The three works on the Paul Taylor Dance Company program which opened at the Music Center on Friday night give you a pretty good idea of the kinds of worlds that Taylor inhabits. Even with their glaring dissimilarities, they individually describe familiar Taylor domains of felicity, degradation, and the madcap. Two of the works on the program, “Banquet of Vultures” and “Gossamer Gallants” are recent. The third work, the sublime “Airs”, has been a Taylor hit since the late 70’s.
The screwball universe of “Gossamer Gallants”, which closed the evening, humorously glosses the social world and sex lives of bugs. It has precursors in other Taylor bug works, “Counterswarm” and “Insects and Heroes”. “Gossamer Gallants” is a facile romp that motors along on the back of Smetana’s breezy music from “The Bartered Bride”. The dancing itself isn’t challenging but the non-stop motion and jumping ends up being a kind of tour de force for sheer endurance. The cast of six men find themselves on the losing end of the battle against the superior evolutionary might and sex appeal of the cast of five women who are dressed to kill in lime green unit suits. Clever, funny, and whimsical almost to a fault, “Gossamer Gallants” (titled after a cribbed line from Melville’s South Seas novel “Mardi”) was a salve for the brutalities of “Banquet of Vultures” which preceded it.
“Banquet of Vultures”, a war opus, is bleak beyond belief. The deliberately dark lighting (Jennifer Tipton) challenges you to make out shapes, faces or even distinguish between men and women. The eleven dancers all wear a kind of skull cap pulled down over their eyes. They could be prisoners, combatants or a flocking mass hovering over wartime road kill. They face off against a single black-suited figure wearing a red tie, a Death impersonator like the character from Jooss’ ballet “The Green Table”. And like the Jooss Death, this one even walks with a similar, inhuman gait. When he touches people they drop. One, a woman, is murdered, or raped. Despite its horrific theme, it seemed the consistently best expressed work on the evening’s program.
When Taylor famously stated that modern dance, as way of moving was “ugly”, he might have been thinking of the kind of grotesque, writhing movement he has poured into “Banquet of Vultures”. It seethes with slithering, clawing, aggressive motion. Even when the dancers rise from the floor, they barely make it further than a kind of threatening crouch. Michael Trusnovec was powerful and full of menace as the suited character in this performance. When his double emerges at the end of the work and walks toward the audience with his stuttering walk, perfunctorily adjusting his tie, your skin crawls. The dancing is set against Morton Feldman’s spikey and abrasive alt concerto “Oboe and Orchestra”. It is one of a series of single movement works for orchestra and percussion featuring a solo instrument. It lays out a mostly unchanging atmosphere of undulating gloom.
Opening the program was “Airs’’. When the curtain rises you feel instantly that you have dropped into a familiar Taylor universe. The men are bare-chested, the women in loose knee length skirts with leotard tops. The bodies glow in Jennifer Tipton’s lighting against a bluish background. The dancers glide over the stage with an affecting, crouching run. “Airs” is one of a number of Taylor’s episodic works assaying a felicitous, courtly world set to baroque music, in this instance, a medley of concerto grosso movements and larger operatic orchestral pieces. All of the music is by G.F. Handel. We have been here before with other Taylor works such as the seminal “Aureole”, but also “Arden Court”, and “Perpetual Dawn”.
The delights of “Airs” are its small cast of only seven dancers and the deftness of the ebb and flow of the solo and ensemble sections. Patterns come and go, appearing then evaporating almost as quickly. The world is temporary, fragile, and beautiful. There is great visual pleasure and humor in the quick, ersatz ballet-like steps Taylor has spread throughout “Airs”. The women managed these with more precision than did the men, who looked less secure. Other ripples in the work’s placid waters intruded when, early on, a lift to the shoulder nearly went awry. Both Eran Bugge and Michael Trusnovec were excellent in their double length duo, especially in the hitching rhythms of the “Musette” music from the opera “Alcina”. The serene Laura Halzack was also fine in her solo turns in the gorgeous G Major Adagio section and in the churchy ending of the “Dream Music” from the opera “Ariodante”.
Sixty years into a terrific run, Taylor and company looked as devoted as ever in a program that was alternately lovely, disturbing, and outrageous. One program wasn't nearly enough!
The reviewed performance took place in Los Angeles on Friday April 11, 2014. The music was prerecorded. For a chronological listing of Paul Taylor's works for the company including music and press references please click here.