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Flash Review 1, 10-7: Fiends Choreographical
Solid & Wacky Taylor at the Kennedy Center

By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha

WASHINGTON -- The strongest impression that I came away with last night, after seeing the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Kennedy Center, was that of a modern dance style so intact after all these years that there is no hint of a classical technique having invaded until it becomes inseparable. Whereas, so many of the new modern dance choreographers rely not only on their own ballet training, but also on that of dancers who are with them for just one performance or season and have no time to absorb a complete form from scratch. Perhaps we need to thank the fact that there is the Taylor School for this continuity. (Martha Graham board please note!) Wonderful also to behold so many male dancers on stage.

The tickets were sold out and there was no need for anyone to comment that in Washington D.C. the people are not interested in dance. Perhaps more sponsors is what this city needs!

The first dance of the evening, "Company B," was a replacement for the scheduled "Arabesque." Choreographed to "songs that express typical sentiments of Americans during World War II," according to the program notes, this 1991 piece seems somehow to come from The Age of Innocence. It is not just the wide skirts of the women and their prim and proper blouses; the loose slacks of the men; or the white crew socks and sneakers of both the men and women. It is somehow throughout there in the dancing. While as athletic and demanding as any other, there is an ease of movement that seems to suggest that this could be anybody on stage; and everybody. It is dance for you and me, and not necessarily wonderfully trained dancers. It is very "All-American" with its nostalgic tunes, its clean and healthy look. The flirtation, the chase, the meetings, the remembrances, all without that hot feeling of sex that is so prevalent in the here and now of our times.

Notable in this dance was Orion Duckstein, who in the solo "Tico-Tico" made me think that this is how Paul Taylor must have looked when he danced. It was as if the technique is made for him and as he danced I could almost hear Paul Taylor as he would have talked about the making of any dance; with humor turned upon himself. It also makes great sense to see Paul Taylor's choreography when you know that he was a principal dancer with Martha Graham. His style is almost a reaction to hers. No contractions! Loose-limbed, subtly controlled form, almost as if the body is throwing itself around to see how far it can be pushed towards the nonsensical before it must pull back. Also outstanding in his dancing was Patrick Corbin, who dances his "Oh Johnny, Oh" solo with the women.

In "Fiends Angelical" (which premiered this summer at Jacob's Pillow) I loved the costumes, which were almost see-through unitards with wonderful lines drawn on them as if the veins were showing through the skin, and with red short bushy-hair tops. This dance, diabolic and yet almost always with a tongue-in-cheek attitude seems to celebrate some naughtiness, as if angels led by the diva are not to be imagined as incorruptible. The George Crumb music in this, "Black Angels," not every person's idea of melody, with it's screeching and shrieking sounds was for me very appropriate to the mood. Never frightening or overpowering, strange enough to suggest the abnormal, out-of-this-world feel, yet not "paranormal" as in the X-Files sense -- definitely too close to human failings for that!

The last dance of the evening was "Musical Offering," and I have to say that I would have been happier if along with the other two dances an older piece choreographed on Taylor's original company had been shown. This would have not only given more variety but also brought us in touch with Paul Taylor's occupations of the mind at that time. Set to Bach, this piece appears to be about primitive ceremonies in celebration of the dead. Whether this celebration is of Christ I don't know, but certainly at times one dancer is held aloft in the manner of a crucifix. At times people loll about as if in agony of grief. Sometimes beseeching, at others as if giving benediction. There seems to be flagellation, dragging on the knees, and praying, praying, praying.

When this dance first starts, the amazing interpretation of such classical music in dance that is definitely not classical is both amazing and wondrous. This feeling remains for most of the time. That the two should blend so well is also a pleasure. Yet this dance eventually seems to go on for far too long and had me wishing by the end that choreographers not necessarily feel bound to fill in all the music. The costumes for this piece were not just primitive, but to my mind, boring and dull. The women were clothed in unitards that were almost flesh-colored with leather-looking cut fringe panty-type pieces around their hips. The men were clad in a more male version of the cut faux leather and that's it. Somehow this was too cliche an approach for me.

Paul Taylor, when asked later in the question and answer session how it had occurred to him to put together a dance that seemed so "primitive" in mood and theme, to music that was anything but, gave a typically forthright answer: Somebody had said to him that they would commission the dance if he made it to this music! But that is surely not the story, even though Mr. Taylor would like us to believe it. For this is what the music must have evoked in him; a response highly individual and unique!

The short talk at the end of the performance with Taylor and his ex-dancer David Grenke was hosted by one of the artistic directors for dance of the Kennedy Center, Charles Reinhart. This was only fitting, considering that Reinhart was once manager of the Taylor company. Beside the many other contributions that he and Stephanie Reinhart have made to the cause of modern dance in the U.S., this interview was not an easy task; Taylor was not terribly vocal and not easy to draw out. I was reminded of the passage in his autobiography where he complains in mock disgust about his manager "Charlie," who keeps setting up meet-the-press occasions or lecture-demonstrations on tours abroad; and Taylor observes that he really can't find it in himself to codify his own style or talk slickly about himself and his work. Well, all these years later and with all the fame, he is still not so comfortable with the talking. And who can blame him, for he is after all a choreographer and speaks through his dances!

Grenke and Taylor talked about the difficulty they face as choreographers with dancers who come to stay "for twenty years," as Grenke claims were his intentions on joining Taylor's company, then leave after just a few years to form their own companies. Grenke elaborated, saying that through the experience with his own dancers he was now reliving what he had done to Taylor with his departure from the company and coming to a better understanding of what it is like on the choreographer's side. That, however sincere the need to leave on the part of the dancer, for the choreographer it just feels like a personal defection, always hurtful and not so nice to be on the receiving end of it.

Asked if there was any role that he himself would have liked to dance in any of his new pieces, Taylor emphatically answered, "No, it hurts too much!" to which the audience responded with a roar of laughter, his statement bringing to mind his painful exit so many years ago when he collapsed on stage due to undiagnosed hepatitis and other physical conditions.

Watching his company perform, though, one is glad that Paul Taylor was able to adjust to choreographing from a chair. (Although he has been known to demonstrate!) And may he continue to do so and inspire generations to come!

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