BWW Reviews: The Contained Energy of Paul Taylor
The first time I saw Paul Taylor's choreography in the flesh--a 2013 performance of Speaking in Tongues--I assumed that I was in the presence of a sprawling, restless, brilliantly extravagant artistic intelligence. Yet the more Paul Taylor I witness, the more I realize how tightly coiled and fastidiously arranged his compositions can get. Among the prime examples of this are two of the Paul Taylor dances that recently took the stage at Lincoln Center--Company B and Piazzolla Caldera, pieces that rely on compact vignettes, graduated tension, and firm resolution. As always, there is the temptation to compare Taylor to quintessentially ambitious American artists-the Whitmans, the Faulkners, the Pollocks of this world. On the basis of these works, though, the better comparison might be to a master of blistering minutiae--Emily Dickinson, Sherwood Anderson, Edward Hopper, or any other American genius who realized that the best thing to do with ambition, sometimes, is to let it seethe.
The night began, in fascinatingly gradual fashion, with a work in the Taylor spirit--not a bona fide piece of Paul Taylor choreography. Conceived, choreographed, and coordinated down to its costumes all by one man, Shen Wei's Rite of Spring locates patches of strangeness and dissonance in a cultural classic, but without too much disruption or any irreverence. Sound like anyone? The difference is that Taylor has no problem relaxing his control over his dancers, within limits. Not so for Wei. As this Rite of Spring begins, sixteen performers walk gingerly to their places, their movements about as expressive as the motions of wind-up toys. Yet the benefit of all this--and of the freakishly fast, freakishly well-coordinated sequences that follow--is that such an approach allows Wei to purposefully manipulate tone and atmosphere. The costumes and the setting are dominated by staid blues, blacks, and grays, which play against the keyed-up dances--tense tiptoe movements, "how did nobody collide?" moving arrangements, and individual dancers racing, racing across the stage in something that borders on panic.
From there, the program switched mood significantly. The next selection, Company B, was Taylor's response to the World War II-inflected music of the Andrews Sisters--a sometimes melancholy, mostly cheery display of Americana, and the weaker of the night's two Taylors. (To be fair, whenever the New York City Ballet sets showtunes and old pop songs to dance, the results aren't half as good.) Part of the problem is that all-American modern dance has never been a particularly strong vehicle for comedy: though there are exceptions (that means you, Jerome Robbins), Taylor's slapstick versions of "Oh Johnny!" and "Rum and Coca-Cola" wear out their welcome quickly. Part of the problem is that the music loops and repeats too much to give the dancers anywhere to go--a problem especially for the subtle Michelle Fleet and the normally indispensable Michael Trusnovec, who is not put to particularly good use anywhere in this showcase. But Taylor reasserts his own talents, at least, in the more melancholy numbers. Watch the background in "There Will Never Be Another You", and you will see Taylor's male dancers forming stick-figure silhouettes-complementing the forlorn duet in the foreground with their own lonely, unflinching gestures.
The last selection, Piazzolla Caldera, transports us away from Americana and to straight to Latin America, in all its sultriness: lots of red and black and, in case this isn't a giveaway, a quotation from Pablo Neruda in the program. An aggressively physical composition, but not in the expected fashion-the mass, weight, and effort of motion and dance soon become Taylor's subject, and the expected south-of-the-border raciness becomes an afterthought. The male dancers grab one another's ankles and flip one another over, like un-costumed Mummenschantz; in one of the best sequences, Francisco Graciano and Michael Arpuzzo slide past, under, and off one another, vital human beings turned into weary globs of muscle.
Despite these gestures of avant-garde aptitude, Taylor's sense of composition ultimately takes the upper hand. Both Company B and Piazzolla Caldera wrap up with "get everybody on the stage" finales, a move that works fine enough with the Andrews Sisters but cuts against the tougher music of Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky. But after the pleasing spectacle and the occasional insight of Taylor's dances, why complain about a little more spectacle? He's Paul Taylor. He can do anything he wants--even play by dance's rules.