As usual, Paul Taylor’s City Center season (through Sunday) entices us with vistas of heaven and hell. But part of what makes him a great choreographer is the curious little twists in his lyrical dances and the way his monsters tug at your heart. In the beautiful 1985 Roses he creates garden statuary and bowers of amorous couples in black and tan, then, late in the game, produces a pair all in white. A surprise. After they’ve danced, there’s no big finale. They join the other reclining lovers and assume the same tender pose, reclining on the floor. Perhaps they’ve been auditioning for a place here; perhaps they’re the king and queen of this happy land, come late to the party.
In Last Look, made the same year and one of Taylor’s most horrifying “dark” pieces, Mylar mirrors distort the dancers’ reflections, sending shards of Jennifer Tipton’s brilliant lighting and the women’s long satin coats careering about the space (decor and costumes by Alex Katz). Yet at the end, in this inferno of twitching, thrashing souls, of violence and mayhem and despair, one woman struggles over and over to find a place in the heap of bodies. Hell is her home.
One of Taylor’s newest works, Promethean Fire, is like some fierce, purifying ritual. When it begins, to Leopold Stokowski’s thunderous, ringing, rather grandiose orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the dancers emerge from a cluster and shift into ranks and files, chains and circles. Wearing stunning “uniforms” by Santo Loquasto (sleeveless black velvet unitards with bronze stripes spiraling down them), they resemble a grave army of priests. Yet amid their rapidly forming and dissolving structures, they fall, then pile up like the people in Last Look. Robert Kleinendorst presses Julie Tice overhead, and you can envisage her as both sacrificial virgin and a rock about to be hurled. In their duet, Lisa Viola clings to Patrick Corbin’s feet, but she finishes by running at him and hurling herself backward into his arms from what seems like a mile away. And that remarkable moment not only stops your breath, it opens Promethean Fire in your mind. By such brave risks, the structures of our lives rise and fall.
At the end of the piece, the dancers form a kind of mandala, as they often do to conclude Taylor’s works. In the other new dance, Dream Girls, which entrancingly re-creates the bygone world of barbershop quartets and Wild West vaudeville, the cast also poses for us before Santo Loquasto’s vast but homemade-looking black curtain against an orange sky. However, Taylor pulls one of his surprises: The Buffalo Bills (on tape, alas, like all the music this season) sing “Now the Day Is Over,” and the raffish crew wanders off into the dark, all the funny business done.
The funny business is funny indeed and full of kinky takes on familiar material. Wearing Loquasto’s black-and-white long johns with accessories, Michael Trusnovec, Orion Duckstein (sporting a handlebar mustache), Corbin, and Kleinendorst stand in for the singers, swinging from bravado to lust to yellow-bellied, quaking fear as various corseted belles with padded bosoms and hips besiege their lives (Tice even does a number in a fat suit). Kristi Egtvedt’s ostrich-feather fans conceal a jug of liquor at each breast, which cynically answers the query, “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally.” The women attack the men like mosquitoes (“Shut the door, they’re coming through the windows . . . “). Kleinendorst fingers Annmaria Mazzini like the piano he loves so well; she decides they’d better switch roles and plays him hard. “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long” becomes a blend of comedy and art-dance for Corbin, as he whips one long, long pant leg in arcs.
Taylor’s style accommodates to his subject. The leaps that soar in his happy works slice the air in the darker ones. The gesture of arms wrapping around the body can look like the natural conclusion to an easy swing or, rendered tensely, make the dancer seem to be caving in with shame. A roll on the floor sometimes looks like delight, sometimes like self-punishment. The ground can be a place for the dancers to skim over or sink into; at other times, they pull the same movements through a mire of their own making.
The company is marvelous. Especially memorable: Egtvedt’s performances in Roses and Last Look; Viola’s breathtakingly beautiful dancing in Cascade, filling her solo with light and air and warmth; Corbin, lyrical in the druggy ease of Taylor’s take on the ’70s, A Field of Grass; Richard Chen See, bounding lightheartedly in Cascade; and Trusnovec crawling out of his skin in Last Look. But really, everyone in everything.
Larry Keigwin dances like a faun—impish, slightly naughty, and possessed of a wonderfully strong and agile body. He treats his virtuosity as if it were a skill no more special than knowing how to use a fork. He displays these qualities charmingly in the solo, Sunshine, that opened his recent Joyce Soho program. But the show displayed something more: his craftsmanship and his ability to repeat, develop, and transform material into dances that are smart, pithy, and peculiar.
Someone’s always the odd man out in Tetris (usually Julian Barnet). But whether the five dancers stand in a line making little self-preoccupied gestures or spread out into bigger, more athletic moves, they’re bound together. For better or for worse, they’re all “in.” In Straight Duet, a bride and groom (Keigwin and Nicole Wolcott) start out with what looks like wedding-night jitters, but when they start diving and plunging onto a mattress while Cecilia Bartoli’s gorgeous voice sings of love, it becomes obvious that this is no prelude to athletic sex; we’re seeing a marriage that should not, maybe did not, happen.
Keigwin is sympathetic to both parties in this duet, and he’s made insightful solos for his three women dancers in Female Portraits. The one for Veronica Tremel is the skimpiest, but it has a fine, twisted ending. Having laid out little stuffed animals around a square bordered in light by Julie Ana Dobo, and moved in uneasy, contrary ways akin to Björk’s accompanying little-girl voice, she gathers up all the plushies but one and, on exiting, turns back to laugh at her abandoned toy.
Although the powerful Wolcott struts on with a boom box emitting Pat Benatar, she’s not all that confident. Her fingers clutch her head as if they were alien to her; she moves in bursts and sudden rag-doll collapses, then she punches the music off and leaves. We first meet Ashley Gilbert as a pair of heeled boots stalking in the dark. But after undressing resentfully, this tall blond powerhouse stares at her shadow as if it were a mirror and she could change it.
In Keigwin’s Urban Birds, Keigwin, Wolcott, and Barnet are like an affectionate avian version of the trio in the movie Jules et Jim (Yann Tiersen’s song has French words, too). In camouflage-pattern kilts, the three are scrappy but fond, and they help each other fly in quite miraculous lifts, which really make them seem to soar. That’s what the whole program does.
When we enter the Cunningham Studio, the 22 performers in Mary Seidman’s Who Will Roll Away the Stone? are scattered about the room in different positions, some moving very slowly, some still. It’s like watching ice melt or tectonic plates begin to shift. On one level, these people are stones, jolted by small seismic shocks, rolling together until they form a New England pasture wall. Severn Clay’s dappled light, Karen Young’s mottled gray costumes, and Andy Teirstein’s score emphasize the disruptive nature of this terrain.
Although very abstract, Seidman’s piece seems to be about community and obstacles to community. Five individuals (Laura Caldow, Gen Hashimoto, Leah Mitchell, Francisco Rider da Silva, and Mei-hua Wang) stand out from the group; they dance more wildly and erratically. Two mature dancers, Richard Daniels and Jane Gardner, function as elders of the tribe—walking around to observe and consult with each other (this is a bit awkward) or nudge the others into motion. They also enact a brief scenario suggesting age and death. Those in the larger ensemble may twist slowly around partners or make temporary alliances, but they function primarily as landscape and a kind of Greek chorus, reacting, however indirectly, to the others with blunt, clear moves. One of Seidman’s accomplishments is the way she builds and deconstructs an architecture out of bodies without obliterating their humanity. Braided into a sleeping line at the rear, or divided into two plastique hills, they remain a living society.
I didn’t sense a progression in the dance, nor do I know whether Seidman intended one. The strong images convey a desire for unity, but it’s difficult to tell which structures are comforting and empowering and which are “walls” in the restrictive sense. There’s one lovely moment, when two groups lift Wang and Mitchell, and the women reach for each other to try to make a bridge; the distance is just beyond their fingertips, and the effort shows how fraught such connections are.