DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
By nature, Paul Taylor makes dances for adults. He values craftsmanship, variety, reasonable poetic associations among images, gestural detail, and surprising yet fully logical resonances between the music and the choreography. Like Martha Graham, with whom he so brilliantly performed in the early 1950s, he demonstrates an affection for literature, both in the plotting of action and in dance titles. He takes entertainment seriously as an aspect of art, by which I mean that he is respectful of an audience’s time. There is no meandering in a dance by Taylor, no waste. Regardless of whether a given dance is profound or superficial, likable or grating, it will always be beautifully made and, thanks to the Taylor company’s rehearsal director, Bettie de Jong, performed with intensity. The problem is that the dancegoing audience at large—those occasional ticket buyers on which most dance companies must depend for a big portion of their livelihood—no longer value many of these things in dance, if, indeed, they ever did. Most are happy to accept music as wallpaper, as a background for watching dancers pass across the stage like schools of fish. Throw in a little sex, and it’s likely they will stay awake. Throw in a bunch of weird, sickening, dehumanizing, humiliating violence, and they’re in love. Nuance? Get real. Logic? A snore. Craftsmanship? Not PC. Memory? That’s what one puts out in a box for the rag pickers. You don’t agree? To the shredder! (No joke: in the past five years, newspapers and magazines across the country have been junking their arts criticism in favor of features, previews, and “think pieces,” all of which can be worked out in advance of seeing anyone take a single step on stage and more efficiently micromanaged in the editing process.)
In this climate, one might think, artists on the order of Paul Taylor, whose “transgressions” tend to be virtual rather than actual—to concern blasphemy rather than war, emotional rather than physical degradation—and whose work, even when portraying gang rape, does so strictly within the context of dancing to music, which makes it magnetically watchable so that its messages can get through, aren’t likely to do well at the box office, and critics who praise him aren’t likely to be read. Indeed, the word from London, where the Taylor company recently performed at Sadler’s Wells, is that every one of the city’s dailies gave Taylor’s repertory A+ reviews, yet he sold only a little more than half the house overall. However, I’m afraid that “this climate” extends much further back than our current moment. It’s a phenomenon related, I believe, to the fact that when most people hear the words “modern dance” they roll their eyes and reach for the remote. Modern dance, regardless of its quality, is perceived as a humorless, inexplicable ceremony for intellectuals, and it’s a tough sell everywhere, including the many cities whose leading arts patrons have honored Taylor as a dancemaker of genius. The first time I saw the Taylor company, in Portland, Oregon, in 1976, it played the 3000-seat Civic Auditorium. The program for the evening included Esplanade and Diggity, now both now considered Taylor classics. The audience went through the roof with delight—but the audience was just 200 strong.
Indeed, it’s an amazement to me that Taylor and his company have lasted as long as they have—50 years!—without lessening the quality of their performances over the long haul and, apart from the economically-driven choice to perform to canned music, without cutting the artistic corners that matter or giving into stratagems (such as ritually sacrificing a dancer at each performance) that would bring in mass audiences for what is, fundamentally, high art. Even in the case of the music, Taylor has demonstrated integrity. Although, apparently from the beginning, he felt no compunction at altering or at interpolating elements of unrelated sound into classical music to suit his choreographic needs (one thinks of, among other dances, Cloven Kingdom and Sunset), the number of scores that feature recorded performances of music has certainly increased. In the past decade and a-half or so, since he had to give up live sound, he has concentrated in many of his new dances—including new dances for ballet companies—on unique arrangements or recordings of scores, versions that a conventional pick-up orchestra couldn’t reproduce, or couldn’t reproduce easily: Company B, Field of Grass, Funny Papers, Piazzolla Caldera, Oh, You Kid!, Antique Valentine, Black Tuesday, Dreamgirls, Promethean Fire. The new fable Le Grand Puppetier is set to the pianola version of the piano reduction of Petrouchka’s orchestral score that the composer, Igor Stravinsky, recorded himself. As his score, Taylor fixed on the one version—Stravinsky’s own recording—that could not be performed by another instrumentalist. It is a statement, in itself, about artistic individuality, about respect for what has gone before, and about money for the arts today. (For a superb report on Aureole and Le Grand Puppetier, see Susan Reiter's review in last week's Dance View Times.)
One of the points that Taylor emphasizes in his half-autobiography, Private Domain, is that he loves Nature and has no truck with religion: a rationalist, he is very much an 18th-century man and a deeply patriotic American who holds very strong views about the messes that people get themselves into. Although many of his dances feature strong paternal, often demonic leaders, they are not meant to mirror divine leadership. If there is a God, Taylor is not putting that divinity on stage.
That is partly why his version of Petrouchka—whose score he spells in the French manner as Petrushka—is toylike, cartoonish, a danse méchanique, unlike the original Ballets Russes production, in which the prospect of a Divine Being is key to the poetry of the title character’s enslavement, isolation, and spiritual resurrection. And yet, as Tobi Tobias recently noted in her ArtsJournal.com blog, Taylor used the phrase “the Grand Puppeteer” in his memoir as a nod to fate. (“Our dance god, the Great Puppeteer up there in the flies, that ineffable string snipper, turned out to be an old-time prankster.”) The puppet, here Patrick Corbin—the Taylor company’s leading male dancer who has suffered an injury to his shoulder and had to leave his other roles to his colleagues this season—makes what may well be the cruelest entrance that Taylor has ever devised for a character: lying down, he is pulled in from the wings by a leash around his neck. The Puppeteer figure, “The Emperor,” is played by Richard Chen See, a comparatively short dancer as Taylor’s men go, which may account for why the designer Santo Loquasto costumed him as Napoleon. However, unlike the truly horrifying emperor that Chen See played in The Word, a dance in earnest about evil, this one derives his power entirely from his possession of a riding crop. When he loses it, he’s just another marionette without strings.
Owing to some business in the action about the Emperor’s insistence on controlling whom people wed, many viewers have speculated that Le Grand Puppetier is a comment on George W. Bush’s espousal of the proposed Amendment to the Constitution forbidding homosexuals to marry. It may be that on one level; however, the deliberate misspelling of “puppeteer” in the title—and the fact that “puppetier” is not French for “puppeteer” (the word in French is “marionnettiste”), makes me wonder if there are more levels to this dance that will reveal themselves, as levels frequently do in Taylor’s work, during subsequent seasons. Is this also, perhaps, a joke about an emperor of a ballet director? The choreography is packed with allusions to other ballets than the Fokine Petrouchka: to Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, to Coppélia, even, perhaps, to Robert Hill’s recent work for A.B.T. about Oscar Wilde. Dubya isn’t the only power figure in recent memory to try to control—or who is perceived in the popular imagination as having tried to control—whom his “subjects” should or should not marry. And, despite Taylor’s insistence in interviews that he is no friend of ballet, some of his works strongly suggest otherwise. As Leigh Witchel’s recent review for The Dance View Times of one of the Taylor programs this season has observed, the final tableau of Airs—made for A.B.T.—alludes to a similar tableau in Balanchine’s Serenade. And in looking at the crossover for the lamenting progeny of Adam and Eve in the other new work at City Center, In the Beginning, it is difficult for a dance fan not to think of the title character’s broken-legged crossover before the curtain toward the end of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. The fact that the controlling character of In the Beginning is an exaggerated likeness of the Blakean Hebraic father in Prodigal reinforces one’s wonder.
In celebration of its anniversary, the Taylor company is scheduled to perform in every one of the 50 states on an upcoming national tour. Audiences across the land will see its dancers in superb shape; if Corbin’s shoulder heals in time to permit him to take on some of his roles again, the entire country will have the chance to see what, in my book, anyway, is currently the most wonderful dance company in the United States. One special note of recognition: Taylor’s beloved Handel work, Aureole, was given one performance at City Center, with Michael Trusnovec in the central role that Corbin ordinarily dances and that Taylor, himself, originated. The entire cast was great; however, Trusnovec showed us shapes in air that were particularly powerful and sure.—Mindy Aloff
Taylor Dance Company
March 2004 (opening night)
Grand Puppetier (World Première)
March 2004 (matinee)
Promethean Fire (see 2 March program)
the Beginning (2003; New York première)
(“secret writings for casting a spell”) (1975)
Le Grand Puppetier (see 2 March program)
last updated on January 11, 2004