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Letter from New York 2, 4-16: Taylorama
Promethean season: 19 works in 19 days

By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- The Paul Taylor Dance Company reached well back into its repertory to choose the 19 works offered during its City Center season (February 25 - March 15). Some were old friends we haven't seen for a while. A few were rarities we were delighted to meet. A couple were distinctly odd, but almost all provided that special experience that is uniquely Taylor's. All that was missing was the accompaniment of live music, a problem not unique to this company, and an ongoing challenge at this unionized theater.

Rarest of all was the 1963 "Scudorama," set to a raucous Clarence Jackson score augmented by a police whistle, and that hadn't been seen in New York City for 40 years. Ironically, its extended absence could be due to its enigmatic power. What is going on here? A quote from Dante about "the nearly soulless"; an Alex Katz cloudscape that looked like a throng of giant leeches; some males in jackets and ties, other dancers under beach towels or scudding and slithering across the stage while pressed to the floor -- it mystified us and intrigued us without exhausting our patience. Does any other choreographer achieve that feat more often than Paul Taylor? I hope we won't have to wait long for another look at "Scudorama."

None of the other works revived this season had been absent for four decades; being infrequently performed and rarely written about, however, several took me by surprise. For example, all I knew about "Private Domain" (1969) was that it was set to a score by Iannis Xenakis, whose dryly crepitating music Balanchine recaptured so accurately in "Metastaseis & Pithoprakta" -- actually two ballets created and presented as a package deal in 1968 -- that the works left the New York City Ballet repertory within a season. That was enough to make me pass up "Private Domain" (also the title of Taylor's autobiography, by the way). Too late I learned it was ablaze with eroticism at the highest level and performed in bathing suits by the most attractive company in modern dance. I can therefore supply no stimulating clinical details. And if that disappoints you, how do you think I feel?

Regrettably, I missed last season's revival of "... Byzantium" (1984). Please indulge my including it among this season's novelties so I can pay belated tribute to Taylor's intriguing use of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" as a springboard for what I took to be a comment on authority. Its three sections bore three Yeatsian titles: 'Passing,' a scene of confusion; 'Past,' a staid ritual presided over by a solemn quartet in really keen Masonic-style robes designed by Broadway's grand old man, William Ivey Long; and 'Or to Come,' apparently a resolution of authority in a stately ceremony presided over by a quintet in robes. Its kinetic invention flagged, but to my surprise, the score by the grand old man of the avant garde, Edgard Varese, proved consistently intriguing. Examples of how an orchestra could be made to sound like a synthesizer before that electronic plaything had been invented were agleam with fleeting homages to Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps."

Taylor had taken on that epoch-shattering masterpiece four years before in "Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)," another of this season's revivals. Because he used the reduced version for two pianos that Stravinsky had made for Nijinsky's rehearsals, Taylor was free to lark about in a manner that would have been crushed under the full weight of the orchestral score. His 'Sacre' abounded with in-jokes about modern dance and silent-movie melodrama. Despite a touch of red here and there, designer John Rawlings gave everything a pre-Technicolor look. The result was not so much film noir as film noir et blanc et gris.

I'm sorry to say that the subplot about a stern Martha Graham-like Russian ballet mistress shown conducting a rehearsal behind a scrim often seemed an afterthought. Interest always picked up when Taylor concentrated on a mad chase involving a kidnapped baby, an Anna May Wong moll and a detective whose shirtless torso was twisted around like that of Nijinsky's Faun. I am indebted to Arlene Croce for reminding me that the shamus's horn-rim spectacles were also a silent-screen motif. (Remember Harold Lloyd?) Taylor passed up few of the opportunities Stravinsky had inadvertently supplied for quirky comic invention. The finale was energy at its purest.

Another rarity this season was "Danbury Mix." Commissioned by NYCB for its 1988 American Music Festival, it was premiered at the New York State Theater during that anything but festive event by Taylor's own company. Possibly City Ballet's dancers were too busy wasting their energy on learning a dozen evanescent AMF novelties to master another style. (Taylor's usual procedure is to make the dance on his troupe, then set it on the commissioning company.) The cool reception by City Ballet's insular, unappreciative audiences didn't encourage any subsequent revival on NYCB dancers.

But, really, what other reception could have been expected for a cheekily inventive dance that came at the end of the Reagan presidency -- when ersatz piety and blinkered patriotism were the rule -- and which featured a Miss Liberty in a star-spangled W. I. Long pants suit? As a further sacrilege, Taylor skillfully played for laughs excerpts of thorny dissonance and polyrhythmic, multi-tonal complexity from several orchestral works by America's much-revered "musical pioneer," Charles Ives. Yes, Ives did blaze some trails, but I still treasure Elliot Carter's report that on a visit to Danbury, Connecticut, he found Ives in the barn where he stashed his precious scores, adding dissonant notes to works he had composed decades before to make the music sound more "advanced." Regrettably, 'Mix' was not revived during Bush Boy's administration: It concludes with Miss Liberty's thumbing her nose at a score of flag-like objects, unceremoniously and abruptly displayed like laundry hung out on a line to dry.

"Funny Papers," a 1994 experiment in groupthink, proved doomed from the start. Seven short works credited to six company members but as "amended and combined" by Taylor were to have been inspired by comic strips and set to popular songs. Just two tunes, "Alley Oop" and "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man," proved suitable, however; four of the other five had only a cloying goofiness to offer, and "The Okeh Laughing Record" didn't have even that, leaving comic inspiration in very short supply. Santo Loquasto's black-and-white costumes added to the glumness by making everyone look like a penguin. In a spirit of nostalgia, not accusation, I am nevertheless impelled to list the amended choreographers -- Sandra Stone, Mary Cochran, Hernando Cortez, David Grenke, Andrew Asnes and Patrick Corbin -- and to bid them the fondest of farewells. All have left the company.

Annmaria Mazzini and Michael Trusnovec of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Paul Taylor's "Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)." Photo by and copyright Tom Caravaglia and courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company.

This season further demonstrated that the present generation of Taylor dancers is second to none in combining musicality and dedication with energy and daring. Senior company members Michael Trusnovec and Annmaria Mazzini, fellow graduates of Southern Methodist University, have a treasurable chemistry together, whether they are matching each other's hilarious falls to the floor in crotch-bustin' splits in 'Le Sacre' or presiding with regal authority over "Promethean Fire" (2002). (Viewing this masterpiece this season from a center instead of a side seat further increased my respect for Taylor's command of counterpoint.) Trusnovec continues to set the standard for company men in form and control; no one can move as fast or as slow or jump as high with his sustained clarity. Mazzini remains awesome at rest and terrifying in motion; the unimpeded power of her solo that triggers the finale of 'Le Sacre' was nothing short of phenomenal.

Everyone was in excellent form. Julie Tice and Robert Kleinendorst, who usually burn energy with the best of them, exemplified the versatility of the company with their command of subtlety in "Eventide" (1997), one of Taylor's subdued works for couples. Although I find that his least interesting genre, "Eventide" proved irresistible. The meditative score drawn from Ralph Vaughan Williams's Suite for Viola and Orchestra and Hymn Tune No. 1 was matched to perfection by Loquasto's Corot-like setting of a mist-enshrouded grove, caught in Jennifer Tipton's softening lighting.

All five couples of "Eventide" rewarded our attention but none more so than Tice and Kleinendorst. He abandoned her at the close of their pas de deux. They rejoined the others for the final ensemble. Was this an opportunity for reconciliation, the sort of happy ending the popular media spends billions on perpetuating? Taylor, whose budgets are as low as his integrity is high, had Kleinendorst abandon her as before, adding another layer of distinction to this lovely little masterpiece.

James Samson achieved a new personal best with his thrashing solo in the anarchic opening of "... Byzantium." Sean Mahoney achieved a similar feat in Taylor's role in "Scudorama." Both maintained these high standards throughout the season. It is by no means a complaint to report that Amy Young and Orion Duckstein are continuing to perform at their usual level. Familiar ensemble pieces like "Arden Court" (1981) and "Mercuric Tidings" (1982) were as dynamic as ever this season. (I wasn't pained by the new, blue costumes for 'Tidings.') "Last Look" was as seismic a dystopia as before.

And then there's Laura Halzack, who has shot to the front rank of the company in less than three years. She could attract and hold our attention through a presence and a beauty other modern dancers would kill for. More than a red dress made her stand out in "Scudorama." When required to move around, she can embody stern authority as the Rehearsal Mistress in 'Le Sacre' at one performance and turn Miss Liberty into a snarky cheerleader in "Danbury Mix" at another.

Halzack received a rare tribute by being granted a line all to herself among the Playbill's listing of the large cast for "Beloved Renegade," one of the season's two new works. I cannot prove it but I really doubt that many choreographers would have set a work built around Walt Whitman's poetry to Poulenc's "Gloria," as Taylor did here. I'm certain no other choreographer today could have done it better, especially with Trusnovec embodying the poet through presence alone. Music heavy with solemnity characterized Whitman the wound dresser of young Union soldiers. A gleeful passage matched the poet's call, "Come children, come my boys and girls," with an ensemble that avoided cloying cuteness. When the poet died ("I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love"), Halzack, a death figure as well as a muse, performed a revolving arabesque over the supine Trusnovec with a precision and continuity that should earn her death threats from classical ballerinas. As usual, veteran collaborators Loquasto and Tipton matched the transforming restraint Taylor brought to this deeply moving work.

"Changes," the season's light-hearted novelty, was another example of Taylor's setting dances to recordings of popular songs. When he used the music of an era to comment on the period itself, he created two endearing masterpieces. "Company B" (1991) featured Andrew Sisters' recordings to call up the U.S. home front during World War II. "Black Tuesday" (2001) employed two popular standards and several lesser known but spunky songs of the 1930s to present the desperation and defiance that prevailed during the Great Depression.

"Changes" employs hits by The Mamas and the Papas to call up that amorphous period, The Sixties, which many cultural historians believed didn't die out until 1972. By that time, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy and Malcolm X had been assassinated; Richard M. Nixon had been elected on a promise to end the Vietnam War which he never kept; the good vibes of Woodstock had diminished after the violence of Altamont; and Nixon had been overwhelmingly re-elected while gnawing away at the Fourth Amendment. None of this is reflected in the songs, although in a try at political commentary, a smug program note tries to link The Mamas and the Papas to Sixties liberation movements and likens the Nixon administration to the Bush Boy's. (A more cogent comparison to the Bush Boy would be James Buchanan, whose willful ineptness expedited the Civil War.)

Loquasto quite outdoes himself in duplicating the colors, textures and shapes of Sixties fashions. An entire generation had to have been on something really mind-blowing to have believed they looked good in those groovy threads and hair styles. Taylor, however, doesn't provide equal satisfaction because Mamas and the Papas composer John Hartford gave him little to work with except generic melodies, bolstered by insistent amplification that soon became a drag. "Changes" had nothing as poignant as the Andrews Sisters' "I Can Dream, Can't I?" or as grim as Bing Crosby's classic recording of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" -- or should it be "Buddy"? (Crosby uses both) -- from "Black Tuesday."

"Changes" didn't lack for snazzy showmanship. City Center's P.A. system got into the act, blasting out a tape of a traditional concert intro, followed later by an out-take of a recording session, but no one could dance to that. Ironically, there wasn't much dancing in the 'Dancing Bear' number, but its nursery-rhyme quality provided a welcome change of pace, not to mention volume. Little Francisco Graciano, whose feet are as fleet as any in the company, looked adorable in his Doctor Denton's, seated before an inspired Loquasto backdrop. (Imagine a whimsically weathered farmhouse painted by Maurice Sendak on acid.) Such blissful innocence is the image "Changes" left me with.

The signature image of Sixties innocence, and I viewed the period from the other side of the Generation Gap, was provided to me by a Baby Boomer who had blissed out at Woodstock. (I liked Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary, by the way.) My friend said the warm and fuzzy feeling he brought back with him to New York City suffered a big dash of reality when he saw the front-page headline in the Daily News:

HIPPY FETE SNARLS TRAFFIC

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