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Review Journal, 3-25: Sans Mirror
Taylor Dancers in Fine Form, Music in Wrong Form for NY Season
(Editor's Note: Dance
Insider senior writer Tom Patrick danced with the Paul Taylor Dance
Company company from 1989 to 1999.)
By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2003 Tom Patrick
NEW YORK -- Sorry this
finds you all so much after-the-fact. Like many others, I have been
drawn into voyeurism as my country has zeroed-in on war -- it distracts
and vexes me.
To balance some of that
insanity, allow me now to share my impressions and recollections
surrounding the just-concluded Spring season of the Paul Taylor
The surprises for me
-- and one might argue there would be few -- came not so much in
the repertory, as I'm pretty familiar with most of it, but in the
dancing, which is a thing of the moment.
I was lucky to get a
ticket to opening night, where customarily are performed works unseen
on any other night of the engagement. Opening the program with a
prayer was 1985's "Roses," which had turned my head around on first
witnessing it that inaugural year. The cast danced beautifully,
though at times a tiny bit gingerly, aiming for counts instead of
inhabiting the music's lush phrases in a more underwatery way. As
the full flower of the gray couple's loving tones, the White Duet
that followed was very sensitively danced by Silvia Nevjinsky, who
was squired by Patrick Corbin. Their extended time together onstage,
never subsumed into the group, is a lovely thing when rendered with
such ease. "Roses" gives me some really wonderful flashbacks as
a dancer and viewer, and I was thrilled it opened this Season.
On the other hand, 1993's
"A Field of Grass" was not really anything special to me, as I never
performed it nor was I particularly smitten with the material musically
or otherwise. Still, it's always been nice to see Patrick Corbin's
opening solo, danced with such easy strength and looseness. Patrick
is of the original cast -- "ground zero," as we said then -- and
others of the septet are newer. Nice to see newbie Michelle Fleet
in there, as well as the others, and all danced very well through
some thin choreography. 'Field' is to a suite of songs sung by Harry
Nilsson, a time-capsule look at hippiedom that's fairly what you'd
expect to see: blue jeans, beads, defiance and laziness, overdoses
Last summer's "Promethean
Fire" closed things out for the night, and my opinions of the dance
are already on record elsewhere on the DI. Again and still it vexes me as
I watch it, choreography so strangely matched with that grand music,
surfing in the troughs between its waves. The red light appearing
in the middle of the largely-banal duet (danced here again with
great fortitude by Lisa Viola and Mr. Corbin) still bothers me,
as do folks' efforts to tack on the WTC subtext, but there you are.
The strong point here,
seen in virtually all the sections of all the dances, is the dancing.
The dancers in the present incarnation of the PTDC are truly stunning,
and I'm convinced that no one else could execute such 'chock-full-o'-steps'
passages with their kind of precision. All of them look so finely
tuned, so well-rehearsed, so beautiful that it can be astonishing.
It still amazes me that it's all done without mirrors -- in the
studios I mean. The Taylor way is to strengthen the awareness of
the body and surroundings without relying on the reflection or succumbing
to the hypnosis of mirrors. At any rate, this crop is dancing in
a really unified way, flocking like real birds and responding to
a palpable common goal.
My experiences with
program 'A' were truly a mixed bag. "Cascade" is a work from 1999,
and serving as its 'dance captain' was one of my last experiences
in the company. At that time, it was a sort of glorified-understudy
post, taking notes and helping solve problems with the piece, but
it was frustrating: being asked to 'help out' seemed more about
assent than assistance, and so it is with a little exasperation
that I recall it and subsequently view the dance (that's the Insider
diatribe, part 1).
The work is supported
by lovely music from J.S. Bach, Concertos for Piano and Orchestra
-- sections from numbers 4,5, and 7 -- and gorgeous costuming by
Santo Loquasto. Five strong men lead us into things, all leaping
effortlessly and gesturing with great gallantry, before women soar
in with easy jetes. The opening section is perhaps the best, a beautifully
swirling Taylorian kaleidoscope, and when the dust settles we see
two couples: Ms. Nevjinsky, Andy LeBeau, Amy Young and Rob Kleinendorst.
Now that's a powerful quartet! Their movement is minimal and gracious,
courtly. Here Taylor is going for a sort of study of reflection
and slight canons, which please me more when I imagine the player's
hands on the piano keyboard. I recall it being the most nitpicky
section in terms of confining people's timing and flow until the
effect was achieved... but now it looks more organic and not so
careful, so kudos are in order for navigating those waters. There
follows a solo of isolation for Ms. Viola, which I'm sorry to say
seemed almost absently done, only accurate but without much of the
amplitude conjured up by Bach. Then that bravura quintet of men
return to obliterate the quiet moment with quasi-balletic bounding.
In terms of tone this is a welcome upswing, but I still groaned
during that awkward pirouette-canon for the five of them, where
forward momentum seemed cut off. The crowning duet followed, in
the personages of Kristi Egtvedt and Mr. Corbin, who'd been held
in abeyance offstage (except for a glimpse in the first section).
Despite the passage of time, this duet still irks me: against this
backdrop of urgent musical pulses, these poor dancers have to keep
moving relentlessly, as if they (or Taylor) is hearing an entirely
different score. The effect is uncomfortable as they must cram many
misfit phrases into each wave of the music, poor things.
... But I foresaw all
this going into the theater. My real curiosity lay ahead, in the
revival of 1985's "Last Look." Yes, from the same year as "Roses,"
and the word from those who were there is that both of those works
were generated in very short periods. It could be that in employing
simple and strong movement vocabularies -- and of course some very
creative dancers -- these works flowed into being with enviable
ease following a very clear vision.
"Last Look" is a different
kind of event from most of the Taylor repertory. As in other works
-- namely "Syzygy" -- there is a structure and vocabulary, but all
movements are not strictly prescribed, and thus there is some interpretive
latitude for the dancer. In this instance it is a godsend, as the
environment created here (among Alex Katz's mirrored pillars) is
amplified and colored by the personal nature and contributions of
all involved. The colors here are very dark, downward. Clad in Katz's
unadorned monochrome green costumes, men are brutal creatures. In
their fluorescent pinks/greens/yellows, and blazing rhinestones
-- necklaces really seem collars, an anklet becomes a shackle --
women are vicious and starved. All of them are stricken, perpetually
in an environment of desperation, vanity, and self-loathing. This
state-of-being accessed, with the work's beginning and ending in
an exhausted heap of bodies (connoting to me a hopeless repetition)
is a riveting experience as a viewer and as a dancer: I can now
vouch that you can't be anywhere in a theater for this one and not
be a participant.
"Last Look" is such
a fortunate confluence of choreographic potency, musical excitement,
and design! Composer Donald York summoned up shades of Stravinsky,
Ravel, and Strauss, and developed a haunting and terrifying score,
full of violence. The shuddering, thrashing choreography immediately
sets the tone for a visceral experience, and Taylor's vision of
our civilization run amok can be recognizable and disturbing (I
couldn't speak after I first saw it, and literally felt sick). To
dance this one is a real experience, in that region where the emotional
and physical meet. It's a piece that dancers tear into readily,
and has always drawn the most comment in after-show Q&A sessions.
The cast -- Michael
Trusnovec, Ms. Egtvedt, Ms. Viola, Richard Chen See, Ms. Nevjinsky,
Mr. LeBeau, Takehiro Ueyama, Heather Berest, and Annmaria Mazzini
-- were magnificent traversing this awful landscape. Mr. Ueyama
got things started in a shuddery, convulsive solo that was truly
scary, with Ms. Viola tearing at herself, hurling her body, right
behind. The dancers sprawl, spasm, contract and explode in a battlefield
tempo, breathless episodes of anger and frustration. A duet for
Egtvedt and Trusnovec is really creepy, an extreme courtship that
seems much more animal than human. The entirety of "Last Look" seethes
sociology and anthropology, comments on evolution, crowding, nature.
A world is created there, one from which it's impossible to look
away. For the cast, there is no audience, nothing more than this
A parting word on this
one, regarding one particular episode in "Last Look." Near the end
of the piece, a lone man emerges as the others collapse in exhaustion,
Tyrannosaurus Rex in a moment of quiet between battles. He scans
the area and actually focuses on his reflection in one of the mirrors.
It is as if the mind leaps to the conclusion: "That is me... in
here and out there." It is a mental collision, sparking revulsion
and confusion. I know it as a viewer and a dancer... Now in this
role, Michael Trusnovec made me shiver, made my hair stand on end.
As he responded to this mirror -- drawn and repulsed -- his mixture
of feline speed, sharp carving power, and mastery of phrasing was
thrilling. I was jerked back and forth in my seat in sympathy to
his movements, and seeing the piece conclude with his solitary realizations,
his beautiful spiraling down to be consumed by the pile-up, I was
sobbing. Whew! This piece is great great Taylor, thrillingly done.
As an unfortunate programming
choice, "Last Look" was followed by Taylor's newest release "Dream
Girls," which I found to be... hmmm... ridiculous. Against the backdrop
of barbershop quartet songs (very skillfully rendered recordings
by The Buffalo Bills) Taylor has made a[nother?] buffoonish suite,
surrounding a quartet of, say, miners, and their ambiguity about
the 'fairer sex' (who are all sporting voluptuous-plus body-padding.)
These gents don't always come off as misogynists, but usually at
least as gynephobics. (See also: "Sorcerer's Sofa," "Effects Of
Current Repertory On New Works," and "Recycling.") The piece follows
the good old recipe --sight gags, over-literal use of lyrics, an
increasingly burlesque/vaudeville sort of tone, and a choreographically
thin mode -- that wears on my patience. There is lots of mugging
and slapstick, and dancing-for-us every second, and though the cast
dances impeccably and charmingly (particularly liked that change
in tone of Ms. Viola as a sassy sheriff) I felt that as a whole
the piece was a step down or back that I just wasn't willing to
take. Santo Loquasto contributed wonderfully detailed and provocative
costumes for all.
Other works in the season
that I was getting a fresh look at included "Images," "Snow White,"
and "Offenbach Overtures."
"Images" takes its title
(I think) from Debussy's music for solo piano, and the piece is
indeed full of striking images -- never static, but there nonetheless.
Archaic forms, legs strongly turned-out or parallel, angular arms,
curlicues suggest ceremonial and private life in an ancient people.
Taylor's interplay with the music here is wonderful as personalities
in this culture literally jump to the forefront of really nice ensemble
work. The cast's revival of this work is razor sharp, and their
joy in performing it was obvious. My only regrets are a male-female
duet (now featuring Ms. Mazzini and Mr. Corbin) and the 'Totem Horses'
solo. The duet has always been choreographically problematic, and
the two of them got through it the best they could. In the case
of the solo, I would loved to have seen it rendered with more accuracy
and boldness. Amy Young was riveting in the "Oracle" solo, truly
living the music, and additional kudos go to Ms. Mazzini and Mr.
was actually pretty fun to make back in '95, though the music was
very much stuck in our heads at the time. It was also quite fun
to see it. Santo costumed us all in red and black, frilly faux-French
for the ladies and suggestions of Napoleonic War for the gents.
It's high manners and a little low comedy, but the delightful vigor
of the Offenbach pieces call for all of it. It's a technically demanding
piece, a lot of petite allegro for the legs, and I'm still astounded
that this one doesn't get licensed to ballet companies.... We were
sure back then that they'd be clamoring for it. Nevertheless, the
suite of five overtures elicit hilarious moments -- witness Heather
Berest and Orion Duckstein in their first uncomfortable duet and
their tender oblivion during the soft "Die Rheinnixen."
One entire section portrays
a duel, and this was a wild one in its origin. The opening ceremony
of preening and glove-slapping took shape in only minutes, all of
us laughing our heads off... but afterwards long hours of virtuosity
awaited duelists Patrick Corbin and Richard Chen See as Paul went
for the maximum jumping in search of his desired effect. It was
tiring to watch, as we inactive "seconds" (Andrew Asnes and I then)
fumed in the background while RCS and PC were put through torturous
sequences. Those sequences are still there (and look a little more
torturous now) and new pair of seconds presides too, in the hilarious
personages of Mr. Kleinendorst and Mr. Trusnovic. It's all very
silly, and very fun. Other notable soloists here are Ms. Nevjinsky
as a high-spirited foil to the "drunken" Ms. Viola, and Ms. Young,
who dances a very sensitive and poetic solo.
Immediately after on
program 'B' was another funny: 1983's "Snow White." With its miniature
City Center columns creating an intimate stage-upon-stage, this
one has abundant charm, and some patented Taylorian winks at fairy-tale
lore. Again Ms. Berest and Mr. Duckstein were wonderfully paired
together, this time as title character and her nemesis/savior. Five
adorable dwarves ("Some Dwarfs" in the Playbill) were Mssrs. Chen
See, LeBeau, Ueyama, Kleinendorst, and James Sampson, doing it all
as architecture, furniture, and entertainment -- most of all entertainment!
At times it was like watching a boxful of monkeys, as they cavorted
upon meeting Ms. White and later endeavored to save her from the
Queen's treachery. There is a wonderful cameo for Ms. Mazzini ("A
Bad Apple") as a beguiling and browbeaten servant to the Queen (Mr.
Duckstein, who rapidly alternates as the Prince.) All of this to
a charming score, again from Donald York. I remember this work as
full of very complex rhythms, long strings of strange counts....
It's tougher than it looks. The entire cast was marvelous and charming!
The season closed, fittingly,
with a dynamite performance of Taylor's evergreen "Esplanade." Much
already is written of this piece, so I won't bore you with dissection...
but I will tell you as an Insider that it's a pure joy to perform,
and I wished all my programs would conclude with it. Taylor's work
here is a consummate musical response, and this is apparent from
the work's universal appeal to dancers and audiences alike. The
rhythm of footfalls, of dancers playing music within the music,
all is complex and satisfying, and the interpersonal experiences
onstage are open and generous. The standout cast included wonderful
passages for James Samson, Silvia Nejinsky, Amy Young, Kristi Egtvedt,
and Heather Berest. Pure poetry and joy. These were Ms. Egtvedt's
final NY performances with the PTDC -- during curtain calls, a bouquet
soared onstage for her, and she was given an unprecedented tribute
by Taylor himself.
It was a far-ranging
season for the PTDC, and even though some of the repertory or programming
choices seemed "free-range," there wasstellar dancing happening
all around. This crew dances hungrily, and I must say I think they
should be rewarded more often with the richer works that populate
PT's vast collection instead of the thinnest or dumbest ones.
On the subject of "production
values," I was delighted by costuming and lighting (the latter largely
designed by Jennifer Tipton). However, I was crestfallen to again
see this great company dancing to recorded music throughout their
engagement for their legions of hometown fans. I appreciate that
the issue of live music can be conveniently skirted when a repertory
becomes inundated by old jukebox medleys, but I must protest the
exclusion of real music, especially at the company's premium annual
showcase. The interaction between musician, dancer, and viewer is
the crucible, the height of action and response inherent in a live
act... spontaneity and excitement. The Taylor company seems to have
forgotten about this, though some producers of its tour-dates do
seem to find live accompaniment both important and possible, begging
the question to the PTDC leadership. A look at the New York season's
Playbill reveals long lists of donors with deeeep pockets, yet the
post of "Music Director" has gone away. That position used to be
held by the talented Mr. York, and there really were orchestras
a decade ago, there were commissioned scores, and most relevant
perhaps there were potent performing experiences happening. I cannot
believe any dancer would rather dance to an Andrews Sisters record
a hundred times when given the opportunity to dance to live Bach
once, and for an audience member it's the same. A total reliance
on such musical stuff may save many dollars, but in my opinion does
so at the expense of our experiences as audiences and dancers. After
almost fifty years in existence, it's hard to believe the course
this company has chosen regarding this, and I hope better thinking
is brought to bear in changing it. And while I'm about it: were
you all listening closely to the recordings of Don York's scores
for "Last Look" and "Snow White"? The former was recorded by orchestra,
captured in the thrilling moment, and the latter was a synthesizer...
shades of things to come if the "virtual" orchestra takes over New
York. We need the real thing for Paul Taylor's dances and dancers,
especially in their local appearances. Who's with me on this?
I close here with a
farewell and many thanks to Tony Marques, who departs (too soon)
from the Taylor Company after a long tenure (as lighting supervisor)
that overlapped eight of my ten years there. In addition to that,
Tony had done a previous tour-of-duty with the PTDC, which stretched
back into the '70s, and had been there in the presence of the Titans.
In addition to recreating the lighting designs of Jennifer Tipton
wherever we found ourselves on the planet, he provided the original
lighting design for PT's "Piazzolla Caldera," and kept a toe in
other diverse free-lance projects -- some of which were, fortunately,
mine. Though his work will go on in many other theaters, the PTDC
will be a little poorer without this craftsman, raconteur, and all-around
sweet man -- best of luck to you, Tony!
P.S. Thanks to Ellen Jacobs Associates for its assistance, and to
Nancy Dalva for her evocative PTDC piece, which evoked in me a flood of
thrilling memories. (I concur with every word of our editor's description
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