Taylor Made: It’s About Time Audiences Turned Out in Droves for Paul Taylor

From the dark 'To Make Crops Grow' to the frolicsome exuberance of 'Perpetual Dawn'

Michelle Fleet and Michael Novak in 'Perpetual Dawn.' (Tom Caravaglia)

Michelle Fleet and Michael Novak in ‘Perpetual Dawn.’ (Tom Caravaglia)

How gratifying that Paul Taylor’s current season—it runs until March 24—is packing them in at the Koch. I’ve never seen such large and enthusiastic audiences for his work, and I go back with him almost 50 years. It’s as if last year’s move from the City Center to Lincoln Center has woken people up to the fact that he’s not only startlingly original but that, apart from Balanchine’s, his is the largest and most important—and most enjoyable—dance repertory we have in this city. And that his company of 16 dancers is ravishing too.

He’s a quirky one. Who knows why some pieces reappear after many years, others are cold-storaged permanently, and still others subtly mutate? For instance, this season’s revival of his brilliant, cartoonish Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)—in the year of Sacre’s centenary—projects a new atmosphere. Not because he’s changed the action or the steps, but because of casting. “The Girl,” whose baby is stolen and who emerges as the original Sacre’s “Chosen One,” has had three inspired interpreters since 1980, when the piece was new. Ruth Andrien, Kate Johnson and, most recently, Annamaria Mazzini were explosive, searing. With Mazzini, alas, retired, Taylor has handed the role to Laura Halzack—beautiful, lyrical, and here bland rather than blazing. The piece holds together, but it’s not as effective. Also less exhilarating than usual is that giant hit Company B. It’s casting again. Eran Bugge, for example, is a charming dancer, but “Rum and Coca-Cola” has to be more sexy and less cute. Or maybe Company B is getting a little tired. Or maybe I am.

On the other hand, two more recent pieces look better than ever. I was resistant to Eventide 15 years ago, partly because my musical taste doesn’t run to English Pastoral (in this case, Ralph Vaughan Williams). But it’s more strongly cast today, the melancholy atmosphere more convincing, the feeling more subtly conveyed. Or has my eye grown more subtle? Offenbach Overtures, always a diverting romp with its exaggerated parody of French 19th-century dance hall manners and traditions—talk about flouncing!—is still a hoot, but it’s a hootier hoot today, and not just because Taylor (and the costume designer, Santo Loquasto) have had the boys deck themselves out with perfect little mustaches to complement their bright red uniforms. The comic duel has always been the high point of the ballet (the two antagonists start out ready to kill each other and end up in each others’ arms), but with Michael Trusnovec and Sean Mahoney, it’s reached perfection. But then Trusnovec is always perfect, and Mahoney has unleashed himself this season: he’s become a major player. And then there’s the gorgeous Parisa Khobdeh, who’s as funny as she is beautiful, with her floppy hat and floppy hairdo and exquisite timing. Watch her in the background as she plucks at her skirt in bored irritation while her rival, Michelle Fleet, is strutting her stuff. If looks could kill! The whole piece came alive, its only flaw (and this has been the case from the start) being that there’s just too much of it. Why Taylor decided to take on this Frenchy froufrou stuff we’ll never know, but we’re lucky he did.

Just as we’re lucky to still have with us his oldest surviving piece, 3 Epitaphs from 1956, in which five humanoids, or ape-oids, concealed from head to foot in dark gray skintight costumes with some glittering reflectors attached, galumph around to early New Orleans jazz. There’s a central couple—the huge James Samson and the tiny Eran Bugge—and wherever he goeth, she followeth. Why is it so funny? Why is it so moving? Because to Paul Taylor, that’s what people are.

We’ve had three Bach pieces already this season, with more to come. The magnificent Promethean Fire has been with us almost annually since its post-9/11 premiere, but Junction came back into the repertory only last year, with its primary-color Alex Katz costumes and its unorthodox vocabulary (one woman standing casually on the back of a crouching man, another folded up into a package and handed from guy to guy) seemingly at odds with the Bach cello suites it’s set to. Historically, Junction is significant—this was Taylor’s first piece to Baroque music, a year before his 1962 breakthrough hit, Aureole, to Handel—and it has its charms, but you can see why it was Aureole that broke through. As for Cascade, to Bach piano concertos, it’s solid, it’s worthy, but for me it’s not on Taylor’s highest level, the level of Musical Offering, Brandenburgs and, of course, Esplanade, all Bach and all still to come. Each section of Cascade is effective, but they don’t really add up to a cohesive whole. (By the way, this is among the works that would most benefit from live music—can we dream that, with the company’s new box office success, live music may be a possibility?)

Finally we get to the two new pieces that Taylor offers us every year. One is called To Make Crops Grow, a bewildering title until you see what it’s about. In a way, it’s another take on Sacre—in an annual ritual, one member of the farming community is chosen by lottery to be sacrificed to the gods in order to fertilize the fields: there’s to be another “Chosen One.” The farmers seem agreeable enough, until the “Ritual Conductor” presents them with a box from which they each have to pluck a piece of paper and hope it isn’t the marked one. The characters are differentiated—The Young Wife and the Elderly Husband, the Newlyweds, the children—and Taylor has given them distinctive things to do on the way to the horrible denouement, when the Chosen One, after agonizingly trying to escape her fate, is crushed to death with stones. Khobdeh is superb in this dramatic role—she can do everything!—and the music, from Ferde Grofé’s famous Grand Canyon Suite, is a brilliant choice. The dance as a whole, though, isn’t as strong as the story on which it’s based; Shirley Jackson’s famously shocking “The Lottery,” which saw readers canceling their New Yorker subscriptions back in 1948, is a lot scarier. (I’m surprised that Taylor doesn’t acknowledge Jackson in his program notes.) But we can see why Taylor was drawn to it: violence beneath the surface is one of his most persistent themes.

The other new piece, Perpetual Dawn, made me totally happy. The music is once again Baroque … but with a difference. Here we have neither the severity of Bach nor the grandeur of Handel, but the lively, almost jolly work of the obscure Johann David Heinichen, an almost exact contemporary of those two masters. The music is fresh and appealing, and it perfectly supports Taylor’s intentions: he’s showing us young people frolicking, chasing each other in innocent attraction, at the dawn of the day and of their lives. The set and costumes by Loquasto are charmingly pastoral, the girls in peasanty dresses, the boys in pants cut off at the knee. They could be Brueghel villagers. One of the girls, Michelle Fleet, is left out of the pairings—she wants a boy too. Though there’s a touch of melancholy in the setting and lighting, no one’s going to be left out in the end—this is an earthly paradise—and she finds her mate in a finale that’s not quite as strong as what’s come before. What’s particularly interesting is that this is Taylor’s first Baroque piece that isn’t abstract but is about individual guys and girls doing guyish and girlish things; the human-scale level of Heinichen’s music makes this possible—in fact, inevitable. How wonderful that at 82, Paul Taylor is still rejoicing.

editorial@observer.com