Shuffles and twists and wriggles and jumps are no longer to be used in connection with dancing,” wrote Vernon Castle in his 1914 manual, Modern Dancing. “The hoydenish romping of the Two Step, the swift rush of the Polka and contortions of the Turkey Trot, have died a natural death because something finer has taken their place.” By something finer, he meant the Hesitation Waltz and other “refined” ballroom dances with which he and his wife Irene countered the livelier black-rooted popular diversions.
The Castles would have hated Paul Taylor’s new Oh, You Kid! Well, maybe they would have approved of “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland,” a sweet waltz performed by Andrew Asnes and Silvia Nevjinsky. But the first of the rowdy orchestral tunes, played on tape by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra under the direction of Rick Benjamin, is a polka; and, Taylor being Taylor, there’s no dearth of twists, wriggles, and jumps.
Oh, You Kid! is one of Taylor’s romps, an anthology of pop music selections that conjure up American vaudeville stages and boardwalks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The cast wears Santo Loquasto’s black-and-white bathing costumes (a disciplined riot of polka dots and stripes) and Jennifer Tipton frames the backdrop in little yellow lights. But, although Taylor ends with his 11 dancers clustered like a valentine box of chocolates, he brings a distinctive, squinty-eyed perspective to a work designed to be delightful. Having gone along with T.S. Allen’s 1909 “General Mixup, USA”— setting a march to bits of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and fiddling with a sailor’s hornpipe when one crops up in the music— he makes of F. Arndt’s “An Operatic Nightmare” a frazzled melodrama in which the mustache-twirling villain (Takehiro Ueyama) and his heavily roped victim (Maureen Mansfield) get mixed up with a wedding party whose groom (Thomas Patrick) kisses the curate while his bride keeps walloping the baby (Andy LeBeau), knocking him bum over enormous bonnet.
The gem of Oh, You Kid! is a solo for Lisa Viola to “That Hindu Rag” by G.L. Cobb (1910). Viola, a born comic, goes through the hilarities of her jerky hoochy-cooch routine as if she’s been doing six shows a day for 60 years; she’s sour, angry, and creaky, and there’s some doubt as to whether she’ll get her leg over her head or not (one last teeth-gritting yank and it’s done). Taylor also creates an extremely odd upset of the typical revue number featuring a female star with a four-man backup: they all wear Ku Klux Klan headdresses. While Heather Berest dances temptingly, the men hold good-ol’-boy conferences behind her and grab their crotches, but they end up in a genteel kick line together. Did politics really creep into vaudeville, or is Taylor digging slyly into the psychology of bullydom?
Fiddler’s Green, the season’s other premiere, is milder— a country dance party with dreamy little games, everyone in white overalls or short dresses against Tipton’s emerald green sky. But the work is set to selections from John Adams’s tangy, slightly acerbic John’s Book of Alleged Dances. In a long, brilliant solo for Richard Chen See, violin sounds buzz around him like a cloud of bees. The high point is a scene in which Patrick Corbin— dancing vigorously as if to mark out the stage as his territory— is constantly interrupted by Ueyama, who bounces in with the loose, happy energy of a golden retriever sighting his master. Corbin, not losing a step, drives him offstage, but he’s hard to shake. Ueyama has a soft muscularity not seen in the Taylor company since David Parsons left, and the slight rawness that still marks his style is endearing. Corbin is one of the company’s finest (although his dancing often doesn’t breathe), and he’s terrific in this surprising duet.
The season features a range of Taylor works: the great Cloven Kingdom, the bizarre Nightshade, and the charming Offenbach Overtures, for example. Sadly, Roses is the only example in Taylor’s radiant, lyrical vein;
revivals of Airs and the profoundly beautiful Sunset were shown only on the opening night gala. Just as we’ll remember these dancers for roles created on them— Francie Huber in Piazzolla Caldera, say, or Corbin in A Field of Grass— the older works call up nostalgia for those who first danced them. Still, outstanding among today’s performers were Kristi Egtvedt in the jaunty duet of Airs, Asnes and Patrick as soldiers with a close relationship in Sunset, and Caryn Heilman as the girl who’s quietly delighted that a bunch of guys want to keep her feet from touching the ground.