Interviewed by Time Magazine in 1962, Martha Graham described the heroine of her new Phaedra as “a phantasmagoria of desire.” Paul Taylor, who danced in her company until 1960, may or may not have remembered her phrase when he titled a 2010 work Phantasmagoria. However, this deliriously eccentric dance, which is receiving its New York premiere on Taylor’s company’s City Center season, may be less about desire than about lust (Taylor is very, very good at lust—and lustiness—and its repressive opposite).
Among the dictionary definitions of “phantasmagoria” (“a shifting series of. . .deceptive appearances” and “a changing scene made up of many elements”), the one that strikes my fancy has to do with the optical illusions produced by a magic lantern, or similar device, “in which figures increase or diminish in size, pass into each other, dissolve, etc.” That’s what happens in Taylor’s dance (if you consider changes in size as changes in importance). Only in a choreographic phantasmagoria could a robust society of 16th-century peasants be infiltrated by an Irish step dancer, a “hindoo” Adam and Eve, three of Isadora Duncan’s dancing daughters, and a drunk right out of a silent movie.
The music is Renaissance pop by anonymous composers—in other words, a rowdy-sweet mingling of (I’m guessing) viols, lutes, recorders, krumhorns, bagpipes, drums, and maybe a portative organ. The terrific costumes by Santo Loquasto look as if he’d been inspired by clothes worn by the rollicking crowd in Pieter Breughel’s painting The Wedding Dance, one of Taylor’s sources too. Men and women wear an imaginative variety of headgear, and the males sport comically well-padded codpieces.
In the beginning, though, the stage picture is as somber as Jennifer Tipton’s dark-shot-with-beams lighting effect and a deep-toned piece of music. The peasants are frozen, bent over, and when Annmaria Mazzini awakens in a pool of light, she soon spins and falls. The others join her brief spate of movement—now one of them beside her, now one at the back. The way they extend a hand with a limp-wristed flip or reach upward suggests that there’s a grim side to their lives. Still, before long, more raucous music has booted them into a scampering, romping, capering mob. They grab partners and whirl about in a sort of proto-polka; the men carry the women off, kicking.
Even when the time-travelers from other eras appear, the peasants occasionally dance through in the background or take over the stage. And a tall nun (Laura Halzack)—made taller by her headdress (a conical hennen rife with white veils)—bridges all worlds. The very large green snake that the crowned and bejeweled Sean Mahoney and Parisa Khobdeh carry on is more of a plaything than a tempter. Khobdeh swings it in circles, and Mahoney jumps over it; she thrusts it between his legs, and it becomes another sort of tool—one that’s prone to limpness. The nun gives the couple a scolding (was that the middle finger?), wraps the snake around herself, and saunters off.
Michelle Fleet plays the expert step dancer straight, never cracking a smile or raising an arm as she stamps and flicks her feet around, rising to the points of her black shoes. On the other hand, Mazzini, Halzack, and Amy Young as the three “Isadorables” make a little too much fun of being “aesthetic dancers,” enraptured by their own nymphiness while forming their graceful plastiques. They are a pretty lot, though, in their white Grecian tunics, with a big red flower over each ear like Ozma of Oz. Robert Kleinendorst, the Bowery Bum, with padded belly and bottle in a brown paper bag, may go daringly close to exaggeration, but he gives a masterly comedic performance of staggers and lurches as he chases the maidens and offers the nun a swig.
All the characters mix it up in the final free-for-all, even reprising elements of the grave beginning, and no one is immune from developing the tics and twitches of St. Vitus’s dance, when they touch the ragged bearer of the disease (Michael Trusnovec) or one another. It’s a fine shambles, and all recover as instantly as they were stricken. Whether driven by lust for sex, lust for art, lust for booze, or lust for spirituality—they all dance in the same throng.
Phantasmagoria shared the bill I saw with Cloven Kingdom (1976), that bewitching glimpse of the beast lurking happily beneath high-society silks and tailcoats, and the intriguing Polaris from the same year. Polaris invites us to see the dance for five twice, with different lighting, music, and casts—a strategy that ignites provocative thoughts about the distinctions that abound in similarity. As for Phantasmagoria, it may not be major Taylor, but I’m not likely to forget it.
Benjamin Millepied hasn’t been choreographing that long (about a decade) or that much, but his career has moved far and fast in recent years, even though, as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, he hasn’t had a lot of free time. His ballets have incited both praise and criticism. That’s true, too, of his most recent, Plainspoken, which received its New York premiere during the NYCB’s winter season.
Up-and-coming ballet choreographers face problems that don’t afflict those in modern dance. Some spectators these days seem to be turned on primarily by choreographers, like Jorma Elo, who tie dancers’ bodies into imaginative knots. On the other hand, those who admire ballets that honor the classical traditions often fault dancemakers like Millepied for not being as marvelous as George Balanchine.
Millepied is holding his own. His ballets don’t seem as stuffed with steps as his early ones did. They breathe a little more. And he’s become expert at maneuvering groups of dancers, devising clever patterns onstage, and pulling new designs out of old ones with an element of surprise. Watching Plainspoken, you can admire his skill. Also, like Jerome Robbins, whom he considers a mentor, he likes dancers to convey a sense of community onstage. Those in Plainspoken often give one another looks, watch what’s going on, imply comradeship.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if Millepied doesn’t let us see something long enough for it to resonate. Balanchine, after all, devoted an entire section of his Ivesiana to a single powerful image: Four men carry a woman whose feet never touch the ground, while another man follows mesmerized. I don’t mean that just because the men in Plainspoken clap their hands during an early passage, they should clap a lot more later on. But my eye catches moments I want to linger over or perhaps see alluded to again. For instance, at one point, all the men invade a duet and form a tangling sculptural group with one woman (it happens so unexpectedly and is over so soon that I now can’t remember which woman it was—maybe Jennie Somogyi, maybe Sterling Hyltin).
The ballet is full of such little surprises, which is good. Amar Ramasar sits and scootches along, propelling several others in front of him, as if together they form a boat. That’s a nice image, and, while it mightn’t bear repeating as is, no echo or variant of it comes along to cement it in our minds.
Notwithstanding, Plainspoken is a very handsome ballet. The steps are interesting and not show-offy. The commissioned quartet for violin, viola, cello, and piano by David Lang is finely textured. Penny Jacobus’s lighting alters the backdrop, showing now a strip of red above a black band, now a strip of deep blue, now a larger expanse of pale sky. Karen Young’s costumes—violet tights and yellow tops for the men and short, becomingly draped violet tunics and trunks for the women—make a vivid splash.
Millepied deploys the eight superb athletes well—sensitive to their individual talents. For instance, Teresa Reichlin is a friendly tease in her duet with Justin Peck. At one point, she pushes him away, and he instantly lies down, but they dance together amicably and exit like old pals. The lovely duet for Janie Taylor and Sébastien Marcovici is longer and full of more complex feelings. A brief episode for Hyltin, Ramasar, and Tyler Angle makes you aware of her fragility.
So what is it that we look for in ballets—beyond inventive steps and beautiful dancing and imaginative patterns? I think it’s that ineffable something that all three rub together to ignite—something that causes form to radiate with meanings that we recognize but can’t articulate. That happens fleetingly in Millepied’s ballets, and I like to imagine it’ll do so more and more.