Theater archives

A Paul Taylor Smackdown


Sometimes I wonder what Paul Taylor’s dreams are like (and sometimes I’d rather not know). The first premiere of his company’s City Center season is titled Three Dubious Memories, but this is no Rashomon. In that 1950 Japanese film, each of three characters describes an alleged rape and murder from a different perspective. Taylor’s Man in Blue (Sean Mahoney), Man in Green (Robert Kleinendorst), and Woman in Red (Amy Young) play the same scene three times. Almost the only differences among them come from role reassignment and the individuality of the dancers. Watching the piece, you can imagine a group of fatigue-maddened Hollywood writers putting every possible spin on a simple love-jealousy triangle.

The atmosphere seethes with ambiguities. At times, the music—Peter Elyakim Taussig’s intriguing Five Enigmas (Taylor uses only movements 1, 3, 4, and 5)—simmers, thrums, and beeps ominously, but it can also be lyrical or pranksome. Initially, Jennifer Tipton’s fantastic lighting casts the performers’ shadows on the gray backcloth beneath discreetly hovering smoke, but later becomes sunnier. Santo Loquasto’s costumes for the trio are vividly colored, while a Choirmaster (James Samson) and his cohort of seven wear shades of gray.

Most mysterious of all is the presence of this leader. He slips in and out of angular, two-dimensional poses, looking like an athlete on an antique vase, and leads what amounts to a poker-faced Greek chorus, even though the recorded voices that later sing out in Taussig’s score justify labeling his followers as Choristers. They rush into intriguing formations, sit cross-legged like Buddhas, and show their palms to us. They also perform mop-up operations, such as helping wounded characters offstage.

In the first of three episodes, Young and Kleinendorst sit cuddled on the floor. They rise to dance together sweetly and fondly before returning to their pose. Mahoney sneaks up on them, body angled forward in lust and rage. He snatches Young away from her lover, hurls her to the floor while he socks the other man, then walks peacefully away with her. The jealous husband? Rashomon‘s bandit?

Young and Mahoney repeat the tender duet; now it’s Kleinendorst who strides on, crooked with fury, and the fight is less fluid—each blow a struck pose. For a third episode, Taylor exercises his talent for surprise and comedy. The two men are a pair. They don’t exactly cuddle, but each feeds the other an invisible morsel, and, hand in hand, the two do a dopey, wavery-legged walk. Young stalks in, smacks both of them, and gets borne away. To sweet music, the Choristers and Choirmaster perform “Threnody,” a lament for the death of a relationship (or three), in which various individuals briefly reprise images of the trio’s wrangles. The three protagonists enter, hands folded, sit for a few seconds on the backs of the kneeling chorus, as if in a courtroom, then tangle together and end in a pile. Whatever happened, it’s over.

The Taylor company’s two-week season features another new work, Phantasmagoria; revivals of two major works, Orbs and Dust; and major voyages and minor excursions from the repertory. At the opening gala, the curious Three Dubious Memories was sandwiched between the miraculous 1975 Esplanade and a one-time showing of the 1999 Oh, You Kid! The latter, a Coney Island boardwalk romp by dancers in divine black-and-white 1920s bathing attire (by Loquasto), is memorable primarily for its tunes (played live by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra under Rick Benjamin), its squirm-inducing routine performed in Ku Klux Klan headgear, a wonderfully silly melodrama, and a solo, “That Hindu Rag,” for an over-the-hill entertainer. If you thought no one could triumph in this last but Lisa Viola, for whom it was made, think again. Parisa Khobdeh is hilarious, as she staggers gamely about, trying to charm us, and having to bend low and crank a leg up with her hand in order to get it over her head. It’s awkwardness as a virtuosic turn.

Taylor made Esplanade not long after his retirement from performing. It’s as if he wanted to teach us—and maybe himself—how beautiful everyday movement could be, especially when superbly designed and performed. Set to movements from two Bach violin concertos, Esplanade turns patterned walking and running and skipping and falling into revelations about advancing and retreating, speed and moderation, joining and separating. The slow, reticent, heartbreaking second movement—depicting a family whose members gesture and gaze at one another but never touch—makes its exuberant and tender games seem all the lovelier.

Let us salute its nine dancers, especially Michael Trusnovec and Annmaria Mazzini in the loving fourth movement, Young in the beyond-daring falls of the final section, and Michelle Fleet, performing with charming élan roles originally divided between two or more dancers. It’s works like Esplanade that assure Taylor a place among the geniuses of our time.