Taylor’s Test of Time: 80’s Ballets Spring to Life at City Center

Every year at this time Paul Taylor arrives at the City Center to make us happy. There are the new pieces (two this season, as usual). There are the recent works being given a second or third exposure. There are the classics: Aureole, Arden Court and of course Esplanade. There aren’t the great dances that are on temporary leave of absence: Sunset, Big Bertha, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), Last Look, Company B, Syzygy. And—perhaps most satisfying of all to Taylor lovers—there are the half-forgotten plums that Taylor’s thumb has chosen to pull out of the repertory, pieces we’d lost hope of ever seeing again

This year, the first revelation was Equinox, from 1983 and not seen here since 1988. J’accuse! And j’accuse encore when I contemplate the decision to present it only twice in a three-week season. This is a ravishingly lyrical piece, dressed in summery white, for four couples who appear to be in harmony with each other and their community. And yet there are strains of longing, of disappointment. We need to see Equinox more frequently before we can firmly place it in the Taylor canon, but it’s clear just from this glimpse that it’s a pleaser and a keeper.

Since I’ve been accusing, let me also plead. The music of Equinox is Brahms’ beautiful first quintet for strings. The Taylor company can afford live music only for Occasions such as gala night, and much of the time we can live with that. But not here. The taped recording isn’t very good, but more important, this ballet cries out for the intimacy of live chamber music. My hunch is that it would cost somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 to present Brahms properly if and when Equinox is re-resurrected. Surely someone on the Taylor board with a particular love of music could come up with the necessary funds?

Another major work that came back to life was the 1984 …Byzantium, absent for 22 years. (Why?) The program quotes Yeats: “Of what is past, passing or to come,” and the ballet’s three section are labeled “Passing,” “Or Past” and “Or to come.” The music is three cacophonous sketches by Varèse. …Byzantium is one of Taylor’s most obscure and tantalizing pieces, its meanings deeply buried. Who are these men and women of our day, crouching, groping, suffering? What do they have to do with the four priests in richly dyed and jewel-studded ecclesiastical garments, clearly Byzantine, who populate the Past? Even Taylor may be unsure of his intentions: Back in the 80’s, I believe, he shifted the order of the three sections. But meanings don’t matter; beauty is what counts. …Byzantium is an important return to the repertory.

It was wonderful to have Diggity back after 14 years. Who could forget the demented look of Alex Katz’s little dogs scattered about the stage, around and between which the dancers have to flow with such nonchalance? But one might forget how engaging the actual choreography is, and how apt the Donald York score.

It was even more wonderful to see Cloven Kingdom again and again, not that it has been in retirement. Those ravishing dresses with their long skirts in Necco-wafer pastels—when the girls cartwheel, you’re dizzy with pleasure. And the extended sequence for the four boys in dinner jackets is unquestionably the greatest such passage in dance. The inventiveness! The excitement! How paltry Jerome Robbins’ cutenesses for boy quartets appear in comparison.

 

THE NEW PIECES? For once, Taylor hasn’t given us contrasting visions. Or if there is a contrast, it’s not between the two premieres but within each piece. De Sueños (of dreams) and De Sueños que se Repiten (of recurring dreams), although performed separately, are essentially one work, the second a kind of sequel to the first. Dreams, yes, with epigraphs from Jung to underline the point. The dreams are of Mexico, fractured dance images from its dark past—human sacrifice, mountains of skulls—and its touristy present: swirling skirts, sombreros, et al. All held together by the Kronos Quartet’s pastiche recording of musical Mexicana, Nuevo.

The Sueños ballets constantly refer to Mexican popular and folk dance; I don’t know enough to gauge their authenticity—if authenticity is what Taylor’s after. There are amazing effects: Michael Trusnovec, bare to the waist, the antlers of a stag attached to his head, his feet somehow transformed into perfectly pointed, dainty hooves; the hieratic goddess figure, all in gold, of the commanding Laura Halzack, whose ballet training reveals itself in a heart-stopping sequence of balances and arabesques; the Death figure of Richard Chen See, which—even if it’s something of a cliché—is so grippingly performed that it carries conviction.

I’m not by temperament a Mexico enthusiast—skulls and sombreros leave me emotionally distanced. But on repeated viewing, Taylor’s dreams began to invade my own Jungian unconscious. I may have to sit them out next year.

As for the company itself, it’s reached a peak of energy and commitment. The great Lisa Viola, who Taylor has proved to us can do anything, is retiring this season, still a formidable dancer and presence. Powerful, lyrical, dynamic, goofy, she’s an entire Taylor repertory in herself. How is he going to do without her? I imagine he himself doesn’t yet know.

But he never lacks for new talent. Yesterday’s debutant sensations—Trusnovec, Annmaria Mazzini, Amy Young, Orion Duckstein, Robert Kleinendorst, Julie Tice—become senior stalwarts (though hardly senior citizens). Parisa Khobdeh, Michelle Fleet and James Samson are moving on up. Halzack is a major find. Diggity showed us what Eran Bugge’s place will be—a welcome lyric ingénue. The nonpareil Taylor machine marches on.

Taylor’s Test of Time: 80’s Ballets Spring to Life at City Center