By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK -- Watching Paul Taylor’s “Three Dubious Memories” at City Center on Feb. 22, a flashback flitted across my brain. Performed by his impressive dancers, it reminded me of the style of Martha Graham – with whom Taylor danced from 1955-1962 – and her use of a Greek chorus to narrate her female heroines’ erotic, messy attachments.
In “Dubious Memories,” here seen in its local premiere, a Graham-esque chorus describes three lovers’ radically different perspectives of the same love triangle. Eros is not the focus here, however; rather, Taylor addresses memory -- specifically, how events become fixed in the mind, regardless of their accuracy.
Divided into four sections, “Memories” has three subjective lenses. Woman in Red (Amy Young), Man in Blue (Sean Mahoney) and Man in Green (Robert Kleinendorst) each see themselves as being betrayed by the other two. Man in Blue remembers seeing Woman in Red and Man in Green embrace and goes into a rage. Man in Green remembers Woman in Red and Man in Blue embracing and is furious. Woman in Red remembers Man in Green and Man in Blue wrestling between hugs and kisses and slaps them both.
Despite momentary expressions of intimacy and humor, uncertainty and violence reign. Regardless of who is telling the story, a chill runs through all three, each as cold as a hospital waiting room.
The electronic score, Peter Elyakim Taussig’s “Five Enigmas” (Mvmts. 1, 3, 4, 5), consistently hums and bleeps; it feels modern, but the dance’s physicality resembles a mess of faded snapshots of these strained couples posing for the camera.
Throughout the work, the Chorus and its Choirmaster -- seven dancers and James Samson -- zigzag through space, like segments of a silent film in freeze frame. Wearing gray shirts and jeans, they mime the act of running or being sad (hands cover eyes). While they are shadowy, abstract figures moving behind the main action (or forming triangular tableaus in imitation of Graham’s floor technique exercises), the main characters appear in Technicolor costumes (by resident designer Santo Loquasto). Jennifer Tipton’s surgical lighting enhances the sense of being privy to the operations of the subconscious mind.
In the last section, “Threnody,” the three lovers of the triangle fall upon one another, forming a heap of bodies. Their pileup is a fitting metaphor for memories. They are not neat. They are subjective. What is absolutely clear, however, is Taylor’s mind. At age 80, he has become a master of displaying how untidy life and its inherent relationships can be, especially as filtered through the memory. Opening night began with “Esplanade (1975), a masterpiece on the scale of Fokine’s “Les Sylphides.” When Laura Halzak appeared as a specter (she recently described her role as a phantom in a haunted house), the melancholic (recorded) strains of J.S. Bach’s “Double Concerto for Two Violins” sounded less lyrical than ominous.
Before the gala patrons moved on to Cipriani’s for dinner, the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (conducted by Rick Benjamin) accompanied 11 dancers in “Oh, You Kid!” (1999), a work that testifies to Taylor’s enduring interest in Americana -- in this case, the early 20th-century boardwalk beach culture. In the opening section, “Knockout Drops,” Taylor creates a carousel vision of young lovers, who romp in a circle through a melting pot of steps: the waltz, tango and Turkey Trot. But when Parisa Khobdeh appears alone in “Hindu Rag,” we get a taste of the underside of America and its persistent racism. A belly-dancing contortionist, Khobdeh works herself into an extroverted frenzy, bordering on seizure-like desperation.
But Taylor ends the piece on a breezy note, as his estimable dancers sail through space like soaring seagulls. With consummate skill, he reminds us in “You Kid!” that all is not “beautiful at the ballet,” or with American history. But he does so without ramming the message down our throats.
The company’s season at City Center continues through March 6. If you haven’t seen this modern dance master, who grew up in the Depression, was deeply influenced by Martha Graham, and is a master of light and dark, now is the time. A special March 1 ticket offer ($5 to $19.29) called the “Black Tuesday Great Depression Special” is on sale for those whose pockets are not so deep, but who seek some irony with their evening entertainment.
Copyright © 2011, Musical America