Paul Taylor, Light and Dark, Old and New, Always Convincing

What does Paul Taylor mean by giving us two new pieces that are as violently opposed in spirit as Spring

What does Paul Taylor mean by giving us two new pieces that are as violently opposed in spirit as Spring Rounds and Banquet of Vultures—a light, airy kiss and a blow to the solar plexus? Is it merely good showmanship, or is Taylor trying to tell us that he (and we and the world) can have things both ways? Yes, he’s done it before, but never with quite such insistence. His mastery, though, is so assured that he doesn’t come off as schizophrenic; we’re not bewildered or confused, only fascinated by his ability to convince us of just about anything.

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Spring Rounds is pretty, pretty, pretty, bathed in Jennifer Tipton’s lovely spring lighting and dressed in Santo Loquasto’s pale, leafy greens. The dancers have a look that suggests aphids to me—no surprise, given Taylor’s lifelong sympathy for the insect world. ( Are aphids insects?) This is a piece about a happy community—14 dancers at a gathering uninflected by darkness or threat. They’re a loving band as they dart in and out of smaller and larger groupings—including the circles (or Rounds) that the title suggests. There’s a beautiful slow solo for Lisa Viola; Michael Trusnovec and Annmaria Mazzini, the Prince and Princess of Taylorworld, dance—as they always do—with thrilling expansiveness; Michelle Fleet is bursting with energy and power. It’s a totally pleasing happening, except when it gets too smiley … which it does. Fewer teeth, please, everyone.

But is it pleasing enough to serve as an antidote, or even a counterbalance, to Banquet of Vultures? Here is Taylor at his rawest, serving up war and death in the tradition of Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table—that is, as agitprop. His epigraph (from John Davidson): “And blood in torrents pour / In vain—always in vain, / For war breeds war again!” Taylor’s Death is Trusnovec, cold and spastic, vulpine, as tormented as he is tormenting. Soldiers crawl and anguish and die. One hopeful soul—Julie Tice—clutching a candle against Tipton’s dark, dark lighting as she tries to do battle with Death, is herself extinguished. And then Robert Kleinendorst (dressed almost exactly like Trusnovec in correct business suit and stylish red tie) enters to resume Death’s murderous career.

This is an impressive production, deeply indebted to its ominously compelling score, Morton Feldman’s Oboe and Orchestra. But perhaps because the bleakness of Banquet of Vultures is so literally embodied (candles going out; even goose-stepping), I found it less searing in its vision of moral devastation than Taylor’s Last Look, that unrelenting plunge into inner hell.

Reaching back more than 40 years, Taylor has revived From Sea to Shining Sea (1965), his famous acid comment on what our world has come to. It still makes its point. Every American myth or icon you can think of is ridiculed—shown to be threadbare and fraudulent—from the Statue of Liberty with her twisted, spiky crown and her “tired and poor” wandering listlessly around in their disheveled bathrobes to Betsy Ross sewing her flag (the thread snags) to the heroic tableau at Iwo Jima. Nothing is sacred in this bedraggled pageant because everything is drained of conviction. (Everything is also very funny.) I remember the whole thing as slightly more corrosive and tawdry way back then, but perhaps in the 60’s we were just more easily shocked. From Sea to Shining Sea doesn’t come around very often, but it’s a central piece of Paul Taylor history.

Last year’s most successful revival was the high-octane Mercuric Tidings, to Schubert symphonic music, and it’s just as riveting this year. Lisa Viola and Richard Chen See are now performing the slow duet. (Taylor is determined to prove that Viola, his senior dancer, is every bit as lyrical as she is powerful and funny, but he’s pushing it too hard.) Who could resist this relentlessly happy outpouring of dance? And who can resist Lost, Found and Lost, that celebration of ennui and affectlessness? In Alex Katz’s elegant black costumes with their sequiny accents and perky, half-veiled headpieces, the dancers stand around, pose and posture to Mantovani-like mushy versions of swoony pop hits like “Laura” and “As Time Goes By.” (The program credits “Supermarket music arranged by Donald York.”) Why try to resist it?

I’d forgotten how beautiful a 1993 piece called Spindrift is. Once again the central figure is Michael Trusnovec, alone and lonely on the beach. (The Loquasto set is intensely evocative—perhaps of the very beach on Long Island’s North Shore where Taylor spends much of his time. In every way, Spindrift feels autobiographical.) In this piece, Trusnovec is less of a dynamo, more vulnerable and in need. What he wants so badly is human connection, but the boys and girls in swimsuits who cavort around him aren’t interested—and then morph into beach birds who are not only unwelcoming but are highly aggressive. Yet miracles do happen, and friendship and fellowship finally descend on him as he’s accepted by the tribe and becomes one of the dancers at this gathering, not a stranger in their midst …. It’s as if Spindrift leaves off where Spring Rounds begins.

Paul Taylor, Light and Dark, Old and New, Always Convincing