Paul Taylor’s luminous new Beloved Renegade could not, I think, have been made by a younger choreographer. It speaks of an artist’s visions and memories, his regrets, and his awareness that death is nearer than it was a decade ago. The beloved renegade could be Taylor himself—with his eccentricities, his dark humors, his wicked wit, and the beauty he finds in innocence. The title, however, refers to Walt Whitman. In the program, lines from his poetic masterwork, Leaves of Grass, announce each section of the dance.
When Whitman wrote, “I sing the Body electric,” he might have been describing the shining, rough-hewn glory that clothes Taylor’s dancers. And his declaration, “I am the poet of the Body/And I am the poet of the Soul,” certainly justifies the choreographer’s use of Francis Poulenc’s Gloria to bear Beloved Renegade along. The Gloria (heard on tape) is not the work of a young man either; Poulenc wrote it in 1959, four years before his death, and the final, hushed “Amen” sounds like a question. However, except for the religious choral work’s shimmering lyrical passages—many of them for the soprano soloist—this is religion as a battlefield, with a clamor of horns and a tumult of voices.
Beloved Renegade is less densely textured than Poulenc’s music. Events coil and unwind with clarity around a central figure, played with elegance and restraint by Michael Trusnovec. Dressed all in white, he is the one who sees, who recalls. A woman in a ragged, filmy gray dress (Amy Young) yearns gently for him—perhaps is helped by him—but he’s drawn to the serenely beautiful Laura Halzack. Garbed in a cream-colored unitard, while the others wear real clothes in subdued tones (costumes by Santo Loquasto), she could be his muse or death or both. Against a blue sky, occasionally shaded by a descending scrim, and given subtle shifting tones by Jennifer Tipton’s superb lighting, people walk in solemn processions, five children frolic with sweet boisterousness, a man and a woman (Annmaria Mazzini and Robert Kleinendorst) dance tenderly together.
Whitman served as a battlefield nurse during the Civil War. Taylor mingles the poet’s well-known love of young men with elegiac images of death. Wounded soldiers crawl along the floor, lie curled up, die quietly in Trusnovec’s arms. His kiss may be falling on a fainting lover or Godspeeding a boy out of life. The choreographic groupings remind me of war monuments—sculptured tableaux or friezes of fallen warriors clinging to their still-striving comrades or being cradled by them. Trusnovec bids his friends goodbye and is alone at the end, except for Halzack. As he lies down, she revolves above him on one leg, like a weathervane catching the breeze of a departing spirit.
Is it an accident that all three pieces on Taylor’s opening-night program used music by French composers? Images, first seen in 1977, is set to excerpts from Claude Debussy’s piano suite of the same name, and Offenbach Overtures (1995) roisters through Jacques Offenbach’s opera repertory. In Images, Taylor carries Debussy’s “air antique” mode back to ancient Crete. Gene Moore’s costumes for the women discreetly mimic the breast-baring bodices and tiered skirts seen on female statuettes from Knossos. Taylor, who had recently retired from the stage in 1977, created visions of seductive ancient rituals. The dancers travel in two-dimensional corridors, as if they’d escaped from a frieze. They prance like horses, dive like dolphins, and end in a golden sunburst (abetted by Mark Litvin’s lighting). The most arresting passage is Young’s solo, entitled “Oracle,” with the frenzy of possession snaking her arms and forcing her mouth open.
Offenbach Overtures teases the conventions of opéra bouffe with parades of knuckleheaded military recruits and their froufrou girlfriends—all in red by Loquasto. Here, a naval officer and an army man (Trusnovec and Sean Mahoney) prepare for a duel, but while their seconds end up hammering each other, the antagonists vie in clunky, ersatz ballet variations, fall in love, and steal away together. In the final romp to music from Offenbach’s “Flocons de Neige” ballet, both men and women indulge in can-can steps and cascading splits. Parisa Khobdeh takes over the majorly eccentric role made for Lisa Viola and does it very well. Michelle Fleet is a delight as her more accomplished rival.
The three-week season offers Taylor works of every stripe, from the wonderfully bizarre Scudorama of 1963, through the fascinatingly layered 1980 Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), to his other new piece, Changes, set to songs by the Mamas & the Papas. Taylor may repeat steps from piece to piece, but if they always manage to look indigenous, it’s thanks in part to his marvelous band of performers.