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Formula for success: The Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Food for Thought

By Susan Mehalick

Paul Taylor Dance Company
Empire Center at the Egg, Oct. 4

It can’t be easy to be the “world’s greatest living choregrapher”—at least that’s what a program note said Newsweek magazine has called Paul Taylor. When you’re the “greatest” people expect to be blown away all the time. Never mind that for someone like Taylor, the reputation has been earned over the course of almost 50 years of making modern dances—some masterpieces, some not. I guess that’s my way of saying I wasn’t bowled over by the Taylor troupe’s dance-season opener at the Egg, and I confess that I’ve never really been—bowled over by the troupe, that is.

While Taylor is a great artist and his dances can be beautiful, witty and thought-provoking, for someone who has come of age in the post-postmodern age, his work has always struck me as somewhat, well, mainstream. It’s a matter of personal preference. But while I’m being honest, I’ll also be fair, because there have been times when I’ve found myself thinking about a Taylor dance long after the curtain has come down, only to understand it on a deeper level than when I experienced it in the theater. That’s a hallmark of good art.

That said, the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s three-dance program at the Egg was what I expected: It featured topflight dancers performing refined and intricate choreographies, filled with clean lines and sometimes unexpected turns, but by and large it lacked a certain passion or spark.

The program opened with Roses (1985), an elegant ballet for six male-female couples; it’s one of those lyrical pieces that looks like it could easily make the transition from bare feet to pointe shoes. It’s a simply gorgeous pastoral that seems to float above the gentle strings of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Heinrich Baermann’s Adagio for Clarinet and Strings as it calls to mind the slow awakening of spring to the full bloom of summer.

The majority of the dance features five couples arranged in classic lines that flow seamlessly into wide open circles, or paired off to perform duets as their counterparts recline in pairs on the stage’s perimeter, backs to the audience. There is a proper air to the dance’s earlier sections that Taylor turns on its ear when he responds to the crescendoes in the music with some unexpected, if very gracefully executed, passages filled with dancers somersaulting or cartwheeling over one another. While choreographically exquisite, the dance grows longwinded and I felt that a sixth couple, dressed in white, introduced near the dance’s end had little purpose except to fill up the music.

Promethean Fire, the third dance, which premiered earlier this year, was at times a feat of choreographic grandeur and sheer crowd control as the full 16-member troupe negotiated its way through criss-crossing lines and swirling spirals, or flew airborne only to land by collapsing to roll across the floor. In the dance’s first half, Taylor pulls out every audience-pleasing trick in the book: lots of bodies on stage, complex patterning, high-flying dancers. But the momentum of the piece waned and the titular fire fizzled before the last step was danced.

Sandwiched between these two abstract works was the poignant, thought-
provoking and even humorous Black Tuesday (2001), a dance set to a medley of Depression-era songs. Those familiar with Taylor’s work recognized it as being of the same ilk as his Company B (1991), set to Andrews Sisters songs from the World War II era, and Funny Papers (1994), set to a bunch of old-time novelty tunes. Making dances to music medleys of once-popular tunes has proven a successful form for Taylor, especially since it provides ample opportunity for nostalgia, humor and as much social commentary as a viewer cares to read into it.

Thriteen dancers portray a variety of characters—a down-on-his-luck dandy, some hoboes, some glamourous dames, a young street urchin, a World War I vet, and an unbelievably agile pregnant gal—indicated by Santo Loquasto’s effective, stylized period costumes. These characters are featured in various combinations in a series of dance vingettes set to eight songs.

We see glimpses of vaudevillian dance (“Underneath the Arches”), social dance (“There’s No Depression in Love”) and humor amid the misery (“Sittin’ on a Rubbish Can”, a paradoxically playful turn for the aforementioned unmarried pregnant gal; and “I Went Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf Is Dead,” a quick, cute turn for a nimbled-footed imp). However, although the piece has a playful overtone, the dire nature of the time was driven home in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” a sad dance for a down-and-out dame who finds herself swept away into a seedy underworld, and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” wherein a proud vet is reduced to begging for a handout.

While the dance transports us to another time and place, in these times of economic downturn and post Sept. 11 trauma, its themes offer plenty of food for thought slyly dressed up in an otherwise easy to swallow entertainment.

 


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