The Master’s Touch: Paul Taylor at Lincoln Center
There is something about the way in which Paul Taylor’s dancers look at and touch each other that distinguishes them from almost every other dance company. The dancers don’t just take each other’s hands as partners in a dance, but rather seem to pause slightly to breathe in each other’s presence and the bond that exists between them. The Paul Taylor touch has a quality all its own, a kind of mature tenderness and love. For me, it is the secret ingredient that renders dances like “Esplanade” so powerful. No matter what the true situation may be behind the scenes—for all I know, they may be at each other’s throats, though I doubt it—onstage, the dancers seem to love and respect each other, and this feeling brings them closer to us. The main couple in the adagio in “Esplanade” is not just a pretty couple, dancing about love; in the way Paul Taylor has them interact with each other as people and members of a company, we se a reflection of ourselves, an expression of the love we feel for the people in our own lives. Even in the darkest, most dystopian dances, like “Big Bertha,” this quality of human interaction doesn’t change. The characters in Taylor’s dances may rape and pillage, but there’s still something fundamentally decent about the dancers themselves and the quality of their movement. It’s Taylor’s secret sauce.
Over the past few weeks (March 13-April 1), the Paul Taylor Dance Company has been performing at the David Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, its first season in this rather large house (over 2,500 seats). (The company’s move was made possible by the unfortunate departure of New York City Opera from its home of almost five decades.) Some people have wondered whether PTDC could fill such a large theatre, and about how the dances would “read”. In the three performances I saw, the theatre seemed well-attended, perhaps even full. And Taylor’s dancers certainly project—their clarity, athleticism, and, often, the power of their personalities, travel well. They are perhaps the most expansive modern-dance company, with the exception of Ailey. The scale of the stage has been somewhat reduced by a black frame that extends from the wings, creating a false proscenium. For those who visit the Koch frequently, it is certainly noticeable, but not really obtrusive. The tinny-sounding recordings are more of a problem, especially when the dances are set to classical music, but it’s a fact of life: like most dance companies, PTDC can’t afford an orchestra.
For the most part, the extra space allows these athletic dancers to really let loose, move expansively, let themselves go. The only piece in which, to my eye, the space appears too vast, is “Mercuric Tidings,” from 1982, a large ensemble dance set to movements from two Schubert symphonies. It’s already rather busy, with lots of running around, but here it looks rushed, almost hectic. The patterns barely have time to register before the dancers are rushing off somewhere else. And this work is a cornucopia of patterns. There is little time to finesse a phrase, or really shape a movement.
Taylor’s dancers are impressively athletic. The men tend to be big, strong, muscular, the better to dance bare-chested (as they often do). The women tend to be smaller (with some exceptions), but they certainly pull their weight. They dance with as much vigor as the men. Amy Young, who has truly blossomed this season, looks like she could dance all night and then swim a few laps, plus carry around half of the men. She also looks like she’s enjoying every minute, especially when she’s dancing with Michael Trusnovec. Trusnovec, too, is a model of precision, clarity, and legato phrasing—he moves like an animal, without any wasted energy. But then there is a dancer like James Samson—big, muscular, not quite so precise, but so touching, so full of sweetness. Trusnovec, like the lovely Laura Halzack, a master of the adagio, is so perfect, you can only admire him from afar—Samson is just a guy. He could be your sweet younger brother. Then there’s Michelle Fleet, the only African-American in the company; her dancing is full of joy and bubbly energy. Her hyperactive, running solo in “Esplanade” always gets a burst of applause, as does her sweet greeting at the end of the piece: “take this, it’s for you.” When she smiles, you believe her. There are young dancers coming up, as well, who seem to grow from season to season: Michael Novak, with his quiet, boy-next-door sensuality, or Heather McGinley, emanating loveliness and elegance with her long limbs and quiet focus. It’s no surprise Taylor cast her as the mysterious master-of-ceremonies in silver lamé in House of Cards (1981), revived this season.
The repertory performed—twenty-two pieces made over the course of five decades—is as varied as ever, with the usual highs and lows. “Esplanade” is an American masterpiece, a display of easy-going energy, reckless courage, loving companionship. To see the men cradle the women in the adagio, set to the slow movement from Bach’s “Double Concerto” in D, is to understand the desire to cherish and protect. The image of a woman standing, with great care, on her partner’s prone body and swaying slightly always brings a lump to my throat; it is the perfect visual metaphor for the careful, trusting balance of conjugal love. There is no humiliation in this kind of devotion. “Company B,” too, is masterful in its handling of themes of death, fear, loneliness, and an essential—perhaps deluded–American optimism that keeps us going, no matter what.
Then there’s a piece like “Big Bertha,” utterly weird and terrifying. A family of three goes to the fairground and falls under the spell of an evil mechanical marionette (Big Bertha). She pushes the father to do terrible things. At first, the viewer is taken by the eye-catching cleverness of the marionette’s movements (danced by Amy Young); jerkily, she walks and sways (with butt pads augmenting her bottom) to the eerie mechanical music of band machines. Then comes the boldness (and madness) of Taylor’s imagination: the father, played by the noble, blond Michael Trusnovec, gives in to his most repulsive impulses, ogling, then manhandling, then raping, and perhaps killing his daughter. You can’t quite believe what you’re seeing; is this really what Taylor means? The raping and pillaging is sealed with an open-mouthed kiss between the father—now a marionette himself—and Big Bertha. Then there is the equally bizarre humor of “Three Epitaphs,” with its imaginative costumes by Robert Rauschenberg (full body stockings covering everything, including the face, accessorized with mirrors on the palms of the hands); the five dancers, distinguishable only by size, sway, lope, and droop like a funny new breed of ape. Again, the musical choice is inspired: early New Orleans jazz. Somehow, the music and the dance just go together.
But there are also the hard-to-understand choices, like the use of a cheesy electronic-sounding new score by Donald York for one of the season’s première’s, the slight, humorous (sort of) “House of Joy,” performed mostly in mime. (It must be said that the piece was supposed to be set to Bartok, whose estate did not grant rights.) The humor in the piece, which deals with a group of tattered floozies competing for the attention of various “johns,” is very broad, and the music makes it seem even more so. Another eccentric musical selection: Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll”—a diaphanous miasma of sound—for the soft-focus “Roses” (1985). It is difficult to build a dynamic structure over such a cloud of sound; it drains the dance of energy or tension. Just as surprising is Taylor’s unusual penchant (also revealed in “Roses”) for creating images of almost perverse ugliness where one least expects them. Why does he, in the midst this paean to lyricism, ask one of his loveliest dancers (Laura Halzack) to lie on her back with her legs held aloft, and then split them so that her partner can cartwheel between them? Or, in “Junction”–an almost Cunningham-esque exploration of the ways in which musical phrasing and movement can overlap without really connecting–why does he have the dancers wiggle their arms behind their backs awkwardly, disjointedly, a movement that can not be executed with elegance? The bizarreness is part of the point; with Taylor, there is almost always an ambivalence, a contradiction somewhere.
The most substantial of the three premières this season, “The Uncommitted,” is full of Taylor-esque ambiguities. The music, by Arvo Pärt, is both familiar (the first section was used by Christopher Wheeldon for one of his most often-performed pas de deux, “Liturgy”) and hard to make steps to (again, no beat, no development). Taylor ignores this fact, and builds a series of portraits. At first, they seem abstract, but then a theme begins to emerge; the inability to connect. A couple struggles to get into sync. Two men fight. Two couples share the stage, seemingly happy, and then, laconically, begin to caress the leg of the other person’s partner. Perhaps because of Part’s transparent, static music, the dance—and the idea behind it– doesn’t really go anywhere. And yet, as usual, there are moments of enormous poignancy, as when one of the male dancers lifts his partner, turns with her in his arms, and cradles her, rocking her up and down, fluidly, without effort. At the end, Laura Halzack turns back toward her partner, Michael Trusnovec, but finds that he has almost left the stage. The sense of regret is real. It’s that Taylor touch.
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