The Four Programs of Paul Taylor’s Company

21 Apr

San Francisco Performances brought the Paul Taylor Company to the Lam Research Theatre at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts April 15-19 with four programs, ten dances, some of his oldies and goodies, including Fibers ,1961, Aureole. 1962, and a West Coast premiere, Death and the Damsel.

Taylor’s appearances every other year possess so many treats it’s hard to know where to begin. The audience reflects a wide range of tastes and inclinations,united in their appreciation of good dancing, good theatre and a modern dance company, managing to survive and flourish over a half century.

Then there are the sixteen dancers with their obvious quantity of highly active grey matter. Fourteen dancers holder BFA degrees; there’s a joint major in music and business administration. In the roster two bear sheepskins with magna cum laude written on them and three with summa cum laude imprinted; one magna also was elected Phi Beta Kappa,; Yale and Columbia universities are represented; there are two possessors of master’s degrees. Verily Taylor works with brains and bodies.

The bodies themselves are interesting; women are rounded, boobs as well as butts; several men look qualified for the heftier of Olympic field sports or tensile strength required on the tennis court. Seeing them execute the winged V’s Taylor requires in many stage crossings or watching them, one knee bent, torso tilted, head raised, or the modified cross body front or back attitude as the recorded music soars gives empathetic muscles a thorough engagement in relaxing “ah” sensation; reveling in the delicious little side hops which are almost minuscule or expand into space-covering reaches.. Riches, riches, riches.

These movements are managed in ways that spare them from being cliched, in the same style good ballet choreographers can make an arabesque into a question mark or an attitude an embrace. Certainly we see it most clearly when Taylor decides his theme needs to be aligned with a great composer like Georg Frederick Handel, for Aureole, his frequent use of Johann Sebastian Bach, Brandenburg Concertoes,Promethean Fire>, Esplanade. It is evident also when the composer is Arnold Schoenberg, the musical source of the 1961 Fibers, with an evocative tree with its filigree branches a delicate contrast to the
the rigid,layered strips of cloth on the men, the white sheen of the women’s bathing suit-like costumes further emphasized with lines of black, skillful dissonance and conformity.

Then there was Ralph Vaughn Williams’ musical setting for Eventide gracing Program Three, providing the very polite, conventional but heart-touching formalities of ten dancers headed by Parisa Khabdeh and Michael Trusnovec.

Their two duets early and penultimate in the piece were marvelous reflections of the doubts men and women feel as they begin to commit themselves to long-term partnership, first the woman, then the man; the breakaways, hesitations, pauses, with understanding reinforcements etched in posture, gesture, line.

I wonder if I am accurate in assuming that Taylor turns to commissioned music when he has his story doesn’t fit the existing musical archive. If so, his choices are reflected in the music of Davis Israel for The Word, 1998, and Death and the Damsel receiving its West Coast Premiere in Program II. Aided in both works by design Santo Loquasto and light designer Jennifer Tipton, Taylor’s view of society’s underside is clearly crafted. The Word featured twelve bodies encased in would-be leaderhausen/ schoolboy knee-highs, string ties and white shirts responding to and regimented by a doctrine delivered in demogogic style; Heavy lurches and lunges, collective jumping, all of it weighted, awkward and joyless; fascism or hyper-evangelistic religion, take your pick. You can imagine the release felt with Taylor’s Brandenburgs.

Death and the Damsel’s
set evoked Paris garrets before the inevitable dives. Jamie Roe Walker, with a substantial ballet history, was the delicate young blonde rising out of her bed, stage center, lively, chipper, ready to conquer the world. At the edges figures like ravens, hints of the deep green-black plumage, lurked. She repeated her cavorting, slightly subdued; a third time more subdued as the creatures crept closer. She dived into the bed, pulling the pillow over her head. Jerked from hiding, thrust into a dive, she was pulled, hoisted and ritualistically raped, her legs a constant V-shape to the audience as the ominous-winged males approached her. She staggered to her feet to fight her captors, flinging them one way and another with increasing confidence, fearless. She stood with them, lying around her feet, dazzling, triumphant; inevitably, the death figures rose. surrounding her clumped on the floor; quick curtain.

Again, it took Bach to bring the audience to resolution With Taylor’s 2002 creation of Promethean Fire, Led by Trusnovec and Khabdeh in magnificent black unitards with circular lines of velvet, equally black, moving inexorably to the peals of Bach’s organ music, Toccata and Fuque in D-minor, Prelude in E-Flat minor and Chorale Prelude BWV680, circling, falling into a body heap where Khabdeh is pulled by Trusnovec. In the lines the weight of shoulders and backs were accented by the costumes, the shoulders held naturalistically, ballet technique moulds differently. The Taylor steps, drops, hops and run, fortified by the huge aural organ sounds, assume an inevitability, compelling many in the audience to rise and cheer at the end of the evening.

Finally, Taylor never leaves his audience without some relieving humor. Aureole supplied it in Program I. In Program II it’s Diggity, 1978, a piece with various dog profiles scattered over the stage, eight dancers hopping around and in between the profiles, one of two mutts highlighted at various moments.

It was Program III which gave us Amilicare Ponchielle’s Dance of the Hours disguised as Troilus and Cressida (Reduced), With Parisa Khabdeh as Cressida, Troilus in Robert Kleiendorst, forever hoisting his royal blue sweats in front of Loquasto’s well-imagined pieces of rococo swirls at the borders of a backdrop with blatant bright hues.

Three Cupids flip their hands and wings coaching a waiting Khabdeh who awkwardly imitates necessary come-hither gestures before the Cupids rouse the born-yesterday figure of Troilus. The mating attempts were deliberately broad, comical against the bubbly, twinkling Ponchielle tune. Add to it three Roman soldiers in scarlet, with voluminous cloaks who want to abduct Cressida, but decide the cupids are better prey. Everyone completes the ditty with can-can kicks; the audience loved it.

The season finished with Esplanade, 1975, a pell-mell exposition to the score George Balanchine employed for Concerto Barocco, somersaults, Michelle Fleet hopping merrilly over her colleagues’ hunched figures; nine figures streaked in diagonals until they disbursed and Fleet, stage center raised her arms graciously to mark the finale.

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