Theater archives

The Complexity of Simplicity


Paul Taylor’s three-week season at City Center honors his 50 years of making dances that are loved around the world. One reason for the admiration, I think, is that he presents dancers who are more believably like us than ballet virtuosos are—robust, and skilled at looking a little rough around the edges. They’re better than we are at tenderness—that is, at revealing it through a gesture, more imaginatively free in wildness, unrepentant in moments of ugliness. They’re gleefully carnal, serenely chaste.

Taylor is a master of simplicity and complexity. The movement palette for his 1975 Esplanade (the first piece he made after quitting dancing) consists of walks, runs, skips, hops, leaps, slides, falls, and slow gestures, plus daredevil catches of flying women. The vocabulary hymns everyday locomotion, but the choreography’s superbly imaginative directional changes and spatial patterns, as well as its sophisticated rhythmic interplay with selections from two Bach violin concertos, give pedestrian an air of exaltation. The 1987 Syzygy is set to a terrifically energetic and changeable score (played live on opening night by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and conducted by its composer, Donald York). In Syzygy, the dancers’ bodies look complicated; they fling themselves into space as if perfect synchrony were a desirable rarity. The title refers to a conjunction or opposition of two or more celestial bodies positioned in a straight line. Imagine Lisa Viola as a tranquilly turning moon and Michael Trusnovec as a volatile sun, with earthlings stirred into tumult between them. Dancers rocket across the space, their lines orderly, their leaps disruptive. Men scrabble along like animals. Women are hoisted as if to be carried off as plunder. Viola, her limbs fluidly akimbo, both affects and is affected by the crowd and by Trusnovec’s brilliant- footed heat (what a dancer he’s become!).

One of the season’s two New York premieres, Klezmerbluegrass, is simple—a sociable frolic with boy-meets-girl as the main agenda. Taylor plays off Margot Leverett’s witty blend of bluegrass and Jewish folk melodies and harmonies (performed by Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys). Contra dances marry with hands-on-shoulders lines (for the men) or gently lovely maiden chains. Richard Chen See squat-jumps like a Russian as well as rolling and tumbling through a raucous polka. Julie Tice and Trusnovec court charmingly to teasing fiddle and clarinet, and at the end are lifted high by the group as if a wedding feast looms offstage, leaving the marvelously limpid Annmaria Mazzini to a bravely solitary solo, after which her friends gather her in.

The piece is pretty, sweet, and for Taylor, rather bland. Santo Loquasto’s costumes, predominantly red with blue trim, give it a candy-bright look. But there will be plenty of trenchant, beautiful, scary, deep-through-the-heart masterworks on view during the season. Vintage Taylor explodes in the soul like fine wine on the tongue.

Lines from a poem by Yehuda Amichai appear in the Israel Contemporary Dance Theatre’s program for Rami Be’er’s Screensaver; they speak of earth made barren by strife and the power of feelings to till and fertilize it. Other lines came to mind while I was watching the 17 strong, vibrant performers of ICDT (a/k/a Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company): “In bed we laugh, in bed we cry;/And, born in bed, in bed we die” (Samuel Johnson’s translation of a 17th-century French poem). Mattresses (five wide ones) and bed frames are the locales for all encounters and explosions of group emotion. Stood on end, they receive a projected storm of excerpts from Irit Batsry’s video trilogy Beyond Utopia—images that begin with pinwheels of printed dates, and like screen savers, both shield us from and expose us to a world outside.

Like Be’er’s splendid Aide Memoire (seen here in 1998), Screensaver is visually stunning in terms of shifting configurations of set and dancers. Unfortunately, the trampoline possibilities of mattresses must have mesmerized Be’er. He does show angst-racked lovers climbing the ladderlike slats of upended bed frames, warily treading around the edge of a bed laid flat, or working within slatless frames. Yet many sections (quintets, duets, double duets) of the 73-minute piece involve jumping onto and bouncing off the beds, as well as rolling around on them alone or with a partner—all this to a sound score by Alex Claude that draws on such disparate sources as Lisa Gerrard, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Stephen Sondheim.

Two mystifying figures make intermittent appearances. Renana Randy, wearing a puffy white dress, her back to us, slowly twists and coils her torso and arms for some time before the piece begins; she also unrolls and later rolls up a fabric path across the front of the stage. Her opposite is a hulking silver-suited robot (Tsachi Yizhaq Cohen), who looms menacingly behind her or the others.

I’m impressed by some of Be’er’s choreography, for instance a sequence for five men in and around the slatless frames and a duet for Yaarit Haikin and Artour Astman that builds a rhapsodically sensual architecture for two bodies (until Astman deliberately drops his partner). However, about three-quarters of the way through Screensaver, the bed-hopping begins to seem numbing—more about athleticism than about redemption through love’s turmoil.