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BWW Reviews: Contrasting Dances Highlight Paul Taylor's Ingenuity at the Lincoln Center

Two very different sides of Paul Taylor's artistry were on display at Lincoln Center this past Wednesday. The first piece in the evening's showcase, the Emmy Award-winning Speaking in Tongues, is a heady depiction of lust, religion, and the dark side of a close-knit community. (The title refers to a phenomenon-"soliloquies of streaming, frequently unintelligible, language-like utterance"-common in "Pentecostal churches dominated by charismatic ministers" in the American South.) All this is worlds away, or at least cultures away, from the night's second piece, Brandenburgs. This stately composition of Taylor's is set to two of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Although Brandenburgs suggests a rustic community of its own, this is a community with none of the political undertones (or underlying viciousness) of the congregation in Speaking in Tongues.

Though both pieces premiered in 1988, nobody is forcing you to decide which one Taylor did best. In fact, one of the delights of seeing Speaking in Tongues alongside Brandenburgs is discovering how Taylor's strengths recur in such seemingly dissimilar compositions. Each piece has some finely integrated ensemble sequences. But each piece also offsets individual dancers-and does so without gimmickry-in sequences that are thematically rich and, often, visually ecstatic.

Speaking in Tongues mostly tells the story of a charismatic yet flawed "Man of the Cloth" (Michael Trusnovec) who looks back on his younger years. There's also a side narrative involving "A Mother" (Amy Young) and "Her Unwanted Daughter" (Jamie Rae Walker), and a sequence or two about the misadventures of "A Party Girl" (Parisa Khobdeh). The program will tell you all this, take it or leave it. And I'd leave it. Attempt to follow Taylor's characters closely, and you may understand a few new things about the Taylor's themes of intoxication and alienation. Getting caught up in the dance's atmosphere of alternating intoxication and alienation is a different matter, and charting "who was doing what when" won't enable you to do that.

As a study of mass emotions and archetypal characters, Speaking in Tongues excels. Some of its touches are a bit obvious or overdone-watery movements to accompany watery sounds, unambiguous sex symbolism, everyone lying down at the end and holding folding chairs like coffin lids. But chiding Speaking in Tongues for being overdone is like chiding Whitman or Faulkner for being overdone. Such complaints soon seem trifling, especially when Taylor's work breaks right through the dangers of simplicity and sentiment and achieves moments of elemental power. There is one sequence where the community brutalizes a wayward member, and does so under the unwavering, sphinx-like gaze of the "Man of the Cloth." Could Taylor have achieved this fusion of Old Testament connotations, New Testament connotations, and sheer emotional force without working through an obvious passage or two? I'd say not.

After the sound and fury of Speaking in Tongues, the cool control of Brandenburgs can be either a happy reprieve or a bit of a letdown. The costuming employs a range of velvety greens, in contrast to the symbolically-loadEd Whites and blacks of Speaking in Tongues. One male and three female dancers take center stage in Brandenburgs, with the accompaniment of a five-man quintet. But Taylor doesn't let his "background" dancers go to waste; sometimes, his quintet dominates the stage and seems to command the pace of the dance. In any case, they may have the most memorable costumes-tights of a dark yet luminous evergreen hue.

Two sides of Taylor indeed, and Lincoln Center is nicely adapted to each. Set designer Santo Loquasto had a lot of space at his disposal, and his scenery uses the high ceilings of the David H. Koch Theater to create two different effects. Together with the show's stark lighting, the wooden plank background of Speaking in Tongues suggests a weather-beaten barn, but the stage's vertical dimensions also give the set an arena-like, monumental, Biblical aura. (Would some of Taylor's in-your-face material be better suited to a more cloistered set? You decide.) And the set of Brandenburgs is minimalistic and airy-appropriately pristine, and effortlessly so.

Taylor himself can add new layers of complexity to an entire piece with deceptively simple, bafflingly appropriate touches. This is the case when Brandenburgs temporarily sets aside its flowing skirts and sumptuous greens to focus on a single dancer, the wiry and magnetically watchable Michael Trusnovec. Trusnovec performs this solo with his torso bared, as if to remind us of the sheer muscle, sweat, and discipline behind the compositional smoothness of Brandenburgs. Watching him is like watching a Michelangelo sculpture perform passages of Bach. See it for yourself; that combination is even better than it sounds.

Something of the same sort happens early in Speaking in Tongues, when Trusnovec's "Man of the Cloth" dances across the stage with the jerky movements of a cartoon scarecrow or an old wind-up toy. In a lesser show, this would simply be bizarre or amusing; in Speaking in Tongues, this solo radiates a gruesome vitality-infects us with a rugged, empowered version of religious fanaticism, but also reminds us of such fanaticism's pitfalls and terrors. It isn't easy to sum up moments as affecting as these. Though perhaps "brilliant" isn't a bad description.

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