House of Taylor: His Annual Exhibition of Men, Women and Bugs

What does the future hold for the Master’s company?

Gossamer Gallants. (Courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company)

Who could have guessed that what Paul Taylor needed was a redhead? He recently found one (or she found him); her name is Heather McGinley, and she’s been blazing through the current season at the Koch—and not just because of her flamboyant hair. The Taylor Company has an astounding variety of talented leading women: Amy Young, who has grown at a steady pace into a dominating presence—lyrical, composed, radiant, except when she’s powerful, haunting and, in Big Bertha, malevolent, evil, grotesque; Parisa Khobdeh, ardent, exotic, exciting—and funny; Laura Halzack, beautiful, elegant, balletic, with a new forcefulness that makes her seem less of a lovely exception to the rule and more an exemplar of the rule; sassy, quick, daring Michelle Fleet … the list goes on. What McGinley gives us is a potential successor to the most thrilling of Taylor’s recent crop of stars, Annmaria Mazzini, whose reckless daring was sometimes nearly unbearable to watch. (Her hips eventually paid the price.) Watching McGinley in, say, Mazzini’s role in the wild rush of Syzygy was to feel that life as we know it may still go on.

Every great dance company, even when it seems poised in perfect balance, needs constant renewal of both repertory and performers. But if works of substance are to survive they also need a structured organization to house and nurture them. (That’s the looming issue for the Merce Cunningham repertory.) Fortunately for us, Paul Taylor is still, at 81, giving us two or three new works a year, and his organization seems to be humming along: witness the school, the junior company, and such canny management strokes as moving the annual New York season from the City Center to the Koch, where it looks ravishing. The music yet again had to be taped—a particular sadness now that the theater’s improved acoustics have made the sound quality so luscious—but the great open space of the stage and, even more, of the auditorium seems to have unleashed a new instinctive expansiveness in the dancing. It’s not only Halzack who’s dancing with greater force; nobody’s pushing but everybody’s flying.

The first of Taylor’s new works, Gossamer Gallants, I wrote about here in November when it was given its premier at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase. It was a charming romp then and that’s what it is today—Taylor having fun with horny bugs (guys) and murderous ones (gals). The humor is broad, but Jerome Robbins took care of the serious side of this story 60 years ago with The Cage. (That was Stravinsky, this is Smetana.) Taylor’s lifelong affinity for insects shines through and his lifelong talent for structure serves him yet again. A second new piece, House of Joy—too sketchy to be termed minor—is a cartoonish take on a cat house that’s as far on the wrong side of the tracks as you can get. One of the girls is a big clumsy guy in drag, one of the johns is an ultra-butch jill. Pimps get paid, the ladies go to work, someone gets beat up—and nine minutes into what you think is going to be a colorful tale, it’s over: narrative interruptus. There’s nothing P.T. enjoys more than confounding expectations.

The serious new work (music by Arvo Pärt) is called The Uncommitted, and it’s anything but cartoonish. Here are people who cannot connect, cannot communicate, cannot … commit. They’re in semi-dark, trying to find each other, to pair, but there’s no way: Singly they emerge from a huddled group, then grope their way back. They crouch, they crawl; they kick, they punch; they reach toward each other, then pull back. Then a final rejection: She reaches out, he walks away. This beautifully composed piece needs to weather, but it already makes itself felt. We’re not in the Hell of Last Look or the Heaven of Esplanade; we’re in Limbo—together and alone.

This season was especially generous with its revivals, beginning with the inexplicably shelved Aureole, that jubilant wedding of minimal Modern Dance with the glorious Baroqueness of Handel that announced Paul Taylor as a master. Here were five dancers and a buoyant new language so unadorned—walking, skipping, leaping—that a revolution had taken place without anybody announcing it. There went drama (Graham); there went theory (Cunningham); here came lightness, simplicity, musicality—pure pleasure. Aureole became Taylor’s calling card, and maybe he just got tired of seeing it. But he brought it back in mid-March to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and during the rapturous curtain calls he stood on stage with the other four original dancers, side by side with today’s five: Michael Trusnovec, Amy Young, Michelle Fleet, Francisco Graciano and Heather McGinley. Talk about tears in eyes.

The mysterious House of Cards (not to be confused with House of Joy), set to Milhaud’s La Création du monde—music to me more irritating than satisfying—is dominated by the presence of a silver-gowned and -turbaned woman who hovers about and above the proceedings—another in the endless series of commanding female roles initiated by Taylor’s lifetime ally and foil, the implacable Bettie de Jong. Sometimes today she’s Laura Halzack; here she’s McGinley. Often she’s Amy Young, as in the horrifying Big Bertha, where’s she’s the psychotic carnival machine that drives the prototypical ’50s family—all Hawaiian shirts, pigtails and poodle skirts—to incest, rape and murder. The lyrical, wholesome Young we thought we knew turns out to be the ultimate all-American monster—which is also the message of the piece. As William Carlos Williams put it, “The pure products of America go crazy.”

House of Taylor: His Annual Exhibition of Men, Women and Bugs