The Master of Light and Dark
Court," "Last Look," "Piazzolla Caldera"
Now this is programming. On Wednesday and Thursday, Paul Taylor showed why his publicity calls him "the master of light and dark" with a series of beautifully and effortlessly balanced programs that took the audience through the spectrum and left it nourished at the end.
Taylor's art is what makes him so loved as a choreographer, but watch for his craft. Many of his works seize upon a particular choreographic idea and examine it from all angles. "Arden Court" seems to take its inspiration from the passacaglia or ground. A ground takes a melody and places it over a slow repeating bass line. Taylor sets dancers moving quickly against others in slow motion, such as Orion Duckstein's slow walk on a diagonal through the leaping men at the opening, to create variations on a ground.
Gene Moore’s backdrop of an enormous rose for "Arden Court" seems a bit smudged after nearly 25 years of use, but maybe that's not such a bad thing; it was once rather gaudy. The cast didn’t seem smudged at all, though; they gave a fine performance in this dance of faith in man's inherent nobility. It’s the doppelganger to "Cloven Kingdom", and it walks the line between precious and lovely, yet always comes out lovely.
"Last Look", dark, creepy and onanistic, is a bracing contrast to “Arden Court”. On a dark stage littered with full-length mirrors that form a broken maze, the cast disentangles itself out of a pile of bodies to open the work, and closes it in reverse. Rob Kleinendorst shivers and jolts through his opening solo as if he were receiving electroshock treatments. Michael Trusnovec and Lisa Viola meet in the darkness to dance an unnerving duet where they barely interact for their own self-absorption. The duet ends with a Trusnovec giving Viola a single violent grasp like an indecent variation of the Heimlich maneuver, then tossing her aside. The newer women in the company are also making their mark; Michelle Fleet does a fine job here and Parisa Khobdeh is quite good in “Arden Court”.
The audience is wild for “Piazzolla Caldera”. Fair enough, it's one of the sexiest dances ever. It doesn't hurt that both Santo Loquasto and Jennifer Tipton turn in great work; his demi-monde costumes and smoky lounge are lit expertly by her.
Again, Taylor sets himself a craft problem as well as an artistic goal, but they're linked inextricably. He puts seven men against five women in a dance for six couples. The atmospheric tension is built right into the casting.
The cast gave a taut performance, though Kleinendorst and Viola felt a little out of sync in their duet; Viola seemed more sympatico with Patrick Corbin in that dance. The quartet to "Celos" that starts as a drunken male duet and changes with the entry of another man and woman was fascinating, but strange. It was both the performance and the audience reaction. The audience laughed through the Richard Chen See and Andy Lebeau's duet as if it was comedy acrobatics. Were they not in the mood to notice the tension of the duet, or was it not there? Trusnovec and Silvia Nevjinsky entered to restore the ambivalent mood somewhat.
Thursday night was as diverse and complete a mix, yet in an entirely different way. “Offenbach Overtures” shows Taylor in a silly mood making a broad spoof of Parisian ballet in Offenbach’s era. He lets (maybe he intends) for Viola to completely steal the show, but she does it in a peripheral part with a imitation of Gilda Radner’s autistic character from “Saturday Night Live” that would probably be cruel if it weren’t sidesplitting. Viola sustains the characterization through the entire dance, a feat both so funny and amazing that it does completely throw off the focus. There are many times in “Offenbach” where you miss the variation in front watching the slapstick in the back, but that isn’t just Viola. It happens as well during the comic duel between Richard Chen See and Sean Mahoney where their seconds (Kleinendorst and Trusnovec) are far more interested in the combat than are the combatants.
The putative leads of the ballet are Heather Berest and Orion Duckstein, in black and wearing domino masks. The outfit, the French music and Berest’s long, thin prettiness remind one so much of the photographs of Tanaquil LeClercq in “Bourrée Fantasque”.
It takes time to adjust to the fact that a man is dancing the role of Big Bertha. There's a layer of grotesquerie added to the malevolence that a female in the part doesn't have and it changes the whole dance. With a woman in the role, you accepted the conceit that Big Bertha was an evil mechanical creature. With a man, that can’t be sustained. Big Bertha is an evil human in a sick outfit. Patrick Corbin doesn't try for Gender Illusion in the part; he does drag: nasty, tough transvestite hooker drag with lipstick smeared over his lips, a child playing with Mommy's makeup but also lace-up red patent leather boots with five inch heels. It’s amazing that he can even dance in them. Corbin attacks the part wholeheartedly and again, Big Bertha becomes human; her actions aren’t random, but sickly motivated. When Corbin kisses Duckstein at the end before the final tableau you cringe. I don't want the transvestite version to be the start of a performance tradition, but it is a compelling performance and Corbin has earned it. It didn’t hurt that the entire cast was particularly fine and turned in one of the most disturbing performances of “Big Bertha” I have seen. Duckstein was always good, but keeps getting better in Taylor’s original part; both he and Berest understand the slide into depravity and make it clear. Annmaria Mazzini is both vulnerable and tough, her specialty. She’s great as the tough loner in “Piazzolla Caldera” and in “Last Look” there’s a moment when the men come and grab her where it looks like she might be the Chosen One in the “Rite of Spring”.
The evening closed with another excellent performance of “Esplanade”. There's so much to watch and enjoy, but on this viewing I noticed Amy Young's fearless passion in both the slow movement and the finale, and the moment when Julie Tice gently stepped on Trusnovec’ stomach and he waved like a sea anemone as he lay on his back.
Front page photo, of the company in "Esplanade," by Lois Greenfield.