Hits, Misses, Surprises Add Up: Taylor Emerges a Clear Winner

Audiences love Paul Taylor, and so do I. Not everything, and not always, but year in, year out, he gives me more concentrated pleasure than I get from any other dance company. This is by no means a universal view-some people find him old-fashioned (just as some people find Balanchine and Ashton old-fashioned). Others find his dancers (and some of his dances) too cute, too smiley. Others say he repeats himself. I say that these criticisms may sometimes apply, but so what? He has given us a generous array of masterpieces, and he can still surprise-what more can you ask for?

This season brought back two of his most striking works. The company’s signature piece, Esplanade (1975), never fails to thrill, with its slam-bang finale in which the dancers fling themselves across the stage in churning runs and reckless slides. You’d have to be comatose not to respond. And Last Look (1985) terrifies with its vision of despair. Confined within Alex Katz’s brilliant construct of mirrored walls, the dancers writhe, twitch, convulse, shudder and abuse each other and themselves in their violent narcissism and self-imposed moral anguish. The hell of Sartre’s famous No Exit has been expanded from three characters to nine.

Taylor also revived another superb piece, the 1977 Images , which I don’t think I’ve seen in 20 years. Set to Debussy piano music, it’s more Apollonian than the Dionysian Last Look , more modernist than the deceptively quotidian Esplanade . Images is one of Taylor’s “primitive” pieces, with its in-profile references to Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun (the Debussy connection) and its totems and oracles. But unlike the ominous Runes , for instance, it’s serene and sunny-in fact, its last section is called “Sunburst.” Who knows when this beautiful and moving piece will turn up again? Try to catch one of the few remaining performances this week at the City Center.

It’s always fascinating to watch new dancers take over roles in established (and favorite) works. Lisa Viola is not new to Last Look , but I don’t recall her ever having shown this degree of fierceness, of frenzy-she seems to shatter herself against the ground in her agony. And this is the same woman who can be so devastatingly funny! (No wonder she appears to be Taylor’s favorite dancer.) I found her a touch too studied in the Carolyn Adams role in Esplanade , just as Patrick Corbin looked a little underpowered and Heather Berest lacked the powerful stage presence of Bettie de Jong. But in a happy trade-off, the young Amy Young illuminated the stage. She’s a very pretty, tallish blonde who radiates niceness-she’s the girl next door (if only!). Yet she’s the most electric creature on stage at the end of Esplanade , tucking her legs up just a little higher than anyone else as she slams into her unnerving slides. And in Images , the girl next door becomes a trembling, spasming oracle, transfixed in ecstatic prophecy. Young is a big talent, in wonderful counterpoint to the company’s other young star, the thrillingly sensual Annmaria Mazzini. As of now, the younger men-with the exception of Michael Trusnovec, who’s clearly in line to step into Corbin’s roles-are not as interesting as the younger women: They’re less individual, more generic.

One of the other pieces back in the repertory, Offenbach Overtures , has ripened since its premiere in 1995. Paul Taylor has made no secret of his quarrel with classic ballet-he’s still in the trenches fighting the ballet vs. modern wars-and this spoof of ballet’s excesses and of the mannerisms and vanities of its dancers is not entirely loving. But it’s very funny. And it demonstrates that Taylor has paid a lot more attention to ballet than he might want to acknowledge.

Another comic piece, Snow White , has lost rather than gained since its premiere 20 years ago. This was never much more than a clever turn, but with its original cast it had charm. Orion Duckstein gets away with his evil Queen, but when he shows up again as the Prince, all one can think of is Elie Chaib, whose fatuity was of Olympian proportions. Duckstein is merely bland. And how can one not miss the cool beauty and unruffled self-regard that Ruth Andrien brought to Snow White herself? Even the dwarves (five, not seven) are more homogenized today than they were back then. Snow White demands more distinctive personalities than it’s receiving this time round.

Cascade (1999) is back, too, and though it’s proficient, it’s less interesting than the other two Bach works on view this season, Esplanade and the new Promethean Fire . In Cascade , Taylor seems to be marking time. Last year’s hit Black Tuesday , also back, was a return for Taylor to a tried and true formula that’s worked brilliantly for him before (most notably in Company B ): It’s set to a suite of popular songs which illustrate and comment on a given historical moment-World War II in Company B , the Depression in Black Tuesday . Those two dances manage to both reflect and undermine the pop hits they’re set to; Taylor goes for their dark underbelly, unlike, say, Twyla Tharp, whose Nine Sinatra Songs and Deuce Coupe are pure celebrations of their musical material.

The new Dream Girls is a less happy venture into this genre. The music is a series of barbershop-quartet versions of old American songs, with a quartet of male dancers standing in for the barbers. There are some terrific passages, particularly a galvanic solo for Corbin to “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,” in which one leg of his huge black-and-white striped pants is yards too long, becoming almost a partner in the dance while Corbin struggles (successfully) to tame it. This is great virtuoso stuff. But the overall tone of Dream Girls is negative: The dark underbelly of these songs turns out to be women.

There’s the Sally of “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally”-Taylor’s touchstone here is clearly Sally Rand, the famous stripper, with her huge white feathered fans and a couple of jugs of moonshine where her biological “jugs ” are located (sorry; it’s an inescapable connection). There’s “Hard-Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah),” a 1924 hit whose heroine not only enjoys “pouring water on a drowning man” but likes “to tease ‘em and thrill ‘em, to torture and kill ‘em”-but at least doesn’t kick ‘em in the balls, the way the pistol-packing Lisa Viola does in the Taylor version. And then there’s the gospelly “So High So Low So Wide,” featuring a grotesque caricature of a balloon-fat woman (little Julie Tice). Everyone is got up in Police Gazette –type costumes (talk about bustiers!), but the final effect is one of misogyny, despite a last-minute attempt to soften the blows with Viola leading a serioso “Now the Day Is Over” as the curtain falls. Is the point to show how these frequently sentimental songs either idealized or demonized women? One thing’s certain: Even when their hands aren’t protecting their tenderer parts, the guys in Dream Girls are scared shitless.

Taylor’s other new piece, Promethean Fire , has the immediate impact that signals a major work. The entire company, 16 strong, has been deployed in this headlong and passionate response to … to what?

There has been speculation that Promethean Fire is a response to Sept. 11, but surely that’s too limiting; we don’t have to identify the specific “meaning” of the piece any more than we have to pin down the “story” of Balanchine’s Serenade . The meaning of the propulsive Promethean Fire lies in Taylor’s engagement with the music of Bach as heightened, if that’s the word, by Leopold Stokowski. Indeed, Stokowski’s Bach, in its grandeur-or grandiosity, take your pick-is the connection to Walt Disney’s Fantasia , which Taylor has identified as an inspiration for this large-scale and deeply felt piece.

Although there’s a beautiful central duet for the company’s senior dancers, Corbin and Viola, a duet of conflict and resolution punctuated by a death-defying leap-Viola flies backwards over what seems to be half the stage into Corbin’s arms-the heart of Promethean Fire resides in its group spiralings and endlessly changing formations. They’re charged with significance, viscerally exciting. To my eyes, the black unitard costumes-by Santo Loquasto-are a little too chic, but they don’t distract, and of course the lighting, by the great Jennifer Tipton, who has worked with Taylor forever, is incandescently beautiful. We’ll see if Promethean Fire holds up through the years. Meanwhile, it’s a necessary reminder-like Sunset 20 years ago, and other landmarks in his career-that Paul Taylor is a master. Yes, sometimes he may disappoint, but far more important is that he can still astonish.