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Still Vital

by Lynn Hasselbarth on April 20, 2011

Paul Taylor Dance Company
The Egg, April 16

Steeped in the history of American modern dance, while still making freshly creative pieces, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, now in its 56th season, is surprisingly relevant. Saturday evening’s performance at the Egg represented both the legacy and legitimacy of this mainstay of contemporary dance.

The evening opened with a recent piece, comically titled Brief Encounters. At first glance one might imagine a Calvin Klein photo shoot, with physically striking bodies strutting across a dimly lit stage in nothing but bras and briefs. However, the stripped-down quality of the costumes simply showcases the sheer strength and vitality of the company’s dancers. Andy LeBeau, former Taylor dancer and current manager, notes, “As a dancer, your body is your instrument and you’re proud of it.”

The piece, set to music of Claude Debussy, is situated in what appears to be the vacant halls of a Greco-Roman temple. With a backdrop featuring ancient columns and a narrowing stone hallway, the piece has a certain mythological quality, as if stepping into pantheon of Greek gods. With the first movements, including muscular poses and off-the-shoulder glances, the dancers themselves appear to be monuments of glory and beauty.

The title is referenced throughout the piece, with a constant display of passing encounters between various couplings of dancers. The ongoing exchanges felt at first humorous, flirtatious and entertaining. However, as the theme continues, one is anxious for resolution, for some fulfillment of the unsatisfied yearnings of the dancers. It is only in the final moment of the piece, when the last female dancer leaps into the air with a fierce punch that the spell seems to be broken.

The next piece took on a more ominous tone, reflecting distinctly religious themes of societal repression and temptation. Aptly titled The Word, the program notes include a Biblical verse taken from the Book of Hebrews, “For our God is a consuming fire.” With this reference it is difficult to make any conclusions from the piece that are not informed by one’s own spiritual and religious underpinnings.

The company was dressed in 1930’s-era parochial school uniforms, with blue knickers and stripped knee socks, white button-down shirts and suspenders. The men and women related to one another somewhat robotically, as if in a military line-up, unable to veer away from their designated role or position.

The counter point of such rigidity was reflected in a powerful performance by Parisa Khobdeh, who took on the personae of a villainous creature of seduction. Highly sexualized and uninhibited, she stomped and slithered throughout the unnerved dancers. Her demeanor carried striking resemblance to the Furies of Dante’s Inferno, the half-woman half-serpent creatures that shriek and convulse.

Heavy religious overtones intensified during a startling crucifixion scene, whereby one of the women was hoisted into mid-air, and visibly denigrated in front of the remaining onlookers. She was then inverted abruptly, suspended by her legs and ankles, as if having been dropped from a noose. The tension is quickly averted when the angry mob reverts back into a swarm of students who appear to be gallivanting innocently in a schoolyard playground.

The final piece, Brandenburgs, was a welcome departure from the more politicized, theatrical portrayals of the previous pieces. Dating back to 1988, the choreography was classically inspired, with evenly-paced momentum and symmetry. Set to the Baroque melodies of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the movement was courtly yet not without episodes of lighthearted escapades.

The dancers were cloaked in regal velvet, the men in dark green suits with gold breastplates, while the women strode gracefully across the space in ankle-length sage gowns, evoking the elegance and dignity of the Renaissance. The casual interplay between the dancers seemed to dispel any signs of angst or dissonance, and created a sense of restoration and acceptance.

With the breadth of choreography presented, it is clear that after decades of creating deeply thematic dances as well as showcasing movement for its own sake, Paul Taylor remains a vital source of genuine artistry.