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Flash 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 Dance Company.

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 and coziness.

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 small room.

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. Trusnovec, throughout.

"Offenbach Overtures" 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 of her.)

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