The Secret to Paul Taylor’s Staying Power

How do you explain the extraordinary abundance of Paul Taylor’s art? At 78, he’s still producing dances of the highest caliber—each new piece the distinctive creation of a consummate master.

He (and we) can thank his good genes, his great talent and an uncompromising attitude to his work that has focused his energies in the rarest way. (There’s Balanchine, of course, but who else?) In his 1987 autobiography, Private Domain, he makes it clear: In the ’60s and ’70s, he tells us, he was offered Broadway shows, operas, films, plum teaching gigs. But “Modern is what I set out to do and, come whatever, is what I’m sticking with. Don’t much care to branch out or gain a multifaceted career. The key to success is the art of saying no. No to incidental dances, no to high-tech gimmicks, no to classroom situations. Best to concentrate and keep priorities straight. Career should not overshadow dancing. It’s better to be career free, be anonymous, just do the work.”

Reluctantly, he submits to a necessary interview, takes an inevitable curtain call, does what he has to in order to keep his company solvent, but his life is essentially that of a loner—happiest, he’s let us know, when puttering around his house on a Long Island beach. Except, we have to believe, when he’s making a new dance.

So the dances keep coming. There are so many by now—Taylor unflaggingly gives us a pair of new ones every year—that even some of the finest disappear for long stretches of time. Equinox and …Byzantium were brought back last year after too long an absence. (Equinox is gone again this year.) This season we have Private Domain (the dance, not the book) and Images—the first, steamy and provocative in its minimal bathing suits and maximal body encounters; the second, exquisite in its hieratic groupings and regroupings and its stunning Gene Moore costumes. (Those long skirts!) Most important, we have back one of the crucial works of Taylor’s career, 1963’s Scudorama. It’s been in hibernation for 40 years!

And what a work it is. Made immediately after Taylor’s first great hit, the buoyant and sunlit Aureole, Scudorama—dark and desolate—was a deliberate rebuke to Aureole’s joyous optimism. It’s a view not of hell, though, but of purgatory—the epigraph from Dante: “These are the nearly soulless whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.” Hell was to follow, at its most terrifying in Last Look, that ultimate display of convulsive self-loathing (also on view this season).

Almost no one in the audience had ever seen Scudorama, and it was a revelation—a blazing declaration of Taylor’s talent. You can see in it not only his future but aspects of his past: what he took from his Graham experience, what he learned from appearing in Balanchine’s Episodes. But there’s nothing as crude as pastiche or appropriation, only muted acknowledgment. The music, by Clarence Jackson, is jagged and relentless, punctuated by sounds like police whistles. The Alex Katz backdrop of cut-out clouds is neutral yet suggestive; his huge, eye-popping beach towels startling and somehow unsettling. And in Sean Mahoney, one of the newer guys, Taylor has found a worthy successor to what must have been one of his own greatest performances, with enough of the Taylor intensity, stamina and massive presence to bring this important—this essential—dance back to life. It’s been sleeping twice as long as Rip Van Winkle.

 

THE TWO NEW WORKS were, as usual, in contrast. Changes is one of Taylor’s (mostly) amusing takes on a bunch of popular songs—Company B, Black Tuesday, et al. This time it’s The Mamas and the Papas, a caustic yet affectionate take on the ’60s. The Santo Loquasto costumes are over the top with their bell-bottoms and fringe, but then the look of the day was over the top. We get a shared joint here, a towering Afro there. This isn’t major Taylor, but it’s fun to be back for a minute—and at arm’s length—in that self-deluded period of faux-rebellion and vrai-narcissism.

The other new work is ravishing. Beloved Renegade is a meditation on Walt Whitman, on tenderness, on dying. As the curtain rises, that paragon Michael Trusnovec, in unadorned white, stands downstage center, arm upraised. Through most of the ballet, he’s the poet recalling stages of his life or areas of his experience: “I sing the body electric” (youthful love and sexual happiness); “I bend to the dying lad …” (memories of nursing wounded soldiers, comforting one dying lad with a kiss); “Come children, come my boys and girls” (innocent children’s games). Trusnovec, perhaps the finest dancer Taylor has ever worked with, brings such concentrated focus, such purity, to his role that we are gripped with love for him as a dancer and for Whitman as a transcendent visionary.

The beautiful Laura Halzack is the muse-figure, the death-figure, who presides over the dying moments of the poet, balancing and turning in one of her trademark revolving arabesques, her uplifted leg circling above his supine body. This is the piercing climax to the entire poignant and passionate work, whose spiritual yet nonreligious intentions are incarnated in the rich, dramatic sound of Poulenc’s Gloria.

Halzack has quickly become a major player, her height and command—and her beautiful body—making her the latest in the line of Taylor’s imposing über-women, which began with Bettie de Jong. The two dancers are not all that similar, though: Halzack is more lyrical, more balletic, de Jong more remote and intimidating. But who’s complaining?

This season has seen the last of the old-timers gone—Lisa Viola, Richard Chen See—leaving Trusnovec and the glorious Annmaria Mazzini as the company elders. How can this be? They were born just yesterday, and they’re at the peak of their powers. Mazzini is as riveting as ever—thrilling to watch even when she’s only running around the stage. And when she’s in high gear, as in the finale of Esplanade or as the Chosen One in her big solo in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), she’s as exciting as any dancer before us today.

Complementing her is the exemplary Amy Young, whose luminous all-American beauty masks a technique, a passion, and a non-showoffy range that are making her a star. Unlike Mazzini and Trusnovec, Young has taken her time reaching this level of excellence, but certainly she’s achieved it now. As for Parisa Khobdeh, she’s moved beyond her natural beauty and charm, and shown us a new fierceness in Last Look and a new cuckoo humor in the Viola role in Offenbach Overtures.

Meanwhile, some of the newest company members are beginning to reveal themselves. Eran Bugge has a lovely lyrical ingénue quality; pretty blond Jamie Rae Walker, late of the ballet, is beginning to hit her stride; and the newest kid in town, Michael Apuzzo—slim, dark—has a special intensity. Let’s face it: The whole company of 16 is terrific.

I have to have something to carp at, so here it is: the new costumes for Mercuric Tidings. The old pink ones added to the rhapsodic charge of this sensational piece. The new ones, in a darkish blue, have two strikes against them. The thin red lines that decorate them are counterproductive: Horizontal stripes around the torso break up the dancer’s line and, in fact, flatter no one. And the blue doesn’t read as clearly against the black backdrop as that old flamingo look. Pink may be the navy blue of India, as Mrs. Vreeland taught us, but blue will never be the pink of Mercuric Tidings.

rgottlieb@observer.com

The Secret to Paul Taylor’s Staying Power