintings, seamlessly melded. This notion naturally leads one to the thought that the work is cinematic, but it really is not, because the camera ruthlessly chooses what you see. Rather, Taylor takes the auteur sensibility and works it out in the theater, guiding you to see what he wishes, when he wishes.

Certainly traditional choreographers have always done this, but their devices are transparent—dancers in the ballet stack up like castles of sugar cubes, or spread out like battalions. Taylor uses far fewer elements, working off center or on center, down stage or up or across or in any combination of where—in other words, he is a modern choreographer.

This unassailable formal mastery is more obvious in Promethean Fire the dance that closed the program Sunset opened. The bombast of the Stokowski orchestral reading of Bach provides emotional tumult, which Taylor matches in tone. From the front of the theater, you can see that the dancers have actually assumed ferociously serious scowls for the Toccata & Fugue, which they will later lighten for the Chorale Prelude. He also matches Stokowski in number, deploying his company so that they seem to number in the hundreds, instead of in the teens. For his structure, Taylor looks to the Bach, matching line for line on the ground, and in the air. The dance is a work of architecture, and perhaps a story about what can happen to architecture. (It can collapse.) Perhaps it is rather about the architecture of the heavens. Whatever it is, Taylor turns the stage into a kaleidoscope, and puts you right at the eyepiece, from which you cannot tear yourself away. If you see quotations from other works, or likenesses to them—the body pile from Last Look, less frenetically acheived; a quick seated turn on the floor from Esplanade, and so forth—they make the dance larger still, so that it seems to sum up the whole world.

Like Sunset, Promethean Fire, made in 2002, has an apotheosis. So, too, does the middle dance of the program, the amusing, appalling cowboy hokum called Dream Girls, made the year after, and ending with a hymn. ("Shadows of the evening, steal across the sky." Again, dusk.) Seeing it right after Sunset was interesting—you could see the same band of men, abeit goofier, but the women were different, being sexual and scary and cheerful, rather than a source of fresh, perfumed solace. One might suppose this is because the womenrepresent any number of people, but the men are all, one way or another, Paul Taylor. (Lucky for us!)

Yet if you really think about the dances, in all their wholeness, in the completeness of their self-contained worlds, you realize that everything in them is the choreographer, transformed. From the personal, he achieves the general. His vision is large, and his heart is great. Whether lyrically or in full ferocity, he heeds Dylan Thomas's dictum. Paul Taylor rages against the dying of the light by shedding his own.

Read other reviews of the Paul Taylor City Center season:

Opening night gala (Susan Reiter)
Program A (Leigh Witchel)
Program B (Mary Cargill)
Program C (Nancy Dalva)
In the Beginning (George Jackson)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 10
published March 7, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Nancy Dalva



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last updated on March 7, 2004