The Paul Taylor Dance Company hit town last night, thanks to White Bird, and maybe that’s all you need to know. Taylor has bent his mind and body to making dances in the U.S. since 1954, and he’s one of the few modern dance choreographers these days with a national reach and reputation. Although he hasn’t created a dance quite so legendary as Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” say, or operated quite so centrally in the serious dance world as Merce Cunningham, he’s still among the most recognizable names in modern dance, if not not the very first one.
I’ve always found this surprising, because I find his dances so personal and quirky, twisty and even nutty, that I have a hard time understanding how he attracts as large an audience as he does, even though his dances can be quite beautiful. Not that—in the grander scheme of things—ANY modern dance choreographer attracts as large an audience as the worst sitcom on network television, more’s the pity. But so many Taylor dances have a mordant humor, and frankly, mordant dance, even with a sense of humor, doesn’t seem like the pathway to fame.
The three dances that the PTDC performed here are a case in point, and I’ll write about them rather briefly, not so much to “review” them as to catalog a few of their disquieting elements. For those who haven’t seen the company, I should probably say that Taylor’s dancers are excellent, quick and definite but also retaining some of the wateriness of the fluid movement experiments of the Sixties and Seventies, which our more expressive, muscular time has replaced. This is especially true of the women in the company, but even Michael Trusnovec, an astonishing dancer who deserves a story all his own. Paul Taylor has always worked with fine dancers (Trusnovec’s most recent equivalent was the glorious Patrick Corbin), and the tradition continues.
Let’s drop in on the dances, starting with the first one, “Brandenburgs” (1988), which naturally enough is danced to Bach. On the face of it, it’s a jolly enough dance to the bright tempo of the music, full of classical poses and funny bouncing and prancing around the stage. The three women (Amy Young, Parisa Khobdeh and Eran Bugge) provide the sinuous counterpoint to the unison leaping and calisthenics of the five men. As I watched, I thought of the men as Austrian goatherds, maybe because Santo Loquasto’s costumes seem vaguely Alpine to me.
Then Trusnovec arrives and his interplay with the women is…strange. They seem to compete for his attention, not that any one of them can keep it once it’s attracted. And Trusnovec spends a LOT of stage time standing still, just watching the women, aloof, faintly imperious.
So, we have Bach danced playfully and whimsically, though quite well and full of some gorgeous classically lovely moments, and then a psychosexual element of attraction and competition right in the middle of the gentle burlesque.
Next up, the most recent dance on the program, “The Uncommitted” (2011), an altogether darker dance to somber (and beautiful) music by Arvo Part. And it doesn’t fit my thesis very well, because it doesn’t wander into goofy territory at all, though it extends the battle of the sexes idea that “Brandenburgs” planted. It also picks up a frequent gesture in that dance—an arm tucked hard against the side with the elbow cocked at a particular acute angle—but that’s another story, one I’m not prepared to tell, about shared phrases and the semaphore of the movement, how it projects an independent meaning all its own maybe or somehow underscores the more surface “story” of the dance.
Taylor fills “The Uncommitted” with lots of inventive partnering, though it isn’t “lovely” dueting, really. It tends to be a little awkward and difficult, and sometimes it becomes overtly hostile: a man reaches across to embrace his partner and she pushes his hand away. Maybe the most telling sequence is at the end, a sort of “Survivors” scenario, with the ensemble shedding dancers gradually, until only a man and a woman are left. They break away and head for separate corners of the stage; she turns back toward him and gestures longingly; he continues off stage without glancing backwards.
And then we were dropped into the odd world of “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)” (1980), which mixes a weird ‘30s detective melodrama plot into a dance rehearsal, maybe a dance about a weird detective story. No, nothing to do with pagan rituals, though the Stravinsky was played beautifully by two Portland pianists, Jeffrey Payne and Susan DeWitt Smith.
John Rawlings’ set and props help tell this narrative, though audience members who can’t follow it will be forgiven entirely: I only know what happened because I did a little research ahead of time. It involves a jewel heist, a kidnapping, police chases, a dream sequence, and a stage strewn with bodies at the end. The whole thing is a little crazy.
What does it mean? I guess I see it as a social/political commentary, something about the way we grasp for the loot, how absurd it makes us look, tragic and absurd. The doll (representing the kidnapped baby) doesn’t stand a chance!
I’m not making a big point here. Taylor’s work is complicated because he allows it to channel lots of different parts of himself—his whimsy, his sense of the surreal, his dyspeptic view of relationships, his confusion, his hurt, his need to communicate. And his choreography expresses these aspects of himself and the music he chooses as a soundtrack in seemingly simple but ultimately demanding ways.
Even when the elements are at war with each other, it’s pretty interesting stuff. Maybe ESPECIALLY when they are at war with each other. After all, we’re all a little disjointed, unintegrated, irritable, dissatisfied, pessimistic—at least some of the time, yes? Or maybe Paul Taylor and I are the only ones?
I interviewed Taylor once, on the phone before one of the company’s other four visits to Portland during White Bird’s 15 year run. And the part that is most appropriate here ran like this:
Me: I liked what you said about Debussy, about how there’s always something unsettling under the surface of so much of his work. And I guess I think of your work in a similar way.
Taylor: Well, I’m a realist. I report. The world is not all glossy.
Taylor: And I’m not either.
Paul Taylor as a reporter is quite delicious. Of course, he’s not just reporting on his sense of the world, he’s also reporting on his own “interiors”—his memories, his emotions, his private thoughts. Instead of attempting to quash or mask those, they come rolling out on stage, too. Particular to Taylor, sure, but something all of us do, too.
I suppose all I’m trying to do here is argue myself out of my own sense of surprise at Taylor’s relative popular success. OK, I give in! At some point, usually multiple points, in just about every Taylor dance I’ve ever seen, I’ve wanted to turn to my seat neighbor and say, “Did you just see THAT?!?!” And that’s a pretty amazing thing, all by itself.
If you are still perplexed by “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal),” Deborah Jowitt can help you out!