for success: The Paul Taylor Dance Company.
By Susan Mehalick
Taylor Dance Company
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.
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,
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.