Paul Taylor Tries a Phantasmagoria, Benjamin Millepied Opts for Plainspoken

The choreographers each offer a New York premiere

Interviewed by Time Magazine in 1962, Martha Graham described the heroine of her new Phaedra as “a phantasmagoria of desire.” Paul Taylor, who danced in her company until 1960, may or may not have remembered her phrase when he titled a 2010 work Phantasmagoria.However, this deliriously eccentric dance, which is receiving its New York premiere on Taylor’s company’s City Center season, may be less about desire than about lust (Taylor is very, very good at lust—and lustiness—and its repressive opposite).

Among the dictionary definitions of “phantasmagoria” (“a shifting series of. . .deceptive appearances” and “a changing scene made up of many elements”), the one that strikes my fancy has to do with the optical illusions produced by a magic lantern, or similar device, “in which figures increase or diminish in size, pass into each other, dissolve, etc.” That’s what happens in Taylor’s dance (if you consider changes in size as changes in importance). Only in a choreographic phantasmagoria could a robust society of 16th-century peasants be infiltrated by an Irish step dancer, a “hindoo” Adam and Eve, three of Isadora Duncan’s dancing daughters, and a drunk right out of a silent movie.

The music is Renaissance pop by anonymous composers—in other words, a rowdy-sweet mingling of (I’m guessing) viols, lutes, recorders, krumhorns, bagpipes, drums, and maybe a portative organ. The terrific costumes by Santo Loquasto look as if he’d been inspired by clothes worn by the rollicking crowd in Pieter Breughel’s painting The Wedding Dance, one of Taylor’s sources too. Men and women wear an imaginative variety of headgear, and the males sport comically well-padded codpieces.

Amy Young, Annamaria Mazzini, Laura Halzack, , and Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Taylor’s Phantasmagoria
Yi-Chun Wu
Amy Young, Annamaria Mazzini, Laura Halzack, , and Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Taylor’s Phantasmagoria
Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin, and Tyler Angle of the New York City Ballet  in Benjamin Millepied’s Plainspoken
Paul Kolnik
Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin, and Tyler Angle of the New York City Ballet in Benjamin Millepied’s Plainspoken

Details

Paul Taylor Dance Company
City Center Theater
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212
February 22 through March 6
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center Plaza
212-870-5570
January 18 through February 27

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In the beginning, though, the stage picture is as somber as Jennifer Tipton’s dark-shot-with-beams lighting effect and a deep-toned piece of music. The peasants are frozen, bent over, and when Annmaria Mazzini awakens in a pool of light, she soon spins and falls. The others join her brief spate of movement—now one of them beside her, now one at the back. The way they extend a hand with a limp-wristed flip or reach upward suggests that there’s a grim side to their lives. Still, before long, more raucous music has booted them into a scampering, romping, capering mob. They grab partners and whirl about in a sort of proto-polka; the men carry the women off, kicking.

Even when the time-travelers from other eras appear, the peasants occasionally dance through in the background or take over the stage. And a tall nun (Laura Halzack)—made taller by her headdress (a conical hennen rife with white veils)—bridges all worlds. The very large green snake that the crowned and bejeweled Sean Mahoney and Parisa Khobdeh carry on is more of a plaything than a tempter. Khobdeh swings it in circles, and Mahoney jumps over it; she thrusts it between his legs, and it becomes another sort of tool—one that’s prone to limpness. The nun gives the couple a scolding (was that the middle finger?), wraps the snake around herself, and saunters off.

Michelle Fleet plays the expert step dancer straight, never cracking a smile or raising an arm as she stamps and flicks her feet around, rising to the points of her black shoes. On the other hand, Mazzini, Halzack, and Amy Young as the three “Isadorables” make a little too much fun of being “aesthetic dancers,” enraptured by their own nymphiness while forming their graceful plastiques. They are a pretty lot, though, in their white Grecian tunics, with a big red flower over each ear like Ozma of Oz. Robert Kleinendorst, the Bowery Bum, with padded belly and bottle in a brown paper bag, may go daringly close to exaggeration, but he gives a masterly comedic performance of staggers and lurches as he chases the maidens and offers the nun a swig.

All the characters mix it up in the final free-for-all, even reprising elements of the grave beginning, and no one is immune from developing the tics and twitches of St. Vitus’s dance, when they touch the ragged bearer of the disease (Michael Trusnovec) or one another. It’s a fine shambles, and all recover as instantly as they were stricken. Whether driven by lust for sex, lust for art, lust for booze, or lust for spirituality—they all dance in the same throng.

Phantasmagoria shared the bill I saw with Cloven Kingdom (1976), that bewitching glimpse of the beast lurking happily beneath high-society silks and tailcoats, and the intriguing Polaris from the same year. Polarisinvites us to see the dance for five twice, with different lighting, music, and casts—a strategy that ignites provocative thoughts about the distinctions that abound in similarity. As for Phantasmagoria, it may not be major Taylor, but I’m not likely to forget it.

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Benjamin Millepied hasn’t been choreographing that long (about a decade) or that much, but his career has moved far and fast in recent years, even though, as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, he hasn’t had a lot of free time. His ballets have incited both praise and criticism. That’s true, too, of his most recent, Plainspoken, which received its New York premiere during the NYCB’s winter season.

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