For years, the New York season of the Paul Taylor Dance Company has come in early March, and its repertory, like the coming spring equinox, divides dark and light equally. We’ve come to expect works that make our hair curl and ones that make our spirits soar, as well as devilish social satires that pucker our laughter like lemons in the mouth.
Sixteen major Taylor pieces grace the three-week season, along with two premieres. One new work, Spring Rounds, is a blithe romp in the spirit of Fiddler’s Green (1999), Arabesque (2000), Dandelion Wine (2001), and last year’s Klezmer Bluegrass. Santo Loquasto’s pretty, interestingly cut costumes are light green—the men wearing filmy shirts in a muted floral print, the women short dresses of the same fabric. Jennifer Tipton’s always splendid lighting creates a sunny radiance. The music (played live only at the opening gala, by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Donald York) may be the only odd thing about Spring Rounds. Richard Strauss channeling François Couperin makes for startling changes of tone and texture.
Taylor understands the power of circles, often bringing his dancers into rings for rituals or communal celebrations. The title of Spring Rounds alludes both to round dances and a world in which it’s difficult to tell who’s leading and who’s following. The 14 performers feed into a line that becomes a circle of waltzing pairs, or gather around a central point as if by common agreement.
The most interesting aspect of Spring Rounds is the way Taylor establishes the ambience of community he so obviously prizes. When the curtain rises, Lisa Viola sits on the floor, and Sean Mahoney rests with his head in her lap. We might be in a country garden or park on a warm April day. The others arrive gradually. As they hurry here and there to greet one another, relationships and desires crop up so swiftly and briefly that we can scarcely take them in. They don’t develop as such. In this friendly spring rite, the feeling of a picnic never quite disappears; people cluster at the back in informal poses to watch the variations on familiar Taylor themes and movements: the sturdy, boisterous men jumping wide-legged and in squats, or pairs of them pushing head-to-head; the women joining together in light, flirty allegro steps; tender duets; robustly lyrical solos (the most intriguing one for Michael Trusnovec, Viola’s pensive one copied by Heather Berest). Viola is very pleased when Mahoney offers her a turn at laying her head on his lap. In this little world, fair play rules.
The opening-night audience seemed baffled by Lost, Found and Lost. The only things about this 1982 piece that sparkle are the rhinestones that stud the dancers’ unisex black unitards and small widow’s veils (Alex Katz’s costumes recall their more remarkable forebears—Robert Rauschenberg’s outfits for Taylor’s 1964 Three Epitaphs). In Lost Taylor recycles material from his infamous 1957 concert at the 92nd Street Y, in which the most banal of everyday movements—walking, running, etc.—were interspersed with long, long passages of stillness. Theatricalized and set to what’s billed as “supermarket music” by York, the movements, poses, and groupings of Lost suggest the lackadaisical way we often go through our lives—slumped at bus stops, lining up for public toilets, having belligerent little set-tos with strangers, exploding in private. Viola (a terrific comedian as well as a lyrical wonder) has an alarming fit while Berest looks on. Taylor wittily times the bemused stares, double takes, and miffed retreats to depict the absurdities of city life that we take for normalcy.
I’d group Mercuric Tidings (1982) with the blithe pieces, except it’s so damn fast and intricate, so densely designed to a torrent of music drawn from two Schubert symphonies. Viola and Richard Chen See frisk around each other in the opening allegro and entwine in the adagio. A chain of blondes (Julie Tice, Annmaria Mazzini, and Amy Young) passes through; garlands wind around soloists (Tice is particularly radiant). Mazzini dances brightly with Robert Kleinendorst. People invade and slip away from one another’s patterns. Taylor keeps changing the stage picture as if cracking a kaleidoscopic view of the world into asymmetries Schubert never dreamed of.
Taylor’s new dark piece, Banquet of Vultures, is very dark indeed. At first all we can see are little lights, like candle flames, scooting about in blackness. Throughout, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting creates the feeling that things we can’t quite make out lurk in the corners. It’s almost impossible to identify individuals and gender among the roiling figures in their identical rouched gray jumpsuits. Santo Loquasto’s costumes allude to metaphoric blindness: Veiling that from a distance looks helmet-like covers the dancers’ heads; it also covers their eyes. When three people, possibly women, cluster squirming, we imagine animals sticking together for support. When three others (men this time) clump in the same spot, they start shoving and fighting. The battle mode may have been induced by the appearance of a man wearing a blue business suit with a red tie.
Trusnovec, Smith, Mahoney, and Duckstein in Banquet of Vultures
photo: Tom Caravaglia
Taylor has portrayed demagogues before (his great Speaking in Tongues is on view Thursday). For Banquet of Vultures‘ ruthless leader, brilliantly and horrifyingly danced by Michael Trusnovec, the choreographer employs the sleaziest and most tormented aspects of his movement vocabulary. Trusnovec twists and crouches, undulates and whirls—arms slashing, coat flapping. Under his proper attire, he may growing fur.
The subject of Banquet is war. Like Death in Kurt Jooss’s great 1932 work, The Green Table, Taylor’s battle master marches inexorably in place: toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel. Soldiers line up behind him. The thudding of feet fills the silences that pit Morton Feldman’s Oboe and Orchestra, a piece that in this context leaks dread. At one point, light shines down on Trusnovec, and he opens his arms to it. God is on his side. When he smites a person, that person falls.
There are few characters in Banquet. We’re shown a blinkered populace, ready to believe whatever it’s told and do whatever it’s asked to do. Amid the heedless running and fallen bodies, one woman—head uncovered, candle in hand—stands up to the big boss. That she is Julie Tice, the smallest woman in the company, emphasizes her bravery. Trusnovec easily demolishes her— numbing her, stabbing her with her own candle, dragging her away.
The others enter again holding lights, but the cycle of violence resurges. A man (Robert Kleinendorst), dressed just like Trusnovec, bursts onto the stage—falling, scrabbling on the floor, hurtling into the air and crashing down again. A tortured rival? An enemy leader? Whoever he is he pulls himself together, and the march to war resumes.
Taylor has always turned a wise and sardonic eye on the foibles of humans and societies, accepting evil as part of our nature. In Banquet of Vultures he pulls no punches. A people deceived, a leader who promotes violence while professing himself God’s instrument . . . I do not think the Paul Taylor Dance Company will be invited to perform this work at the White House.
Few choreographers have caught the spirit of America more lovingly than Taylor, but he’s never been blind to foibles like jingoism and stand-up-and-salute patriotism. The 1965 From Sea to Shining Sea (revived this season) polishes our stereotypes and turns them upside down in vaudeville of American history, set to a witty Ivesian score by John Herbert McDowell in which well-known melodies compete and drown one another. The performers, in their “backstage” personas, stumble around in bathrobes, brush their teeth diligently, read newspapers. Once the “show” begins, a Superman with Mickey Mouse ears (Kleinendorst) plays unpleasant games with a reveling flapper (Eran Bugge) who toots a horn. There are appearances by a vain little Eva (Annmaria Mazzini), a second-rate acrobat and tap dancer (the inimitable Lisa Viola), a slinky Sally Rand type with a huge fan of red feathers (Mazzini), a streaker, and others.
It’s all very funny, although badly shredded flags hang above the stage, and the “stone” on which a weary Statue of Liberty (Heather Berest) is sitting sinks under her. Mayflower pilgrims trample a well-meaning Indian (Orion Duckstein). The Ku Klux Klan makes an appearance, while Liberty mends the flag. As the curtain descends, she’s trying to straighten the crumpled prongs of her crown. The savvy performers include Amy Young, James Samson, Michelle Fleet, and Nathaniel Keuter.
For all its humor, From Sea to Shining Sea takes a sterner view of Americans than the 1999 Oh, You Kid, which reiterates some of the same themes in a vaudevillian ambience. Sea premiered during the struggle for racial equality in the South, the year after Klan members murdered three young civil rights workers. Lethargy, horn-blowing patriotism, and prejudice play their roles on this American stage. Liberty’s crown is, perhaps irreparably, bent out of shape. And still we laugh.