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The Paul Taylor Dance Company's Annmaria Mazzini in Taylor's "Black Tuesday." Lois Greenfield photo corutesy Paul Taylor Dance Company..

Copyright 2011 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- The Paul Taylor Dance Company's winter season crammed several novelties into its two weeks at City Center (February 22-March 6). Along with the usual pair of local premieres, programs also featured five revivals. The season's only performance of "Oh, You Kid!" (1999), danced to the accompaniment of Rick Benjamin's Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, was the first time the company had danced to live music since the November 6 and 7, 2009 performances of "Brief Encounters" at its Syracuse University premiere. For the March 1 performance featuring the 2001 "Black Tuesday," a work set to popular songs of the Great Depression, the top ticket price was -- wait for it -- $19.29. Other company news was not so wry: Annmaria Mazzini, whose dancing this season was resplendent as ever, is retiring after some 16 years in Taylor's service.

Neither of the season's novelties proved sufficiently nourishing to be called an entrée, pungently flavored though each proved to be. "Phantasmagoria" could have been subtitled "Vignettes from the Dark Ages" if it had been gloomier and if Robert Kleinendorst hadn't been around as a boisterous, thoroughly anachronistic Bowery bum. Merry peasantry in homespun bounded about to anonymous airs from the Renaissance, set to nasal winds and thonking percussion that sounded at least 600 years old. Laura Halzack swept through as a haughty nun under a headdress as voluminous as a sail. Michael Trusnovec, costumed in tatters and smeared with surpassingly gruesome makeup, looked like Black Death warmed over but spread only Saint Vitus's dance throughout the cast.

Taylor playfully tantalized the voyeurs in the audience by promising, in the Playbill, that Sean Mahoney and Parisa Khobdeh would play an East Indian Adam and Eve. Instead of being stripped down to skin-tight leotards, however, they were elaborately costumed by Santo Loquasto in formal silks dripping with silver studdings. A long, green F.A.O. Schwarz-style stuffed python did double duty as a naughty symbol. Mahoney inserted it between his thighs to simulate a dangling penis. Khobdeh, later entwined in the slack coils of the versatile prop, upped the obscenity and hilarity quotients by playing kissy kissy with its little red forked tongue. Your reaction to such lo-jinks should match your reaction to "Phantasmagoria." I'm still working on that Bowery bum, myself.

James Samson and the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Taylor's "Three Dubious Memories." Tom Caravaglia photo courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company.
The other premiere, "Three Dubious Memories," proved a stew of clashing elements that some alert viewers likened to Akira Kurosawa's classic 1950 film "Rashomon." Well, the memories of two men and a woman are presented, starting with the recall of The Man in Blue (an alarmingly brutish Mahoney), who once apparently forced himself on The Woman in Red (Amy Young) as her companion, The Man in Green (Kleinendorst), stood by. From there on, however, Taylor's divergence from Kurosawa accelerated; later, Young will discover Kleinendorst and Mahoney giving each other noogles and is furious.

Any similarity to "Rashomon" proved fleeting. Kurosawa had no characters like the choirmaster (James Samson in the dullest of greys) or his seven choristers in black standing behind him in Jennifer Tipton's artful murk. Their cabalistic solos and ensembles ranged from an exorcism to a lament. Always judgmental, never joyous, Samson and his troupe in their colorless costumes looked better suited to the four pulsing, electronically tinged excerpts Taylor drew from Peter Elyakim Taussig's "Five Enigmas" than did Mahoney in a vivid blue jumpsuit and Kleinendorst in an equally jolting green one. They looked like they had wandered in from another work where noogles were the rule.

The revivals demonstrated the strength and versatility of the current company. Newcomer Michael Novak fit right in with Trusnovec, Kleinendorst and Francisco Graciano in the relentlessly demanding male quartet from "Cloven Kingdom" (1970). Although in white tie and tails, the men represent Taylor's view of humanity as a feral breed; catching their breath when seated on the floor, the guys' pounding their open palms with their fists suggests apes solemnly masturbating in a zoo. The eight women in evening gowns by Scott Barrie are not so blatantly anthropomorphic, yet they did skitter about with their hands held out before them dangling at the wrist like paws. When the eclectic score assembled by John Herbert McDowell turned particularly rambunctious, four of them sported mirrored blinkers and headgear designed by John Rawlings. If these accouterments said something about women, I don't think it was a compliment.

I should be used to the Taylor dancers' protean artistry by now, but I still double-checked my Playbill to make certain that, yes, seven of the 12 dancers in the sardonic 'Kingdom' had radiated pastoral bliss in the evening's opener, "Arden Court" (1981). With their muscles innocently bared by Gene Moore's costumes, they embodied the sunny excerpts Taylor had gleaned from symphonies by William Boyce.

'Court' also provided a bracing conclusion to a program that opened with "Brief Encounters" and included a revival of the ever-perplexing "The Word" (1998). Bodies were so bared for the sophisticated maneuvers of 'Encounters' I suspected that "brief" was a punning reference to its sexily abbreviated costumes. I wouldn't put it past Taylor to have chosen to set it to Debussy's "Children's Corner Suite" because its title commented on how his 11 dancers, for all their reaching out to one another, rarely related to anyone for long. The desperate jollity of the final number, 'Golliwog's Cakewalk,' ironically ended this multifaceted work in a burst of rejections.

David Israel provided no meaningful title for his turbulent score to 'Word.' Any guidance would have been welcome because nothing was spoken onstage nor did an authority figure appear to lay down the law for what appeared to be a boy's prep school. (Women in knee pants and ties filled out the student body doing the same frenetic steps as the men.) Samson, who danced with unprecedented power and control this season, had a tremendous opening solo in which he repeatedly hurled himself forward to land on his knees. Soon the practice had spread to the other students. I stopped wondering why they were doing this and started dreadiing what they were doing to their bodies. A friend assured me she could spot the outline of knee braces through their pants. Neither she nor anyone else was able to explain the woman in a leotard who slunk among the cast for no discernible reason; so far only the sorely missed Lisa Viola, who created the role, has had the authority to convince me this creature had a purpose too enigmatic to grasp at first viewing. (I dropped the notion that she represented The Serpent in the Garden when I realized nothing onstage suggested Paradise.) I'm afraid this viewing is going to be my last 'Word.'

Mazzini's farewell performances were treasurable blends of gratification laced with loss, and never more so than in "Promethean Fire" (2002), set to Leopold Stokowski's orchestrations of Bach. I do not doubt 'Fire' will retain its power over the decades as the impact of its 9/11 imagery lessens. This season, impressive as the section where the bodies pile up onstage remained, I found myself equally excited now by the passage where Taylor recreated Bach's shifting texture by having eight men cross the stage from one direction as eight women pass them from the other direction. Simple? Yes. Powerful? Oh, yes.

There was great sadness in these performances, however, for subsequent ones will never be presided over by Mazzini and Trusnovec. They met as dance students at Southern Methodist University. She insisted he audition for Taylor 2 when its recruiters came through Dallas in 1996. By 1999 both were in the main company and forming a partnership noted for its unforced technical assurance and easy synchronization of trust and daring.

And there will be no more Mazzini solos. The wrenching agony of the dance that triggers the finale of "Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)" (1980) is already lost to us, for that off-center oddity was not done this season. "Company B" (1991) and "Black Tuesday" were, and what cognitive dissonance her solo in each caused: joy at the performance jostled with grief at the loss to come. For the former's 'Rum and Coca-Cola,' she diverged from the slacks that were the standard attire for the women elsewhere in "Company B" and donned a skirt with a flaming red inner lining to set the men at her feet scrambling over one another trying to look up it. For the latter's 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams,' her crooked grin and bold stance expressed weariness and defiance in equal measure. All her performances were seemingly done with unforced ease. A couple of bouquets were occasionally hurled across the footlights this season. Mazzini has been earning a deluge of these tokens for years, starting in 1999.

Choosing a Taylor season's signature vignette is usually a daunting task, but this winter the conclusion of "Black Tuesday" set to Bing Crosby's powerful recording of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" won hands down ? no, make that hands out. Trusnovec, after dancing with his usual unimprovable authority, advanced to the footlights. The remaining members of the cast moved in behind him. As Crosby repeated the title line one last time, the stage was plunged into darkness, leaving 13 outstretched palms, each in its own spotlight begging in the encompassing gloom. I felt I was in a malfunctioning time machine, yanked back and forth between the historic desperation of the Great Depression and the awful deprivation prevailing in the present. I cannot remember the finale being this stirring before but whether he had updated it or not, the 81-year-old Taylor earned extra decibels of acclaim from me when he took his bow that evening.

Annmaria Mazzini, Michael Trusnovec, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Taylor's "Promethean Fire." Paul B. Goode photo courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company.

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