Taylor’s Jumping-Off Places: Revivals and Playful Premieres

Every year, it seems, when the Paul Taylor Dance Company steps out at the City Center, at least one work from the past reasserts itself as especially masterly. Last year it was the pastoral Images . This year it’s Mercuric Tidings , Taylor’s glorious outburst of kinetic excitement to excerpts from Schubert’s first and second symphonies.

The 13 dancers in Mercuric Tidings are decked out in clingy, rose-colored tie-dye-boys bare-chested, girls bare-legged. From the first moment, they’re in perpetual motion, happily blasting through space, responding to Taylor’s genius for knowing how to get dancers on and off the stage and into and out of remarkable combinations. There’s a lull-a duet for Silvia Nevjinsky and Michael Trusnovec (now the company’s outstanding male dancer)-and then they’re all back for another roller-coaster ride.

Maintaining the accumulated energy that this wonderful work demands is the perfect challenge for the current Taylor company. It’s a group effort, and that suits the boys in particular: They’re throbbing with robust physicality and push. Unlike earlier Taylor male ensembles, this is not a bunch of highly individual guys (and no one was ever more individual than Paul Taylor himself); they’re somewhat homogenized. Which suits Tidings to a T-it’s a piece that doesn’t demand individuality so much as concentrated, consistent group impact. The dancers, all lucky 13 of them, never let up: So much is going on, at such high speed and for so long, that by the end, it’s you who’s left gasping for breath.

The entire company is dancing with renewed zest and brilliance. The two new girls are outstanding: Michelle Fleet, made of velvety dark chocolate, with her beautiful sculptured movement, and lovely Parisa Khobdeh, plucked-young, young, young-from the school and dancing full-out. Silvia Nevjinsky has refined her strength and glamour; she’s trying less hard and accomplishing more in her many important roles. Annmaria Mazzini-the “girl everybody loves,” as somebody put it lately-was at her most vibrant and intense, flinging herself at Trusnovec in another welcome revival, Runes , and in the high-octane Piazzolla Caldera . To my eyes, she’s somewhat miscast in that masterpiece Sunset ; we’re used to one of Taylor’s delicate shrimps as the girl who’s hazardously passed along from man to man way up in the air, and then picks her way down the backs of her crouching attendants.

As for Lisa Viola, now Taylor’s senior dancer (what with Patrick Corbin more or less retired-he turned up only once in the three programs), there seems to be nothing she can’t do. Small, with a charmingly odd face, she’s still the funniest performer since Beatrice Lillie-yet she can be fierce and explosive, as she demonstrates in Promethean Fire . This season she reveals a calm lyricism as well: Taking on the Kate Johnson role in Sunset , she was moving and luminous. As, of course, is the entire work.

Promethean Fire , now an accepted triumph, looks even better than it did last year in its first season. The dancers have settled into it. Or maybe we have. The question of whether this tumultuous outpouring of anguish and eventual resurrection is or isn’t a response to 9/11 seems even less to the point than it did a year ago. Its power lies in its dance invention, not in its possible allusions to actual events.

The season’s two premieres show Taylor in his playful mode-far from the apocalyptic world of Promethean Fire . In the Beginning is set to music by Carl Orff, including portions of Carmina Burana , a work I’d had enough of the first time I heard it. Luckily, much of its hearty pretentiousness has been stripped away by new, straightforward orchestration. On hand are Jehovah (the wholesomely pleasing Andy LeBeau); Adam (there are four of him) and Eve (there are five of her); their crop of kids; and, of course, a bright red apple-or, rather, several of them. Adam(s) and Eve(s) do their thing; the first two babies crawl out through Eve’s legs and proceed lightning-fast through thumb-sucking to murder; a bunch of boys swarm around Mazzini (they’re no fools) in “Naked and Not Ashamed”; and eventually everyone is “Sent Forth From the Garden”-only to be raised up into Heaven (or somewhere) by a Jehovah transformed into, let us say, a more Gentile deity. If a clever comic-strip version of Genesis is up your alley, this piece may amuse you.

As for Le Grand Puppetier , it’s a gloss on Fokine’s famous Petrushka , set to Stravinsky’s own pianola version of the score. Some years ago, Taylor performed the same service for Le Sacre du Printemps , using Stravinsky’s two-piano version, and came up with a bolder, more ambitious work than this one-mostly because he traveled farther away from the original. Le Grand Puppetier is both romp and tragedy. The sad-sack Puppet-Nijinsky was the original-is played by Patrick Corbin in a white-satin Pierrot costume; the puppet-master and his doll-ballerina are reimagined as the Emperor and His Daughter; the Blackamoor is now both His Courtier and His Red Guardsman. Everyone is dressed in bright, bright colors-this isn’t an outdoor fair in Russia in winter, it’s Anywhere, Anytime. The Emperor (Richard Chen See, superb in a bizarre Napoleon outfit) is a meanie, forcing his wayward daughter (Lisa Viola, of course) to marry the ultra-swishy Courtier (Robert Kleinendorst, very funny in purple) when it’s handsome, military Michael Trusnovec she wants-he’s the Guardsman in red. The Emperor is also a cruel dictator to his trembling, peasanty Subjects, ruling them with his magic sword-wand. The Puppet snatches it away and turns it on the tyrant, liberating everyone from his sway … until it’s snatched back and things are back to the way they were, only worse. Moral: You can’t keep a good dictator down.

There’s not a lot of dancing in Le Grand Puppetier ; it’s mostly mime and comic turns. But it raises, and partly answers, an interesting question: What can you do with the Fokine repertory these days? It’s years since we’ve seen an effective Petrushka , despite its great score and its vast historic importance as one of Diaghilev’s (and Nijinsky’s) greatest triumphs. These days, dance-drama is hard to put across, partly because there are no great dramatic dancers (though wouldn’t you like to see Mark Morris as Fokine’s puppet?), but more likely, I suspect, because it’s a genre that has lost out in the race with Balanchine’s emphasis on pure dance. It’s not accidental that whereas Petrushka , Schéhérazade and the original Fokine Firebird seem drained of life today, his “abstract” Les Sylphides can still breathe. Paul Taylor has used Petrushka as a jumping-off place, tipping his hat to Fokine while keeping his distance. One incontrovertible lesson he teaches us (if we needed the lesson): Stravinsky’s score, in whatever version, is still excitingly alive.