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The contemporary dance world is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of choreographer Paul Taylor's founding of his dance company which, having pushed past Modernism, is finding itself in somewhat the same position as the art world, where Modern has become Historical and must be evaluated for its past as well as for its present actions. ADF audiences were given the unusual opportunity to look back over Taylor's career - happily, very much on-going - and compare dances from as early as 1956 with those as recent as this year. On three successive evenings (June 17-19) in Page Auditorium, we saw a remarkably cohesive body of work.
The three programs of this retrospective demonstrated clearly that Taylor's balletic movement vocabulary was well-formed early in his career, while his modern dance syntax has become ever clearer over time. It is fascinating to see the same movements and sequences used to wildly different effects in an array of dances covering a range of musical, intellectual and emotional material. Many of his youthful interests continue to intrigue him, and from them he has forged a very American style of dancing, becoming in the process one of the world's best-known and most-honored artists.
Taylor has bridged, with his work, the chasm between classical ballet and modern dance (although you wouldn't know it from the ADF audience, in which Triangle balletomanes were conspicuous by their absence). Each of the three programs included a lovely dance that might be called barefoot ballet. The first was the glowing Aureole (1962), danced to excerpts from three Handel concerti grossi. The second program included the shimmering Mercuric Tidings (1982) set to excerpts from Franz Schubert's Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, and the third night opened with floating, pulsing Airs (1978), set to excerpts from several more Handel concerti grossi. Each has a different mood, but all these works are imbued with joyous vitality and playful humor.
There is nothing little or mincing in Taylor's work, which tells with open gestures of an open heart and an open mind. The dancers move light-footed and fleetly, flashing and scissoring flashing and scissoring through big steps, big leaps and jumps. They are strong, bold, confident, unabashedly muscular, and as pliable as caramel. Taylor's dance language includes a lot of wide-armed, open-chested postures, breathtaking leaps and carrys, and deliriously rapid spins and gazelle-like racing across the stage. The free, flowing qualities of these motions are tempered with a gliding, dragging step and by the imposition of intricate patterns and interlacements on the dancers. Like great jazz, it's about freedom within the structure imposed by the medium.
Taylor used early New Orleans jazz (performed by the Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band) for 3 Epitaphs , one of a group of dances indicating his interest in ritual and power. This piece must have been shocking when first performed in 1956. The five dancers are completely covered in dirt-colored bodysuits designed by Robert Rauschenberg. Their eyes flash out from the dun fabric, as do the mirrors that encircle their heads and wrists, shooting coruscating patterns of light throughout the auditorium. The figures drag through lines and circles, bent over, chests closed. They plod and chop - but suddenly rise up and perform wild arm gyrations from the elbow. The work is somber - but also silly and funny, as the figures bump into each other, setting off chain reactions. This is another recurring interest for Taylor - how motion and emotion are conveyed from person to person.
In this same category was Runes (1975), performed to piano music specially composed and played by Gerald Busby. Subtitled "secret writings for casting a spell," the piece was certainly spellbinding. The moon moved across the backdrop as figures glided and stamped, seemingly by firelight. A woman leaped onto a man's shoulders. A man turned slowly across the ritual ground, carrying a woman with each arm. The dancers formed angular, runic shapes; they created and maintained large patterns but changed places within them. We witnessed the rite, but it retained its secrets.
Another work that combined an interest in powerful ritual with storytelling was a little less successful artistically, because it was so topical, but its message was perfectly clear. Le Grand Puppetier (2004), set to the pianola version of Stravinsky's Petrushka , was an undisguised warning against imperialistic leaders. All the dancers wear glowing satins in festive colors, but the tinny sound of the pianola alerts us to the ersatz nature of the regime. In the dance, the Emperor literally makes a puppet of a dancer and attempts to control his daughter and others. The people turn the tables on him, but only after a scene involving a pile of bodies horribly reminiscent of the photographs from Abu Ghraib. In the end, and while the people's backs are turned, the Emperor comes creeping back. Constant vigilance is the price of freedom, indeed.
Although I admire Taylor's wide-ranging musical interests, I didn't care for Dream Girls (2003), a rather coarse burlesque set to old American popular songs sung barbershop-quartet style by The Buffalo Bills, or much more for Piazzolla Caldera (1997), a dance about dance, set to tango music by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky. It was more flash than fire, and without the building erotic power of real tango. The best of the pieces in the storytelling vein was Sunset (1983), danced to Elgar's Serenade for Strings and Elegy for Strings with an interlude of natural springtime sounds, in which Taylor pursues another abiding interest - relations between man and woman. Yet it was impossible to enjoy this sweet tale of friendly competition and carefree spring love between flirty girls and soldiers on liberty, despite the wonderful dancing. In 2004, the sight of men in their khaki uniforms and red berets frolicking under the green leaves brings not a sense of pride or security, but a dread: Where is the desert dust, where are the suicide bombers? They are behind the flame of Promethean Fire .
Paul Taylor has created hundreds of dances in his fifty years of choreography, many of them very fine. But Promethean Fire will undoubtedly lead the list of his accomplishments. Made in the first months after September 11th, it premiered at ADF in 2002 to resounding audience and critical praise. Two years and many artworks about 9/11 later, the force and importance of Taylor's dance has not lessened but been amplified. Danced to the magisterial J.S. Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Prelude in E-flat minor, and Chorale Prelude (S.680), and it is as replete with rational, formal beauty as the music. The full 16-member troupe dances, all costumed alike in soot-black bodysuits patterned with narrow flame-orange lines. They dance the fire of destruction and the fire of resolution. They crash like towers and pile like the dead in a pit of ruin. They exhume, they prop up, they build. They make acrobatic leaps of faith; they perform superhuman tasks. They restore pattern to chaos.
Devoid of cliché, full of rage and mourning and acceptance of the sorry variants of human nature, and equally full of resolve and hope and pride - and yes, even l'amour Patria - Promethean Fire is a great humanistic work of art. Like Picasso's Guernica , it is more than a mere comment on the specific world event that inspired it.