Paul Taylor’s turning 80 this year, but more impressive is the fact that in the 56 years since he started a company, he has choreographed more than 130 works. Eighteen of them are on view during the company’s current City Center season.
I’ve always appreciated Taylor’s uncensorious interest in evil and the way shadows may loom, even in blithe works. He knows how to tell a joke, too—occasionally, a bad one. And I’m entranced by his penchant for folding mysteries into many of his dances. Enigmas nestle at the core of the marvelous, newly revived Brandenburg (1988). Five men in emerald-green velvet outfits (the new costumes are by Santo Loquasto) spend almost all of the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 lined up in various ways, delivering the same gestures in immaculate unison, and behaving as if they were both watchful bodyguards and respectful suitors for three lively princesses (Parisa Khobdeh, Eran Bugge, and Amy Young), each of whom performs a lovely, vivacious little solo. The women begin the piece clustered around Michael Trusnovec, and he—bare-chested and wearing pale green tights—watches the goings-on from the sidelines, arresting in his grave stillness. Who is this man?
In this masterwork, the women, too, do their share of watching. When Trusnovec gently dances with one, the others wait their turn. But ceremoniousness vanishes when the final allegro of the third Brandenburg kicks in. The five men have been intermittently bounding across the stage and exiting. Now they’re smiling, Trusnovec is leaping with them, the women are spinning until their skirts fly out, and everyone knows everyone else.
Mysteries fairly bristle throughout the new Brief Encounters. Eleven marvelous dancers in skimpy, unadorned black underwear meet and part in front of a painted backcloth (by Loquasto) of an immense gold curtain, open at one side to reveal a long, empty corridor in ravishing perspective. The music is Claude Debussy’s Le Coin des enfants, but, given the palatial set, and the golden glow or wonderfully odd dimness of James F. Ingalls’s lighting, these people don’t look like children. Their fleeting, often tentative erotic overtures seem to be occurring in an edgy dream world. “Don’t come any closer!” Julie Tice’s held-up hand stops James Samsom’s pursuit of her, even though she has just dropped to her knees and arched her back in abandon. Later, Samsom slowly crumples, a muscular hero unaccountably melting.
Curiously literal moments occur amid the furling and unfurling circles and the buoyant passages of jumps, springy steps, and sailing turns. A dagger is drawn. People drop to the floor and need awakening. Young romances her reflection in a hand mirror, and Jeffrey Smith makes an “I’m done with you” gesture to her before exiting. The audience laughs, but Brief Encounters isn’t a funny piece; Sean Mahoney and Francisco Graciano don’t joke about their sensuously acrobatic duet. And when the women cluster briefly around Trusnovec as if in need of protection, before being pulled away in a chain by one of them, you feel shadows that don’t come from the lighting alone.
The best surprise about Taylor’s new Also Playing is that the failed vaudeville routines limping optimistically onto the stage aren’t done to band numbers but to ballet music excerpted from Gaetano Donizetti’s operas Dom Sébastien and L’assedio di Calais. This may, in fact, be the only surprise, because in Also Playing, Taylor is delving affectionately into clichés so familiar that even subverting them is predictable. You can guess what’s going to happen when Annmaria Mazzini strides on dressed as a torero, flourishing a sword and a sleazy red satin cape, to confront three men in white unitards with little horns. You know that this Apache number is going to end with Michelle Fleet besting Orion Duckstein. You watch Tice, visible in the wings, struggling into her tutu and pointe shoes, and surmise that this dying swan is going to have trouble straightening her knees and keeping her crown on (although you may be startled that three black-veiled ladies—maybe from some other number—attend her). When Khobdeh dashes on, wildly disheveled and carrying an outsize tambourine, you just know that her attendant gypsies (Smith and Graciano) will get a whack or two.
The inept statue-posing, tap dancing, horse act, striptease, and more are set off by the preparations offstage or behind a scrim that backs Loquasto’s stage-within-the-stage (lit with care by Jennifer Tipton). We can imagine the quick changes we don’t see: the performers hustling to apply ruffled skirts, headdresses, military jackets, etc., over Loquasto’s basic white outfits.
Taylor loves these dogged, inexpert troupers and the way his very expert dancers bring them and their daily struggles to life. Modern dance and vaudeville may not be close cousins, but he’s been there, done that. Many Happy Returns, Paul.