The Return of Paul Taylor

Every Paul Taylor season propels us forward while pulling us back. We can count on two new works, and we can count on at least one work from out of the past—not just the recent past, although certain signature pieces appear and reappear (Esplanade, Company B, Sunset, Le Sacre du Printemps: The Rehearsal), but the prehistoric past. This year at the City Center, the rediscovered work was Public Domain, last seen in these parts in 1972. If I saw it then, I don’t remember it, and maybe that’s because despite its cheerful playfulness, its happy M&M-colored costumes and the fun of Taylor’s avoiding musical royalties by stitching together snippets of music and words from—yes—the public domain, it doesn’t make a strong impression. Its chief value at this point lies in the fresh opportunities it gives his wonderful dancers.

But Scudorama, resuscitated last season after 40 or so years, seemed even more powerful—more essential—than it did a year ago. This is bleak Taylor, its theme reflecting the epigraph from Dante printed in the program: “‘What souls are these who run through this black haze?’/ And he to me: ‘These are the nearly soulless/ Whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.’” Crawling, convulsing, shrouded beneath Alex Katz’s startling, multicolored beach towels—in despair yet affectless—the eight dancers reflect the dark side of Taylor that fills you with sadness for him.

Scudorama is an early masterpiece—the deliberate counterbalance (or rebuke?) to Aureole, the joyous, life-loving piece that immediately preceded it. Only perversity can keep it from us for another 40 years.

An oddity of programming led to the inclusion in this season’s repertory of two reflections of Taylor’s view of the 1960s and ’70s: last year’s Changes (the Mamas and the Papas), and 1993’s A Field of Grass. (You can guess the kind of grass we’re talking about.) It begins with a solo by Robert Kleinendorst, the funniest—in this case, the goofiest—of the Taylor men. The curtain goes up on him, seated cross-legged and blissed-out, smoking away, but as the piece progresses, the bliss dissipates and the disturbing underside of the ’60s, the irresponsibility and the excess, shows itself. Despite an upbeat ending, A Field of Grass is an uneasy take on what now seems one of the more delusionary moments of America’s recent past.

Another welcome return to the repertory was Brandenburgs, one of Taylor’s frequent forays into Bach. In 1988, Brandenburgs, with its formally patterned arrangements and its homage to Apollo (which Balanchine had hoped to see Taylor dance), seemed a pleasing if not especially notable piece. Somehow over the years, it’s turned into a near-masterpiece. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t been revised, so what’s made the difference?

Perhaps today’s dancers have developed a new expansiveness and fluency. Perhaps I’ve met it halfway. For whatever reason, it seems today a more substantial piece even than the highly effective Cascade, a Bach work from 1999, also back this year.

And then there was Taylor’s annual quota of two new pieces, which always are in conflicting modes. Also Playing is this year’s romp, a fond parody of dancey, old-timey vaudeville acts in all their touching silliness and naïveté. Here comes the stripper, Eran Bugge, trying so valiantly to be sexy; here comes the Gypsy—the hilarious Parisa Khobdeh (hilarious because witty as well as jokey); here comes the Dying Swan, over-mugged by Julie Tice; here’s the fabulous

Annmaria Mazzini, usually so intense and passionate, as a demented toreador reducing her three bulls to jelly. And here’s the music—chestnuts and clinkers from Donizetti. Paul Taylor has no respect!

In contrast is Brief Encounters, set to Debussy’s “Le Coin des Enfants,” an orchestral version of piano music that Taylor has previously used, in his exquisite Images. The 11 dancers are in the briefest of Santo Loquasto briefs, which manage to suggest both keyed-up sexuality and childlike innocence. Gradually, the six men and five women confront their impulses toward one another—a hand on a buttock here, a furtive embrace there. They approach each other, repel each other, explore each other. The increasingly impressive James Samson is even more confused than the others: Is it a male partner he’s searching for? Yet there’s nothing heavy here—there are even lightly comic touches. The dancers dart and glide—they’re almost like goldfish in a tank. This is a lovely work that we need to see again—perhaps together on a program with Images.

As for the company, it gets better and better. Just when you think it’s reached its peak, it strengthens. This year it was gratifying to witness the accelerating progress of Eran Bugge, Francisco Graciano (going all out all the time), Parisa Khobdeh (not only funny but lyrical, highly charged and beautiful). Laura Halzack, whose perfect body, cool composure and natural gravity have inspired Taylor to present her primarily as a muse figure—most strikingly in last year’s superb Beloved Renegade—is now not only standing out but fitting in.

But then everyone stands out: There’s no one whose talent is visibly eroding, and the stalwarts—Mazzini, Kleinendorst, Michael Trusnovec, Amy Young—are still at the top of their powers. Yes, Sunset and Esplanade and Scudorama are Paul Taylor masterpieces, but so is this extraordinary group of dancers, and the way they and Taylor make each other possible.
The Return of Paul Taylor