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French bonbons: Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Working Every Angle
By Mae G. Banner

Paul Taylor Dance Company

The Egg, May 7

Paul Taylor could make a dance out of the phone book and it would be wonderful—funny, sad, satiric, elegiac—whatever he has in mind, it comes out right.

The Taylor Company thrilled a nearly full house last Saturday at the Egg with a program of three dances, each totally distinct from the others, all drawn from the last 20 years of Taylor’s 50-year choreographic enterprise. He is a master architect. Each construction stands strong. Each speaks its own movement language, fleshed out with Taylor’s unerring choice of music, Jennifer Tipton’s inspired lighting, and savvy costumes by Gene Moore or Santo Loquasto.

Musical Offering (1986) to works of J.S. Bach is a dance of fierce emotion bound by a deliberately restricted way of moving. The dancers, in androgynous flesh-colored unitards or tights girdled with wide vertical strips of leather, resemble the carved wooden figures of a German clock in a town square. They move weightedly, on a two-dimensional plane. Bent elbows, flat feet, wrists crossed on their chests as if in mourning, they shift their weight from foot to foot like wooden pendulums, marking the beat.

Even when Richard Chen See does jumping jacks and jagged-leg leaps, or when Silvia Nevjinsky turns a smooth solo, angularity rules. A dancer might somersault over and over in the arms of four others, but her curving shape will be carved and unyielding.

Sometimes, as in Julie Tice’s solo, we can see the choreographic rule as she moves along a line of four dancers, her forearms chopping, her hands touching each in turn. We are satisfied, because we know what she’ll do next. And, then, Taylor wows us with an antic contrast as Tice begins to leap and dive among the men until they lift her in a tight sitting position and carry her off.

The dance builds to ever more complex group structures as Tipton lights the foreground dancers in the color of Jerusalem stone, while the background is a darker sand. Dancers sink to the ground, rise to their knees, stand and gather like the pipes on a church organ. At the climax, they are bathed in light.

So tightly structured, yet so overflowing with passion, Musical Offering is an elegiac, architectonic work.

Taylor’s mind skips from holy to howling in Funny Papers (1994) a comic strip dance that’s black and white in color, set to nutty novelty songs like “I Like Bananas Because They’ve Got No Bones.” Actually, Taylor got a little help from his dancers in making Funny Papers. He watched their after-hours goofing around and fiddled with the bits until they formed a dance.

You’d think this silly suite was a throwaway, but it is strictly constructed, as sharp as the creases on the dancers’ black and white jumpsuits, as clean as the flat-colored Sunday funnies lighting. The backdrops switch from red to purple to Kelly green, according to each section.

The dancers are having a ball. Their moves are athletic and broadly evocative of the songs: Robert Kleinendorst does a hornpipe, with bicep “muskels” as “Popeye, the Sailor Man,” while Tice and Lisa Viola are sooo shy in “Polka Dot Bikini.” The crowning bit is a double rendition of “I Am Woman,” first by Nevjinsky preening before a cast of men; then, reprised by Orion Duckstein with a cast of women. Sung in falsetto by an off-key female impersonator, this would knock the socks off a cabaret audience in Provincetown.

The whipped cream on the éclaire was Offenbach Overtures, (1995) a too-delightful spoof of the exquisite refinements of the French. Set in the Napoleonic era, it mingles can-can beauties in scarlet dresses and black corselets with virile naval officers in black bicorne hats and their army challengers in tall red shakos that look like molded mousses. They polka, they waltz, they make tiny bourees and shaky plies, they do giddy spins and strutting steps, all with grand passion—so grand, it is completely foolish.

In a duet reminiscent of The Merry Widow, Duckstein and the dark-eyed Heather Berest, a masked couple in black, are so enamored of their own stylishness, they almost float off the stage. Their linked wrists and exaggerated split-leg jumps push French delicacy to the limit. Yet, in a later balletic duet, they are so beautiful, you could weep.

According to Taylor’s rehearsal director and long-time collaborator Bettie de Jong, Offenbach Overtures cannot be performed in Europe because the French are insulted. I think the Paris Opera Ballet should make an equally satiric dance about Americans and see how we like it. In fact, Paul Taylor has done a few but they are more scary than funny, so the field is open.

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