Fifty Years of Paul Taylor, A Wise Loner Looking In

Why do we love Paul Taylor? (Not the man, although we love him too, but the work.) There’s the all-out energy and commitment with which his dancers move. There’s the offbeat mind that finds large dance possibilities in such odd places. There’s the unerring taste in music, in costume, in lighting. There’s the way he accomplishes exactly what he intends, however obscure, while never forgetting that there’s an audience out there. (In other words, he’s a man of the theater as well as of the studio.) But all that doesn’t explain the strong personal connection we feel to the content of his work. We don’t say “He’s so musical,” as with Mark Morris, or “He’s so interesting,” as with Merce Cunningham, or “He’s so smart,” as with Twyla Tharp. We give him not just admiration but visceral response.

What is he telling us? Many things, of course, and that’s part of the thrill. A choreographer like Martha Graham, in whose company he danced for half a dozen years, speaks from and to her own situation: Jocasta, Clytemnestra, Medea, Joan of Arc, the two Emily’s (Dickinson and Brontë)-they’re all Graham struggling to express and reveal herself. Taylor stands outside the worlds he creates: He registers everything-the glory of community, the dangers of community; the joy of living, the skull beneath the skin; both the power and the fragility of human connection-then shows it to us through a blazing yet impersonal prism. He’s a loner looking in rather than a volcano spilling out. As his laser-beam eye relentlessly exposes our nervous humanity, he smiles, shudders, sympathizes-not with his sufferings, with ours.

Currently, we’re in the midst of honoring the 50th anniversary of Taylor’s company, and his gift to us is a three-week season at the City Center rather than the two weeks his seasons have shrunk to in recent years. As a result, we’ve been reveling in an expanded repertory-19 works, from the early 3 Epitaphs (1956) to the new Klezmerbluegrass and Dante Variations. This is the closest we’ve had to a proper retrospective, and so our clearest opportunity to absorb his extraordinary range and variety. Taylor has been criticized for having a limited vocabulary, yet even as we observe, over and over, the tilting, listing bodies, the diagonal leaps and perilous slides across the stage, we come to realize that each ballet has its own highly specific language, from the happy minimalism of Esplanade to the tormented writhings of Last Look; that one Baroque masterpiece like Aureole is different in kind from another, like Arden Court; that the Depression-era accents of Black Tuesday are nothing like the wartime accents of Company B, even if they’re both set to popular songs of the period. In other words, a strong, directed intelligence is at play.

Taylor the loner manifests himself throughout his career. One dancer may be set apart from the others-today, it’s often the prodigious Lisa Viola who, when she’s not being the funniest performer on earth, or the most frenetic, can be a riveting still center, the eye of the Taylor hurricane. So we see her in the magnificent Syzygy, the most purely exciting dance piece I can think of, slowly revolving on the pad of one foot while, all around, her colleagues crash and burn. Then there’s the mysterious dominatrix, the role originated in so many pieces by Bettie de Jong. She appears in the second section of Esplanade to modify and redirect the action; she’s the Rehearsal Mistress in Le Sacre du Printemps; she’s Big Bertha herself, that terrifying mechanical agent of destruction. Who is this outsider, whether benign or malign? A stand-in for the choreographer? By choosing so frequently to create such a commanding or commenting role on a woman, Taylor is placing himself at a further remove from direct responsibility for what happens in his works: That one did it, not me.

This season, as it happens, a man is playing Big Bertha for the first time. As Patrick Corbin, Taylor’s senior dancer, recedes from the regular repertory, he’s been rewarded with this tremendous opportunity, impersonating one of the most malevolent characters in dance. (There are precedents: Both Sleeping Beauty’s wicked fairy, Carabosse, and La Sylphide’s vengeful Madge are frequently performed by men.) Corbin plays it straight-no camping, no winking. His heft and authority add to the effect-he’s the most sinister Bertha since de Jong-yet you quickly forget about gender; after all, Bertha is a machine, not a person, so gender is essentially a side issue.

Big Bertha is one of the pieces in which Taylor most explicitly demonstrates the rift between the surface of our lives and the underbelly: on the one hand, the all-American 50’s family with its poodle skirt and Hawaiian shirt and cute-family shtick, on the other, rape, incest, death. We encounter it again in Company B, where the relentlessly cheerful pop sounds of the Andrews Sisters-“Rum and Coca Cola,” “Bei Mir Bist du Schön,” “Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!”-are undercut by the images of soldiers dying and girls grieving. There are other works in which he makes his point through the music-think of Cloven Kingdom, where the glories of Corelli are assaulted again and again by the jarring percussive sounds of Malloy Miller, while the eight women in their beautiful swirling jersey dresses and the four men in their formal attire are alternately having fun at their prom and spasming to some inner necessity. (In their brilliant quartet, the men go from strutting around in their tails to behaving like creatures with tails.) Nor is this the only work in which a change of music changes the mood: In that masterpiece Sunset-alas, not being performed this season-the ravishing Elgar score is mysteriously interrupted by an unworldly passage of recorded loon cries.

Another way in which Taylor underlines his split vision of life is by premiering opposite kinds of ballets in a given season. This year, his Klezmerbluegrass is generally lighthearted-a squaredancey exercise with some lovely passages for its women and a plangent, heart-stopping solo for that ecstatic dancer Annmaria Mazzini (but then she always stops my heart). Unfortunately for me, my somewhat low tolerance level for klezmer music got in the way of my really appreciating this piece. The powerful music that motors the despair of Dante Variations (“These are the nearly soulless whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise”- The Inferno, Canto III) is by György Ligeti. This is a dark, violent work-one dancer borne aloft and offstage like a mummy; another with her hands tied; another blindfolded; another with her legs tied below the knees-that would probably have made more of an impression if it hadn’t been seen within days of Last Look, the ultimate dance of despair, and one of Taylor’s most powerful visions.

The men and women of Last Look are truly in the inferno, as represented by Alex Katz’s nightclubby mirrored hell. They begin and end as a heap of living corpses, the action having revealed them as foully degraded creatures, the horror accentuated when the central man makes contact with himself in a mirror and recognizes what he has become. That role is now taken by the company’s amazing young male star Michael Trusnovec, to my mind the most brilliant male dancer Taylor has had-since himself. At the climax of Last Look, it’s as if an electric current had been shot into his veins-as he thrashes and convulses, he makes an impact like Jimmy Cagney’s in White Heat: “Top of the world, Ma!”

There is no split or ambiguity in Last Look; it’s as bleak as Taylor gets. Nor does the ceremonial, neo-primitive Musical Offering, bathed in Jennifer Tipton’s all-embracing golden lighting, deviate from its solemn, contrapuntal progression. This is a difficult work, given the length and density of the Bach score, but it holds you through the integrity of its flat and formal gestures. “A requiem,” the program note calls it, and it is indeed devotional in its effect. But a requiem for whom? Given the reference to Apollo (a man and three women) and another to Serenade (a woman carried into the wings standing on the shoulders of several men), one can’t help thinking of Balanchine, who had died not very long before Musical Offering began gestating. And then at the end, when the company comes together in a healing epiphany, it is danced to the same music that Balanchine had used for the ending of Episodes, the one work of his in which Taylor appeared. The connections are inescapable-and appropriate. The Paul Taylor company now represents the best New York has to offer in dance, the way Balanchine’s company once did.