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Flash Flashback, 3-28: It Must Have Been the 'Roses'
March, Snow, and Taylor: Springtime in New York
By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003, 2008 Nancy Dalva
(To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Archive. This Flash Journal was first published on March 13, 2003. To read about the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 2008 New York season, click here.)
NEW YORK -- Just before the Paul Taylor Dance Company season opened at City Center (where it continues through Sunday), someone accused me of thinking that Paul Taylor can do no wrong. This isn't quite the case. I think Taylor might make a cynical dance, on occasion, or a generic one. But he's one of the great artists of his day, which has been long and ripe with accomplishment. He's great minded. He's painterly; he's musical. He's a fabulist, in any medium, and every one of his lies tells the truth, on stage or in print. (His 1987 autobiography "Private Domain" is a triumph of magic realism, and tells you more about the work than an historian or critic ever could.) His current company is beautiful, and buoyant, and how he keeps going at this I'll never know. How can you look at "Images" (1977) and not fall apart, remembering the prodigal Chris Gillis? Or at 1983's "Snow White," without remembering sunlit Jeff Wadlington carrying on as a dwarf? How can you not think of them dying of AIDS, and Taylor having to say goodbye? Taylor's perseverance must cost him, and I'm grateful to him for keeping on.
Paul Taylor's backlist could furnish weeks and weeks of fabulous programs even if he never made another dance. This would, of course, be sad, but then again he'd never get another phone call like the one he got telling him he'd been commissioned by the Charles W. Eisemann Center and the City of Richardson, Texas, to make a new work. I'm thankful to them, of course, and, as a former dance critic of the Austin American-Statesman, I'm proud. But they're demoralizingly relentless, the demands of the dance marketplace. Money for new work. New! New! New! (What if the creator doesn't feel like it?)
The new "Dream Girls" looks as if someone locked the choreographer up in a room with a recording of the Buffalo Bills singing barbershop quartets and told him he couldn't come out until he choreographed his way from "Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie " to "Toot, Toot, Tootsie." (This is the actual music we hear in the theater; there are seven more tunes in between, all in the highly hokey song pantheon.) And so poor Kristi Egtvedt ended up as a fan dancer in a whiskey-jug-filled corset from which she has to tipple, and Julie Tice got stuck in a fat suit that makes her look like an overweight Venus of Willendorf (which is saying something) in long stripy underwear, and the other girls appear to be hookers, and the lustful loser cowboys got a wig, a moustache, a cowboy hat, and silly pants. Perhaps the suddenly touching finale, "Now the Day is Over," when the dominatrixies team up with the cowboys in a sweet, go-to-church-on Sunday promenade is an effort to throw us a little solace, or maybe it's cynical. (The dance certainly made me feel cynical, but boy, howdy, what's come out of Texas lately that hasn't?) It's hard to tell.
The other work new to New York this season is "Promethean Fire" (reviewed by the DI's Tom Patrick in its
premiere last summer), which I think asks the question, "What kind of music could I get excited making a dance to?" (In other words, what could relight Paul Taylor's fire?) It turns out to be Bach, but orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski, who from the evidence wanted Bach to be Beethoven. (The resulting toccata, fugue, prelude, and choral prelude sound more romantic than baroque.) At any rate, Stokowski rewrote the music for a big, modern orchestra.
We get to hear his tumultuous remake on City Center's sound system, on a mystery recording that sounds like vintage Philadelphia Orchestra. Okay, we don't have live music, for any of the dances. (We don't really need it for the song suites made to popular songs, which are sui generis.) We don't have Donald York in the pit, playing his charming music for "Snow White"(1983) or conducting his troubling score for 1985's disturbing "Last Look." But we have Bing Crosby in "Black Tuesday" (2001) and we have, heaven help us, Harry Nilsson in "A Field of Grass"(1993), and Glenn Gould playing Bach for "Cascade" (1999), and so forth -- Taylor spins good platters -- so if we're going to listen to recordings, can we at least hear them on state-of-the-art equipment next time? (I don't care if it's a scratchy original, I want it in sound-surround.)
Taylor's response to Stokowski's Bach is to the orchestration -- the swarming violins, the sense of mass, the feeling of something powerful being conjured. He answers the music with 16 dancers who look like a hundred; with buzzing vitality; with choral groupings; with pictorial brutality; and, as ever with Taylor, with architectonic clarity, all wrapped up in dark velvet, chevron-banded jumpsuits by Santo Loquasto. Jennifer Tipton, the Shakespeare of lighting -- and the lighting designer of every work on the program -- washes the whole in the richest gold, like fire light. The result is a dance that glows and grows on you with repeated viewing, as you come to see not just what happens, but how.
So it is with "Esplanade" (1975) -- so beloved and the work that contains all of life in a dance, to Bach unadulterated. (Seen the day after, a later work in Taylor's Bach canon, "Cascade," seems merely decorative.) "Esplanade" is a comedy -- Taylor summons Terpsichore in the form of a female flirt who sets dancers to hurtling to the floor in fun, to leaping across the stage into the arms of a stalwart, to running in circles for the sheer motional thrill of it, to jumping over each other, to having sex, and to otherwise portraying delight -- but in the middle there is a section that spells out what tragedy is. Reprising a role first danced by Bettie de Jong, next by Karla Wolfangle, and then by Egtvedt, who this year instead got to do the marvelous "falling solo," Heather Berest walks slowly across a darkened stage, heading towards us on a diagonal. Around her dances Amy Young, moving in front of Berest's eyes, transecting her path -- but Berest doesn't see her, or the others who are around her. This is tragedy, in Taylor's world: not to see each other. Not to see, metaphorically -- that is, not to see with your mind, with your heart. And not to see, literally, with your eyes. So like W.H. Auden's "We must love each other," this is Taylor's admonition: "We must see each other."
When Taylor programs his older works, like "Esplanade," and like the 1985 "Roses," which opened the season and wasn't to be repeated, years and years of fabulous dancers are called up, in pentimento. "Look!" you might have said last week. "The 'Roses' duet! In the white! That was double cast when they first did it, with Kate Johnson and Thomas Evert, and Cathy McCann and David Parsons. Remember how Kate kicked her feet up out of her skirt when Tom picked her upside down? Oooh! Remember Cathy doing "Snow White" the same year? Right after Ruth Andrien left? Remember how funny it was? With Elie Chaib doing the Queen and the Prince? And Karla as the Apple? It's back this year, but I'll miss them."
Less particular in memory, the 1977 "Images," too, returned this season, faintly reeking of mothballs and patchouli oil. The hierarchical style marks the work as a companion to Taylor's idiosyncratic 1980 "Rite of Spring," (which is set to the Stravinsky score of the same name, in a terrific piano version). This earlier work is to set Debussy, and is clearly Taylor's "Afternoon of a Faun," with a bevy of luscious nymphs and several fine satyrs. Gene Moore's oddball costumes -- hippie patchwork meets Minoan vase painting -- date the piece to the year of its making, but Taylor, channeling Nijinsky, is timeless.
Since the spring of 1969, when I skipped down College Hill in Clinton, New York, to help run the lights for the touring Paul Taylor Dance Company, performing in the local junior high auditorium, I've been a Taylorian. (We'll pause here in case Jennifer Tipton is reading this, and has fallen on the floor laughing. Someone please pick her up. Tell her I know I'm lucky I didn't electrocute myself. ) Taylor's been part of most of my springs since then, when he wasn't part of my fall. (Spring! Fall! Those are his seasons, all right.) March comes, there's a snow storm; Paul Taylor plays New York, and all's right with the world, for a couple of hours. This year, I took my sweetie of some twenty years to opening night....
When the curtain goes up on "Roses," the five couples seem young, but Wagner's playing, so you know they're someplace grand. It's Prom Night at Valhalla! Love is in the air. The couples frolic. They cavort. They find romance. Dancers turn cartwheels! Then they sit down. As Heinrich Baermann's plangent "Adagio for Strings" begins, a stately couple in white enters, and Taylor gives us the apotheosis -- the part that tells you that even when you're the chaperones, you can have a very good time at the prom. Even as we take pleasure in looking, we see that pleasure can be profound, that the carnal can be sacramental. ("With my body," the dancers say to each other in duet after duet, "I thee worship.") If you must know, I like to hold hands during "Roses." Paul Taylor's works get all tangled up in your life. On top of that, he makes you happy.