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Flash Review 2, 3-3: Taylor Manifesto

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000, Chris Dohse

Okay, I'm a big fat snob. I can barely tolerate sentimental; I have no room for maudlin. And I disagree with history.

After receiving hate mail for calling Paul Taylor's work facile, I doubted my judgment and felt ashamed of my arrogance, so I decided to give him another try. I don't mind being knocked down a peg, and I don't mind contradicting myself. I've sat through two Taylor programs since then and read parts of his autobiography, but I still don't get why Taylor has been crowned his generation's preeminent dancemaker. Am I such a bumpkin that I'm unable to recognize and appreciate what is obvious to everyone else?

I find Taylor's dances too glass-half-full. His world bears little relation to the messy, fractious plurality I see around me. His damnable aplomb clashes with my chip-on-the-shoulder Bohemianism.

I enjoy escapist entertainment as much as the next guy, distractions from my foreboding reality. That's what Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jean-Claude Van Damme are for. But when I watch modern dance, I want something heavy, man. I want inexhaustible Gesamtkunstwerk that whoops me upside the head and heart. With Taylor, I see craft of impeccable clarity and mastery, but underneath the frolics and filigree I am left with merely a vaguely pleasant feeling.

Last night's program at City Center opened with 1983's "Sunset". The cast of four women and six men looked as perfect as dolls on a wedding cake. Their flirtations and entrances and exits and pairings and groupings made Taylor's "Duet" the notorious 1957 piece in which he did nothing, seem anomalous. And what about the drop-dead gorgeous dancers? They're almost too good. All of the company inhabits Taylor's style remarkably. They make it look effortless, like they could do it in their sleep, or in the sleep of the guy sitting behind me, who was soon snoring.

During the first intermission, the snorer, or someone near him, remarked that Tayloräs choreography created a mood so "ephemeral and evanescent" (or perhaps he said "effervescent"), that you don't care what actually happens. Maybe that's exactly the quality that bugs me. Taylor's material layers whimsy and sass on a refined architecture and a rich, almost over-ripe muchness that overpowers the mechanics of the phrasework. This breezy hauteur turns occasional pedestrian elements into eyesores. You're left with a "feeling" of what occurred, rather than specific memories. It's like remembering aspects of someone's personality but not what they do for a living.

"Arabesque," a New York premiere, combined the flat, angular silhouettes from Etruscan pottery with frisky connecting steps and self-contained sautes that didn't go anywhere. Jennifer Tipton gilded the dancers in golden warmth. The score, fragments of Debussy, was much too fancy for the likes of me.

In general I am unmoved by virtuosity. Flaws and struggle enrich a performance. Why study for a lifetime to look generic? Relative newcomer Michael Trusnovec's dancing hinted at something more. His expressive torso awakened the technical fluency and colossal presence common to Taylor men with vulnerability.

Will I ever develop the discernment to dig Paul Taylor? Our two aesthetics were built during different decades, from different affections, but both reflect valid art historical lineages. During La Belle Epoque, Naturalists butted heads with Symbolists, Decadents and Nabis. Today, Queer Nation flips the bird at Disneyfication. The schism is more complex than "high" and "low" or uptown and downtown. I do think the video version of "Speaking in Tongues" is pretty cool, and Taylor's autobiography, "Private Domain," disarms me with its accomplished writing.

I realize I've written more of a manifesto here than a review. I thank Mr. Taylor for providing me the sand that I hope will, in time, become a pearl.

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