Paul Taylor’s Young Dancers Show Off His Sly Old Mastery

Of the 15 dancers performing for Paul Taylor in his recent two-week season at the City Center, only four have been with the company for as long as six years. Which may explain why the season was tilted so radically toward Mr. Taylor’s newer works he’s showing off his new kids in pieces made specifically for them, or which came into the repertory while they were coming into the repertory. It made for an odd but interesting imbalance: except for the opening-night gala, no “classic” Taylor, one ambitious revival and everything else from today, yesterday or maybe the day before. So no old favorites, but in a fair exchange, a comprehensive view of this most recent phase of a great choreographer’s lifework.

There were two new pieces, neither one a real departure. Dandelion Wine is a charmer, though the latest in Mr. Taylor’s explorations of Baroque music, in this case a busy Locatelli concerto. The veteran Richard Chen See is a kind of celestial ringmaster dressed in canary yellow and presiding over seven other dancers all in white, with different colorful belts or sashes, and all very summery and cheerful. It’s a piece about dancers, or angels, or just plain happy humans coming together in mutual respect and affection. With little tripping leaps they dash joyously in diagonals across the stage; the girls are carried aloft in lifts that are loving gestures of connection, not arid technical feats. And then, holding hands, they braid themselves into a growing tangle that ends, ridiculously but inevitably, in a massive pile-up. Mr. Taylor credits the complications of Locatelli’s music plus the Three Stooges for his inspiration here, but we can’t help thinking not only of Balanchine’s entwinements in Concerto Barocco, but Peter Anastos’ sublime parody of them (for the Trocks), Go for Barocco. Dandelion Wine is a feel-good piece, and for its dancers, it’s a look-good piece. Julie Tice, the latest pint-sized tornado in the long line of Taylor tornadoes, happily bopped her way into our awareness: a perfect introduction to a new talent. The blazing Annmaria Mazzini and the tempestuous Michael Trusnovec stood out, as they do in everything they dance. But there were no weak dandelions in this cup of wine.

If the ancestors of Dandelion Wine are Aureole and Esplanade, two of Mr. Taylor’s greatest successes, the ancestor of Fiends Angelical is Runes, that dark, compelling exploration of primitive ritual, one of his most profound works. Fiends Angelical is hardly on its level, but as a further exploration of this side of Mr. Taylor’s world view, it commands our interest. The eight angelical fiends are dressed in body stockings that suggest nudity despite splotches of strong color; their heads are topped by glinting, reddish-black, Brillo-like stand-up wigs. Behind them hangs a huge gray-black construction resembling a gravestone rubbing. Instead of a congenial ringmaster supervising things, there’s a horned goddess (is she Cretan?) yet another avatar of the She Who Must Be Obeyed figure who recurs so frequently in Mr. Taylor’s work. (“She” is the gorgeous and authoritative Silvia Nevjinsky.) At one point, the company’s two senior dancers, Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola, emerge from the tumbling, convulsing crowd and not only struggle with each other but in a climax of fury commit mutual strangulation. “She” crowns the ritual nature of this death by restoring them to life with a bit of magic involving a long red (umbilical?) cord that she bites in two. The dancing turns more solemn, daylight takes hold, and a kind of harmony is achieved. The music, with its blasts of sounds, is George Crumb’s Black Angels, as harsh and demanding as the piece it inspired.

The major revival was Musical Offering, from 1986. This long work is a noble attempt to explore Bach’s great score, with its theme stated at the opening in a beautiful solo (originally for the nonpareil Kate Johnson, here danced with dignity and clarity if with less individuality by Maureen Mansfield). The variations for solo, small groups and the entire cast of 14 explore the theme ingeniously and often passionately. The look is vaguely Polynesian, the vocabulary of gesture somewhat flat, with arms bent at the elbow in Egyptian-like profile. I admire this piece, but it doesn’t convince me that the densest, deepest Bach is music to dance to (Jerome Robbins’ The Goldberg Variations makes me feel the same way). It’s the springy, energized Bach of Esplanade and Concerto Barocco that cries out to be danced.

I also have a musical problem with Eventide, which is set to two Ralph Vaughan Williams pieces. This soupy strain of English pastoralia always makes me want to get somewhere urban fast, and so the lovely pairings Mr. Taylor has devised to the music are wasted on me. On the other hand, last year’s two new pieces Cascade, another work to Bach, and Arabesque, to Debussy have settled into themselves as their young dancers have settled into them.

Of the more or less comic pieces that Mr. Taylor has made since his hit Company B, the strongest is Funny Papers, and it was triumphantly carried off by a cast mostly new to it even though it’s only seven years old. The Santo Loquasto costumes work perfectly, the women white in front, black in back; the men black in front, white in back. Things start off with a bang, with Mr. Chen See dragging the increasingly valuable Kristi Egtvedt across the stage to the 1960 No. 1 hit “Alley-Oop” (I grew up on the comic strip in the old World-Telegram). High points include the newcomer Robert Kleinendorst, ever so slightly plump and charmingly eager, leading the Popeye section; Lisa Viola (she of the greatest deadpan since Buster Keaton) and Julie Tice preening and shivering to the immortal “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini”; and first Ms. Nevjinsky, then a surprisingly funny Orion Duckstein a rapidly improving dancer in that ghastly anthem “I Am Woman.” I wish the Taylor program would credit the performers of these songs, particularly the glorious Jo Stafford who, in her parody guise as Darlene Edwards, managed to make “I Am Woman” even more ghastly than it already was with her just-off-key intonation and her wickedly awful phrasing.

Last year at this time I mourned the departure of Francie Huber and Andrew Asnes, and I miss them still. Yet the senior members of the company have stepped up to replace them, and most of the youngsters are getting better and better. Mr. Trusnovec, Ms. Mazzini and Ms. Nevjinksy are giving star performances even when they’re not cast in star roles. Heather Berest and Mr. Duckstein are quietly proving themselves. Mr. Kleinendorst and Ms. Tice are launched. Although Paul Taylor is probably the most popular choreographer in America, it’s easy to take him for granted at 70, he just keeps rolling along. New dances and new dancers, yes, but the same old sly mastery not only of choreography but of the audience. Is there any dance figure New Yorkers love more?